Charting new mental maps

Picture a world map. What you’re picturing in your head probably looks a lot like this, which is referred to as the Mercator projection map. It’s quite possibly the only map you’ve ever known.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way of looking at the world.

Consider this map that places the Pacific Ocean at the center. It doesn’t look right, does it?

Cara Burnidge

“The way you understand the world is based on how you see it,” Burnidge said. “What we’re used to seeing often skews the way we think about the world. So if we’re seeing things in new ways, we’re going to have new thoughts.”

If you really want to make your head spin, check out the Galls-Peters projection map. If it seems like a warped version of the mental map you have in your head, that’s because all of the areas have been drawn so that they have the correct sizes relative to each other.

So which map is the correct map? It’s all a matter of perspective.

This is the philosophy that Cara Burnidge, assistant professor of religion, uses in the classroom to teach religion here at the University of Northern Iowa.

“The way you understand the world is based on how you see it,” Burnidge said. “What we’re used to seeing often skews the way we think about the world. So if we’re seeing things in new ways, we’re going to have new thoughts.”

Born and raised in Pittsburg, Kansas, where she graduated high school with a class of 60 students, Burnidge understands the importance of stepping outside your comfort zone. When she decided to attend college at Washburn University in Topeka, she became one of only four students in her graduating to class to leave southeast Kansas to attend college.

Burnidge was undecided on her major through almost her entire junior year of college, until she took a “life-changing” course called Religion in American History.

“The professor promised that it would be the most important class of our lives,” Burnidge said. “And for me that proved to be true.”

The course, which took place during the Iraq War and the second term of President George W. Bush, provided her with a better understanding of how religion and politics intersect. It even introduced her to Woodrow Wilson, who would become the subject of her book, “A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order,” published last year by University of Chicago Press.

“The undergraduate me in that class couldn’t stand Woodrow Wilson,” Burnidge recalled. “I didn’t like him because he had several opportunities to help women get the right to vote and he denied and circumvented and made it really difficult before eventually getting onboard.

“But the fact that I ended up writing a book about him [illustrates how the study of religion] can help us understand people we don’t otherwise relate to on the surface.”

As a professor, Burnidge emphasizes respecting different opinions and perspectives in the classroom, where discussion is less about the nature of God and more about understanding how people throughout history have understood or perceived the nature of God.

“Certainly, not all of my students agree, nor would I want them to,” she explained. “But you do have to be willing to talk about controversial issues and listen to someone who doesn’t agree with you. We don’t interrupt each other, and we debate ideas, not people.”

It’s easy for discussions about religion to become heated and personal, especially in the current political climate. But Burnidge takes steps to ensure she is working with a student’s faith background, rather than against it. She doesn’t ask her students to agree with the historical figures they are studying, but expects them to be able to describe how these people see the world and present it in the best light, even if it is at odds with their own personal beliefs.

“I see it as an opportunity for students to learn about the rest of the world through the topic of religion,” she said. “Central to that is the importance of being uncomfortable. We’ll all encounter failure. If we learn how to embrace it and feel comfortable with uncertainty now, when life’s big uncertainties hit us later, we have the tools necessary to deal with them.”

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