This course introduces students to the comparative study of religion by exploring two distinct religious traditions. It focuses on the ways that scholars draw on contextual information to understand religious practices, ideas or beliefs, artifacts, institutions, and symbols. The traditions examined vary from year to year. In fall 2017 we will examine a selection of texts from the Christian and Islamic traditions. Defining texts broadly to include written sources as well as photographs, oral histories, videos, and blogs, this course will draw on both classical and modern sources from a variety of geographical locations and cultures. We will engage issues of scriptural interpretation, political duties, attitudes towards higher education and learning, and religious authority. In each case we will draw on several distinct strands of contextual knowledge (for example, biographies of the authors, historical narratives concerning the text’s provenance, or examination of contemporaneous philosophical or political disputes) to help us understand what these texts and authors are trying to accomplish, and to understand their importance within the traditions that we are studying.
Fall semester. Professors Barba and Jaffer.2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
(Offered as RELI 121 and ANTH 121) This course will introduce students to the research methods, modes of analysis, and writing styles that accompany ethnographic fieldwork in religious communities. We will begin with a focus on prominent ethnographies (written accounts of cultures based on fieldwork) that are set in religious communities. We will consider the research questions and debates this literature has taken up as well as the specific ethical and practical challenges that characterize this scholarship. Students will then gain hands-on experience with a variety of ethnographic methods (e.g., participant observation and field notation, structured and unstructured interviews, and spatial mapping) through course field trips to local places of worship. We will also spend time examining the various digital tools (apps, social media, podcasts, etc.) that religious communities utilize today. For their final project, students will carry out their own independent ethnographic research projects with local religious communities. The final weeks of the course will focus on the specific challenges of analyzing and writing about religious cultures, including the ethics of representing others’ beliefs.
Spring semester. Visiting Lecturer Girard.
2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017
In this course, we will consider the complex intersection of race and religion in the Americas from the first encounters between Europeans and the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas up through the contemporary moment. The course will first examine how the categories of “race” and “religion” themselves were continually produced and remade over these centuries. We will track how interwoven racial and religious hierarchies were forged through material and imagined relations between the Americas and the “Old World” as well as through connections across the Western Hemisphere. The latter portion of the course will take up a series of recent ethnographies as we investigate the contemporary imbrications of race and religion in North and South America. Topics through which we will explore the intersection of race and religion include: The Black Legend, colonialism, slavery, The “one drop rule,” mestizaje, rebellions and revolutions, nationalism, Liberation Theology, the Civil Rights Movement, immigration, and popular media, among others.
Omitted 2017-18.2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
(Offered as RELI 143 and ASLC 144.) This course explores central ideas and practices in the religious and intellectual traditions of India up until the medieval period. We consider the range of available archeological, art historical, and textual evidence for religion in this period, though the course focuses mostly on texts. We will read the classic religious and philosophical literature of the traditions we now call Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Spring semester. Professor M. Heim.2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
(Offered as RELI 152 and ASLC 152 [SA].) This course is an introduction to the diverse ideals, practices, and traditions of Buddhism from its origins in South Asia to its geographical and historical diffusion throughout Asia and, more recently, into the west. We will explore the Three Jewels--the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha--and how they each provide refuge for those suffering in samsara (the endless cycle of rebirth). We will engage in close readings of the literary and philosophical texts central to Buddhism, as well as recent historical and anthropological studies of Buddhist traditions.
Fall semester. Professor M. Heim.2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
One of the most dominant symbols in Western culture, the figure of Jesus, has been variously represented and interpreted--even the canonical Christian Scriptures contains four different biographies. This course will explore shifts in the contours of that symbol and the socio-cultural forces at play in such changes, as well as debates about the understanding of the figure of Jesus. Beginning with recent films about Jesus, the course will turn to examine the biographies in the Christian Scriptures and the heated debate in the fourth century over the identity of Jesus as Son of God. We will then trace trajectories through the medieval period in the visual and audial image of Jesus. To conclude, we will focus on the "social" Jesus, that is, Jesus the capitalist and the Jesus of liberation theology, as well as on the feminine Jesus, for example, portrayals of Jesus as mother and bride.Omitted 2017-18. Professor Doran.2016-17: Not offered
The past century and a half have seen Christians engaging capitalism in various ways. Some have argued that capitalism and Christianity are opposed at the level of first principles, with capitalism dedicated to an ethos of competition and Christianity to one of co-operation. Others have argued that capitalism is just human freedom in the sphere of economics, and that the Christian’s duty is to defend capitalism against threats from those who would dismantle it. Some have argued that Jesus preached the virtue of poverty; others, that he blesses his followers with wealth. This course explores the history of Christian engagements with capitalism since the middle of the nineteenth century. We will examine not only Christian condemnations or valorizations of capitalism (Christian socialism and “corporate Christianity”), but also engagements that defend some aspects of capitalism while criticizing others (the Social Gospel movement and the Roman Catholic tradition of social thought). We will also examine ways in which capitalism has influenced both church history and Christian theology through discussion of the financial history of Christian publications and institutions, and the recent phenomenon of the “Christian corporation.”
