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Amherst College Religion for 2016-17

111 Introduction to Religion

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 2016-17 we will examine a selection of texts from the Christian and Islamic traditions. Texts will be drawn from both classical and modern sources and from a variety of geographical locations and cultures, and 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 A. Dole and Jaffer.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015

121 Fieldwork in Religious Communities

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

123 Popular Religion

Religions, ancient or modern, are sometimes described as having two modalities or manifestations: the one institutional, of the establishment, the other, popular. The latter is sometimes branded as superstitious, idolatrous, syncretistic, heretical, or cultish. Yet we have come to realize that “popular” religion is frequently the religion of the majority, and that popular and classical threads tend to intertwine in religions as lived by actual adherents. People often express and experience their religiosity in ways related to but not strictly determined by their traditions’ sacred officials, texts, and scholars. In the modern era, mass media have provided additional means of religious expression, communication, and community, raising new questions about popular religion. In this course we will explore examples from ancient and modern times, seeking to redefine our understanding of popular religion by looking at some of the most interesting ways human beings pursue and share religious experience within popular cultural contexts.

Topics for study include: beliefs, traditions, and customs concerning the dead; ancient and contemporary apocalyptic groups; ritual healing; Wicca; and recent films, television programs, and on-line and interactive media rich in the occult or the overtly religious. 

Omitted 2016-17. Professor Niditch.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2009, Spring 2015

132 Race and Religion in the Americas

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.

Fall semester.  Visiting Lecturer Girard.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016

143 Religion in Ancient India

(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.

Fall semester.  Professor M. Heim.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Spring 2015

152 Introduction to Buddhist Traditions

(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
Other years: Offered in Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015

160 Buddhist Psychology in Modern Perspective

The Buddhist tradition preserves a sophisticated model of mind and behavior in the early literature of the Pali Canon, along with a profound set of practices for transforming human experience from unhealthy to healthy states. Much of this lore is of great interest to modern psychologists, scientific researchers, and philosophers of mind, and is having an impact on a wide range of contemporary fields. This course begins with a survey of the core ideas of Buddhist psychology as they are presented in classical texts and then goes on to explore how these ideas are influencing the work of mental health professionals, cognitive scientists, and social scientists.

Spring semester.  Visiting Lecturer  Olendzki.


2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017

170 Material Culture of Religion in Late Antiquity

What can artifacts and architecture tell us about religious practices? From the “Pompeii of the east” and Dura-Europos to Ravenna, the “new capital of the west,” this course will explore the material culture of religion in the Roman/Byzantine Empire, including Roman, Jewish, and Christian religious practices. We will apply interdisciplinary interpretive methods to examine paintings, sculptures, buildings, among other handcrafts. Special sessions will be held at the Amherst College Mead Art Museum and the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum to analyze terracotta objects, textiles, mosaics, and coins. Though the focus will be on visual culture, we will also compare textual evidence to imagine the religious practices of the late ancient Mediterranean period and to critique the material imaginations of modern films.Spring semester. Visiting Lecturer Farag.

2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017

171 Images of Jesus

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 2016-17.  Professor Doran.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2015, Spring 2016

172 Christianity and Capitalism

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.”

Spring semester.  Professor A. Dole.

2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017

187 Discovering Islam: Introduction to Islamic Traditions

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
Other years: Offered in Spring 2015

210 What Is Religion Anyway?: Theories and Methods in Religious Studies

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
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2009, Spring 2010, Spring 2011, Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Spring 2016

215 Religion in Scientific Perspective

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.

Fall semester.  Professor A. Dole.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2008, Fall 2012, Fall 2014

236 Liberal Religion in the United States

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.Spring semester.  Professor Wills.


2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017
Other years: Offered in Fall 2015

237 Catholicism in the United States

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. 

Fall semester.  Professor Wills.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2014

238 African-American Religious History

(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.

Omitted 2016-17.  Professor Wills.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014

239 Evangelical Christianity

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?  

Omitted 2016-17.  Professors A. Dole and Wills.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2014, Spring 2016

252 Buddhist Life Writing

(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.

Omitted 2016-17.  Professor M. Heim

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Spring 2014

253 Theravada Buddhism

(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 2016-17. Professor M. Heim.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Spring 2011, Spring 2012, Spring 2016

261 Women in Judaism

(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.

