In that early modern class, we're reading Donne and Herbert and Herrick, three priests who have really different poetic practices and whose poetry works through a fair bit of religious thought.
It might help to know that I'm an atheist, though I was raised Christian. I remember as a teenager having a serious episode of religious angst (to which my Mom responded with a stern "get over yourself") and finally decided that Christianity didn't make logical sense to me, and that was pretty much that (which didn't make either of my parents very happy with me).
Most of my students, though, are Christian to some extent.
I talked a bit in this recent post about teaching Donne and got some helpful advice from Flavia about being more direct with my students in asking them to think about how Donne imagines God. So we did that with Donne and Herbert together, and put the students' thoughts up on the board, so, for example, they thought that in what they'd read, Donne sees himself (and when I say "himself" I mean the speaker, though it's hard to feel that separation sometimes) as worrying about being saved and sees it as necessary for God to do the saving, but worries that God won't. Herbert, on the other hand, sees God as already reaching out to him, as being welcoming, even though he sees himself as deeply unworthy. Herbert doesn't worry about being saved because he feels that God has already reached out and is reasserting his welcome.
They found Herbert's confidence much more familiar from their experience in our culture, much more what they hear around.
Then one of the students asked how two people with a common religion in the same period could have such different ideas about God.
On one level, that's a naive question.
But on another level, it's a really good question for my students to ask because it reveals that they're beginning to see that there's a possibility of two really different understandings of the same religion by two people who are both demonstrably serious about their religious beliefs.
We talked a bit about how even one person could feel at some point utterly confident in God's grace, and at another point completely terrified of not experiencing that grace, and then, perhaps, again confident, and so on.
It's not that I want my students to stop believing in whatever they believe, it's that I want them to think seriously about what they believe and to think hard about what their religion means. And I think that Donne and Herbert have gotten some of them started thinking about that.
And then, of course, Herrick comes along. I think someone with a good bit of wit should start a Herrick twitter feed and have a nice chat with Chaucer.