Omitted 2017-18. Professor A. Dole.2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017
(Offered as RELI 187 and ASLC 187) Islam is a religious tradition with 1400 years of history and over one billion adherents today in countries around the globe. This course equips students with the basic vocabulary needed to engage with the diversity of practices, sects, and intellectual currents found among Muslims over the course of this history. We will begin by studying the life of Muhammad and Islam’s scripture (the Quran). We will then examine the ways in which Muslims have sought to live up to the demands of revelation in their lives by seeking the correct means of interpretation of revelation and working out its implications in the fields of law, theology, and mysticism. Emphasis will be on the means by which Muslims contest the meaning of the tradition. The course will end by looking at Islam in the world today, the various ways in which Muslims view the significance of religion in their lives, and trends in contemporary Islamic thought worldwide.
Spring semester. Professor Jaffer.2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017
What does religious studies study? How do its investigations proceed? Can a religion only be truly understood from within, by those who share its beliefs and values? Or, on the contrary, is only the person who stands “outside” religion equipped to study and truly understand it? Is there a generic “something” that we can properly call “religion” at all or is the concept of religion, which emerged from European Enlightenment, inapplicable to other cultural contexts? This course will explore several of the most influential efforts to develop theories of religion and methods for its study. We will consider psychological, sociological, anthropological, and phenomenological theories of religion, along with recent challenges to such theories from thinkers associated with feminist, post-modern and post-colonial perspectives.
Spring semester. Professor A. Dole.2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017
The idea of “scientific explanations of religion” has a long history in the academy, and the fortunes of scientific explorations of religion have been mixed. But the past decade has seen the emergence of new approaches to this project, as a growing body of literature has applied the tools of the cognitive sciences and evolutionary theory to the study of religion. This course will survey the recent literature on the subject, and will bring this material into conversation with “classical” naturalistic theorizing concerning religion. We will read works by David Hume, Stewart Guthrie, Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, Justin Barrett, Richard Dawkins, Robert Hinde, David Sloan Wilson, and others.
Omitted 2017-18. Professor A. Dole.2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Contemporary attention to fundamentalist or conservative religious movements on the one hand and the rejection of all religion on the other has sometimes obscured the influential role in the United States, past and present, of liberal religion. Religious institutions with marked liberal tendencies (most obviously “mainline” Protestantism) may be in numerical decline, but the influence of liberal attitudes toward religion arguably remains very much alive and well in American culture generally and formative in the lives of many communities and individuals. What makes a religious movement “liberal” is hard to specify precisely. One might say it is a rejection of tradition, but liberal religious movements often present themselves as deeply faithful to core elements of tradition. It has also been argued that religious liberalism is itself a tradition and, like all religious traditions, is characterized by many strands and sometimes contradictory tendencies.
This course will trace the development of American religious liberalism, broadly understood, from the Deists and Unitarians of the Revolutionary and Early National period to the “I’m spiritual but not religious” movements of the present day. Emphasis will be placed on the emergence, development, and cultural influence of liberal movements within American Protestantism, but attention will also be given to liberal tendencies within other traditions, e.g., Catholicism and Judaism. The course will examine the various tendencies within religious liberalism to embrace a pluralistic approach to religious truth, to seek a universal form of religion above and beyond any particular religious tradition, or to promote a religious sensibility detached from traditional belief in God. Attention will be given both to influential figures such as Channing, Emerson, James, Dewey and to institutional developments and popular religious movements. Note will be taken of the role of religious liberalism in higher education, e.g., at Amherst College.Omitted 2017-18. Professor Wills.
2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017
This course will survey the historical development and contemporary state of Roman Catholic Christianity in the United States. It will cover such topics as: the early development of Catholicism in the North American colonies of Spain, France, and Britain; the waves of immigration—e.g., Irish and German, eastern European, and Latino—that have successively transformed American Catholicism; changing patterns of Catholic thought and practice, both elite and popular; Catholic social and political movements, e.g. the Catholic Worker Movement; controversies over Catholicism’s place in American politics, from ante-bellum anti-Catholic movements to the present time; and contemporary American Catholic debates over issues of gender and sexuality.
