'Think, That You May Be Wrong'

Dr. Murray Haar teaches a course at Augustana University

Dr. Murray Haar brings questions and world conversations to religion courses. 

Students are required to take two religion courses while at Augustana; one of which is “Exploring the Christian Faith” — a course Dr. Murray Haar, professor of religion and Jewish studies, said covers some of the basic things you need to know if you’re going to study what it means to be Christian.

In his nearly 40 years at Augustana, Haar has seen the student body diversify — and even his own faith has evolved. But the one constant? Augustana’s commitment to accepting and listening to other voices.

“There’s something interesting about this place: it’s a place that on the one hand is proud of its Christian Lutheran tradition. On the other hand, it is open to listening to other traditions. And to think, that perhaps, other traditions can teach us how to approach our faith in a deeper, different way,” Haar said.

When Haar first started at Augustana, most of his students were raised in the Lutheran faith and Haar could assume that they had some familiarity with their church’s beliefs and the concepts he was teaching. Today, Augustana is a much different campus.

“We have students who are atheists, agnostics — we have the full range here. You have to be careful when teaching an intro course like this that your goal is not to ‘Lutheranize’ everyone. Your goal is not to even ‘Christianize’ everyone. Your goal is to explore and teach them how to think about their faith. Here, the goal is to think about what you believe,” Haar said. “More and more, I think you have students who are not only not religious or come from different religions, but are coming without any tradition. Increasingly, I also have students who are Muslim who don’t know their own tradition. It’s interesting teaching these different traditions and I find I learn so much by doing so.”

Besides teaching courses dealing with the Holocaust and Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, Haar teaches “God, Suffering and Evil,” “Religion, Politics and Violence,” and “Justice and the State of Israel.” He is most proud of a course he taught many times with Drs. Sandra Looney (English) and Peter Schotten (political science/government and international affairs), entitled “Light in the Darkness: Courage and Evil in the 20th Century.” Haar has also taught Hebrew and Jewish philosophy and has taken students to Israel and India. Whenever students take these kinds of courses, Haar said, they’re surprised when they realize other religions have something to teach them.

Haar said “because our students are so diverse, you really have to be more open to where they are. You teach in a different way,” he said. “I’m always aware that I have students in front of me who are coming from many traditions and sometimes no traditions. So you have to teach the course in such a way that everyone feels addressed and included.”

Augustana’s religion courses are designed to teach students to think and to learn about other traditions, Haar said. “I think if you’re a Christian and you have faith, your faith will become stronger by learning what other people believe; even if those other people disagree with you,” he said.

Former AU president Rob Oliver agreed.

Inside Augustana’s Chapel of Reconciliation is artwork depicting the parable of the sower. That’s appropriate, Oliver said, “because there are seeds being sown each and every day here.”

In the Chapel, and throughout campus, “... we honor and celebrate faith and … help people — in mature, thoughtful ways — examine their own beliefs and faith systems and how those systems inform their actions throughout life and their decisions toward other people,” he said.

Haar taught a religion class “After Auschwitz” which was very eye-opening for a number of reasons, said Matt Wilber ‘03. In this class Haar taught his students that in religion, the question is more important than the answer to the question.

“It was a thought-provoking class in which we covered powerful topics every day. Yes the class covered the Holocaust, but there was so much more that I can still recall much of what was discussed to this day,” Wilber said.

Haar’s office door is covered in quotes, including one that states: “Think, that you may be wrong.” This message is one that Haar tries to emulate in the classroom, intending that he and his students think about what they themselves believe while at the same time, understanding other traditions and what can be learned from them.

The sign isn’t necessarily just for others; it’s also for Haar.

“The problem is when we think we’re right, we stop listening. But when we realize we could be wrong, we keep listening and learning. It’s possible that someone else believes something we need to hear and our faith could be stronger if we take time to listen."

— Dr. Murray Haar
Professor of Religion and Jewish Studies

“Maybe if I study Christianity and Islam, I, as a Jew, will learn something and become a stronger Jew,” Haar said about himself. He finds, for most students, that after being introduced to other ideas, they become stronger in their own faith.

“It’s possible someone else’s religion does something better than your own. And you discover you were wrong. That’s why it’s called faith. If you knew for sure, then you wouldn’t have to trust,” he said. “We’re better off not so much to get along with each other but to engage each other, to learn what the other person believes, to disagree. I think it’s OK to disagree.”

You can’t avoid religious questions, Haar said. Regardless of what you believe — or don’t believe — the questions are everywhere. “‘What are we doing here? Why are we here? How did we get here?’ These sorts of questions are religious questions,” he said. Even for students who are agnostic or atheist, Haar wants them to question their beliefs as well. “I respect their views, but I also want them to think about what they believe.”

Thinking about what he believes is a message Haar has lived out in his own faith journey. He grew up in New York, the son of two Holocaust survivors who came to the U.S. in 1947. Haar grew up Jewish, went to Jewish parochial school, “ran away,” joined the Air Force, later earned a Ph.D. in Biblical studies and ended up in the Upper Midwest. He converted to the Lutheran faith in 1971 and eventually became a Lutheran pastor. But, “the longer I hung around with Lutherans, the more Jewish I became. I realized you can’t run away from who you are.”

In 2000, Haar returned to his Jewish roots and community.

"When I decided to return to the Jewish tradition, it was like coming home. It’s good to have returned,” he said. “The Christian friends I know here were very supportive. They said ‘we’re not surprised; we’re glad that you’ve gone home.’”

He credits the Augustana community for allowing him to travel his unique faith journey — and to continue to teach. “Because of that experience, I’ve learned that when you allow yourself to learn about other traditions, you learn about the light and the dark of that tradition. I came to respect Christian tradition and came to respectfully disagree with Christian tradition,” he said.

“What I’ve learned in my travels, is be careful about running away from who you are. But don’t be frightened about engaging other traditions. It’s been quite a trip,” Haar said. “I’d never know what it meant to be Jewish, had I not really examined what it meant to be Christian. It gave me the confidence to teach that it’s OK to engage other traditions. There’s a lot we can learn from each other if we stop being scared of each other.”