Omitted 2017-18. Professor Wills.2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
(Offered as RELI 238 and BLST 238 [US]) A study of African-American religion, from the time of slavery to the present, in the context of American social, political, and religious history. Consideration will be given to debates concerning the "Africanity" of black religion in the United States, to the role of Islam in African-American religious history, and to the religious impact of recent Caribbean immigration. The major emphasis throughout the course, however, will be on the history of African-American Christianity in the United States. Topics covered will include the emergence of African-American Christianity in the slavery era, the founding of the independent black churches (especially the AME church) and their institutional development in the nineteenth century, the predominant role of the black Baptist denominations in the twentieth century, the origins and growth of black Pentecostalism, the increasing importance of African-American Catholicism, the role of the churches in social protest movements (especially the civil rights movement) and electoral politics, the changing forms of black theology, and the distinctive worship traditions of the black churches.
Fall semester. Professor Wills.2016-17: Not offered
Evangelical Christianity, or evangelicalism, eludes precise definition. As most commonly used, the term refers to a sector of Protestant Christianity whose historical provenance runs from the eighteenth century to the present day. Originating in Europe and North America but now a global phenomenon, evangelicalism in the United States has enjoyed periods of pervasive influence and times of cultural marginality--recovering in the late twentieth century a mainstream status it had seemingly lost. This course is concerned with the history and shifting nature of evangelicalism. Sometimes regarded as a monolithic movement adhering to a fixed set of traditional Christian doctrines and practices, evangelicalism has been throughout its history innovative, changing, and internally diverse. Sometimes seen as politically reactionary, evangelicalism has at times promoted recognizably progressive reforms. Sometimes seen as serving an ethnically and racially narrow constituency, evangelicalism has also shown a marked capacity to cross ethnic and racial boundaries. How are these seemingly contradictory patterns (or perceptions) to be understood? Over the course of the semester we will explore questions such as: How have evangelicals themselves attempted to define the"mainstream" culture in the various environments they have entered? How has evangelicalism handled racial and ethnic difference? How have evangelicals understood their place in the history of the world and of the Christian tradition?
Spring semester. Professors A. Dole and Wills.2016-17: Not offered
(Offered as RELI 252 and ASLC 252) From the biographies of Gotama Buddha to the autobiographies of western converts, life writing plays a central role in teaching Buddhist philosophy, practice, history, and myth. This course explores the diverse forms and purposes of Buddhist life writing in the literary and visual cultures of India, Tibet, Sri Lanka, China, Vietnam, Japan, and America. Reading the lives of eminent saints and laypersons, charismatic teachers, recluses, and political activists, the course aims to broaden understanding of how Buddhists have variously imagined the ideal life. We will pay particular attention to how literary and cultural conventions of genre guide the composition of lives.
Spring semester. Professor M. Heim2016-17: Not offered
(Offered as RELI 253 and ASLC 253 [SA].) This course introduces the history and civilization of Theravada Buddhism. The Theravada (the “Doctrine of the Elders”) is the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma); in recent decades it has also found a following in other regions in Asia and the west. We will trace the Theravada’s origins as one of the earliest sectarian movements in India to its success and prestige as a religious civilization bridging South and Southeast Asia. We will also consider this tradition’s encounter with modernity and its various adaptations and responses to challenges in the contemporary world. No previous background in Buddhism is required.
Omitted 2017-18. Professor M. Heim.2016-17: Not offered
(Offered as RELI 261 and SWAG 239) A study of the portrayal of women in Jewish tradition. Readings will include biblical and apocryphal texts; Rabbinic legal (halakic) and non-legal (aggadic) material; selections from medieval commentaries; letters, diaries, and autobiographies written by Jewish women of various periods and settings; and works of fiction and non-fiction concerning the woman in modern Judaism. Employing an inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural approach, we will examine not only the actual roles played by women in particular historical periods and cultural contexts, but also the roles they assume in traditional literary patterns and religious symbol systems. This discussion course requires participants to prepare a series of closely argued essays related to assigned readings and films.
Spring semester. Professor Niditch.2016-17: Not offered
Familiarity with the Bible is essential to any liberal arts education. This course is the place to begin. A master-work of great complexity revealing many voices and many periods, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is a collection of traditional literature of various genres including prose and poetry, law, narrative, ritual texts, sayings, and other forms. We seek to understand the varying ways Israelites understood and defined themselves in relation to their ancestors, their ancient Near Eastern neighbors, and their God. Course assignments are a series of interpretive essays in which students become accustomed to close work with biblical texts, employing methodological approaches introduced throughout the semester.
Fall semester. Professor Niditch.2016-17: Not offered
We will read from the work of the great exilic prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, examine the so-called “wisdom” traditions in the Old Testament and the Apocrypha exemplified by Ruth, Esther, Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Susanna, Tobit, and Judith, and, finally, explore the phenomenon of Jewish apocalyptic in works such as Daniel, the Dead Sea Scrolls, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch. Through these writings we will trace the development of Judaism from the sixth century B.C. to the first century of the Common Era. In this critical watershed period, following Babylonian conquest, the biblical writers try to make sense of and cope with the trauma of war, dislocation, forced migration, and colonialism. Their problems and their responses strike the reader as incredibly contemporary and lay the foundation for critical themes in modern Judaism.
Omitted 2017-18. Professor Niditch.2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
We will explore Rabbinic world-views through the close reading of halakic (i.e., legal) and aggadic (i.e., non-legal) texts from the Midrashim (the Rabbis’ explanations, reformulations, and elaborations of Scripture) the Mishnah, and the Talmud. Employing an interdisciplinary methodology, which draws upon the tools of folklorists, anthropologists, students of comparative literature, and students of religion, we will examine diverse subjects of concern to the Rabbis ranging from human sexuality to the nature of creation, from ritual purity to the problem of unjust suffering. Topics covered will vary from year to year depending upon the texts chosen for reading.
Fall semester. Professor Niditch.2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
An analysis of New Testament literature as shaped by the currents and parties of first-century Judaism. Emphasis will be placed on the major letters of Paul and the four Gospels.
Spring semester. Professor Doran.2016-17: Not offered
The nineteenth century saw developments within Western scholarship that profoundly challenged traditional understandings of Christianity. Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy had thrown the enterprise of theology into doubt by arguing that knowledge of anything outside space and time is impossible. During the same period, the growing awareness of Christianity’s history and the emerging historical-critical study of the Bible brought into prominence the variability and contingency of the Christian tradition. Particularly in Germany, Christian intellectuals were to wrestle intensely with the problem of knowledge of God and the authority of tradition during this period. Should Christians adapt their understandings of fundamental points of Christian doctrine to advances in historical scholarship? Did developments within philosophy require the abandonment of reliance on claims about the nature of reality, and of human existence, which had been seen as essential to Christianity? This course will be devoted to tracking these discussions. Some of the authors to be treated are Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Strauss, Kierkegaard, Newman, von Harnack, and Schweitzer.
Fall semester. Professor A. Dole.2016-17: Not offered
(Offered as RELI 285 and ASLC 285) Islam is a religion with over one billion adherents across the globe. The Qur'ān and Prophetic Traditions inform Muslim belief, socio-religious practices and rituals. They are the foundation of Islamic law and ethics; the main inspiration behind Islamic mysticism and arts; and motivations for Islamic piety. The Qur'ān has served as a model for theories of the Islamic state, fundamentalism and ideology. As one of the most widely read and recited books in the history of humankind, it has given rise to a tradition of interpretation that spans well over a thousand years and encompasses commentaries composed in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Malay, Javanese, and Swahili. We will study the Qur'ān’s thought world, including its major ideas, themes and symbols; the Qur'ān’s literary style and structure; the Qur'ān’s engagement with Jewish and Christian traditions; the historical process through which the Qur'ān became the first Arabic book; the process through which it became a scripture vested with authority; and the divergent ways that Muslims have venerated and interpreted the Qur'ān. We will focus on several salient questions: How did Muslims try to explain the seemingly contradictory material within the Qur'ān? How did they try to explain the Qur'ān’s proclamation that it is of supernatural origin? What methods of reasoning, literary devices, and sources of religious authority did Muslims invoke in order to fulfill the need for scriptural interpretation? How does the Qur'ān conceive of itself as a scripture and of revelation? How does it engage with and respond to earlier scriptures such as the Bible?
Spring semester. Professor Jaffer.2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017
(Offered as RELI 316 and PHIL 219.) An examination of several major discussion topics in the analytic philosophy of religion: the ethics of religious belief, the “problem of religious language,” the nature of God and the problem of evil. It would seem that it is always irrational to believe that statements about matters which transcend the realm of the empirical are true, since none of these statements can be directly supported by evidence. Thus it would seem that a great deal of religious belief is irrational. Is this the case, or can religious beliefs be supported by other means? Can philosophical reflection bring clarity to such puzzling matters as God's relationship to time, or the question of how a good and all-powerful God could permit the existence of evil? Alternatively, is the entire project of evaluating religious discourse as a set of claims about transcendent realities misguided--i.e., does religious language work differently than the language we use to speak about ordinary objects?
Omitted 2017-18. Professor A. Dole.2016-17: Not offered
(Offered as HIST 319 [c], ASLC 320 [WA] and RELI 322.) Conceptions of the religious and the secular that continue to resonate today assumed global significance in the course of the nineteenth century as colonial empires and nascent nation-states negotiated how they would govern heterogeneous populations and interact with each other. Drawing on scholarship from a number of disciplines that historicize the categories of religion and secularity, this course will examine the political function of the religious and the secular as conceptual and regulatory categories in the 19th century. Colonial administrations, for example, employed the conceit of secularism to neutralize religious difference while individuals and communities attempted to reform and modernize local traditions as “religion” in order to navigate global hierarchies. We will begin with a historiographic and theoretical survey, covering topics that include the academic creation of “World Religions,” the politics of conversion within the British Empire, and the discourse of Orientalist spiritualism. The second half of the course will apply these historiographic and theoretical concerns to East Asia and Japan in particular. Requirements will include two topical essays and one longer paper entailing modest research. Two class meetings per week.
Limited to 15 students. Not open to first-year students. Omitted 2017-18. Professor Ringer.2016-17: Not offered
(Offered as RELI 352 and ASLC 352) A systematic exploration of the place of ethics and moral reasoning in Buddhist thought and practice. The scope of the course is wide, with examples drawn from the whole Buddhist world, but emphasis is on the particularity of different Buddhist visions of the ideal human life. Attention is given to the problems of the proper description of Buddhist ethics in a comparative perspective.
Omitted 2017-18. Professor M. Heim.2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017
This course is an introduction to the cross-discipline of folklore and an application of that field to the study of Israelite literature. We will explore the ways in which professional students of traditional literatures describe and classify folk material, approach questions of composition and transmission, and deal with complex issues of context, meaning, and message. We will then apply the cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural methodologies of folklore to readings in the Hebrew Scriptures. Selections will include narratives, proverbs, riddles, and ritual and legal texts. Topics of special interest include the relationships between oral and written literatures, the defining of “myth,” feminism and folklore, and the ways in which the biblical writers, nineteenth-century collectors such as the Brothers Grimm, and modern popularizers such as Walt Disney recast pieces of lore, in the process helping to shape or misshape us and our culture.
Spring semester. Professor Niditch.2016-17: Not offered
Alongside the images of Jesus found in the canonical Gospels arose others that are less well known today but that were widespread in antiquity: stories about Jesus' parents, about his life as a young boy, stories of his non-death, enigmatic sayings and parables. In this course we will explore these images as found in the apocryphal Gospels and in the Gnostic writings, and read closely the cryptic sayings of Jesus. We will also examine the images of Jesus in early Christian art.
Omitted 2017-18. Professor Doran.2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
(Offered as RELI 382 and ASLC 382 [WA]) In this course we will study the foundational texts that were composed within the intellectual traditions of Islam (800–1200) and which have stimulated intellectual discourse in Islamic cultures until today. Our primary goal will be to understand the nature and significance of the debates that took place within pre-modern Islamic societies and to grasp the issues at stake in them.
We will discuss the ways that Muslim intellectuals responded to specific philosophical questions: How did the universe come into being? Does it have a beginning? What is the nature of the soul? Is there an afterlife? Further, we will explore the way that prophecy, dreams, prayer, miracles, magic, and sacred objects—all of which were part of the social reality of Islamic societies—were explained using “reasoned” arguments and concepts. We will discuss the theories of language and revelation that Muslims developed to explain the Qur’an: What does it mean to receive revelation from a supernatural agent? And we will discuss the controversies that surrounded heresy and apostasy: Who counts as a heretic or an unbeliever and why?
In the course of examining the above issues, we will be attentive to the social and political forces that shaped intellectual activity in Islamic culture by considering the cross-cultural migration of ideas. We will study the ways that philosophical and scientific knowledge migrated from ancient Greece to Islamic lands, and the ways that such knowledge was refined, altered, interpreted, and advanced. Further, we will examine the process through which such knowledge was transmitted to western Europe and the ways that it stimulated intellectual activity there, leading to the Renaissance.
Fall semester. Professor Jaffer.2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Independent Reading Course. Reading in an area selected by the student and approved in advance by a member of the Department.
Fall and spring semesters. The Department.2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016 and Spring 2017
Required of candidates for Honors in Religion. Preparation and oral defense of a scholarly essay on a topic approved by the Department. Detailed outline of thesis and adequate bibliography for project required before Thanksgiving; preliminary version of substantial portion of thesis by end of semester.
Open to seniors with consent of the instructors. Fall semester. The Department.2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Spring semester.2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017