Omitted 2016-17. Professor Niditch.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2009, Fall 2010, Spring 2014, Spring 2016

263 Ancient Israel

This course explores the culture and history of the ancient Israelites through a close examination of the Hebrew Bible in its wider ancient Near Eastern context. 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.

Omitted 2016-17. Professor Niditch.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2009, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2014, Fall 2015

265 Prophecy, Wisdom, and Apocalyptic

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.

Fall semester.  Professor Niditch.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2012, Spring 2014

266 Why Do the Innocent Suffer?

Many biblical texts question whether God consistently rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Prominent examples include Job, Ecclesiastes, and certain Psalms, but similar ideas occur in the Torah and the Prophets. While focusing most deeply on Job, this course will introduce students to an array of biblical and ancient Near Eastern texts, as well as some post-biblical and even modern literature, to illuminate the Hebrew Bible's discourse surrounding this issue.

Spring semester.  Visiting Professor Kaminsky.

2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017

267 Reading the Rabbis

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
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Spring 2012, Spring 2015

273 Christian Scriptures

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.

Omitted 2016-17.  Professor Doran.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2009, Spring 2011, Spring 2013, Spring 2015, Spring 2016

274 The Parables of Jesus

The parables of Jesus are often seen as the most distinctive feature of Jesus’ teaching.  Through close reading, we will try to grasp what kind of a story is being told in each parable.  We will then explore to whom each particular story is told in its present literary context in the gospels.  Can one read these parables outside this literary context and recover an “original” formulation more suited to the socio-economic world of first-century CE Galilee?  Are these parables less about describing the heavenly kingdom than about challenging real groups to change their positions?

Omitted 2016-17.  Professor Doran.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2014

275 History of Christianity--The Early Years

This course investigates the fascinating story of how a movement which started in a small unimportant province of the Roman Empire rose to a privileged status within that Empire.  We will explore the many ways in which followers of Jesus attempted to articulate who Jesus was and the many “Christianities” that arose from these attempts.  Was he divine or human or something in between?  If divine, what was the relationship between God and Jesus?  All of these debates and conflicts were played out against the background of a Greek understanding of the divine, the universe, and what it was to be human, and the backdrop of the Roman Empire where the emperor was held to be divine.  We will examine the Christian separation from Judaism and the growing intolerance towards Judaism.  Finally, we will inquire how Christianity consolidated its creedal formulation once it enjoyed a privileged position under the first Christian emperor, Constantine.  This creedal articulation was to dominate the Western Roman Empire throughout the medieval period but was to cause disunity and fraction within the Eastern Roman Empire.

Omitted 2016-17.  Professor Doran.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Fall 2009, Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014

278 Christianity, Philosophy, and History in the Nineteenth Century

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.

Omitted 2016-17. Professor A. Dole.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2008, Fall 2010, Fall 2013

284 Knowledge Triumphant in Classical Islam

Knowledge was one of the primary concerns in classical Islamic civilization. The search for knowledge dominated all branches of religious and intellectual life, and it pervaded the daily lives of Muslims. In this class we will read the classics from law, theology, philosophy and mysticism that were written in the ninth through twelfth centuries. We will focus our attention on texts in which questions surrounding the theme of knowledge are discussed at length and in detail. Questions we will explore include: What is knowledge and how is it attained? What is its relation to faith and doubt? How does knowledge inform religious practice and ritual? What theories of knowledge were developed in law, theology, philosophy, and mysticism? How does knowledge serve as a tool in these disciplines? Our broader objective is to understand how religious and intellectual life was shaped by discussions about knowledge within these disciplines. Omitted 2016-17.  Professor Jaffer.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2014

285 The Qur'ān and Its Controversies

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

316 Philosophy of Religion

(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 2016-17. Professor A. Dole.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2009, Spring 2013, Spring 2016

318 The Problem of Evil

(Offered as RELI 318 and PHIL 229.) If God is omnibenevolent, then God would not want any creature to suffer evil; if God is omniscient, then God would know how to prevent any evil from occurring; and if God is omnipotent, then God would be able to prevent any evil from occurring. Does the obvious fact that there is evil in the world, then, give us reason to think that there is no such God? Alternatively: if an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God does exist, then what could possibly motivate such a God to permit the existence of evil? This course will survey recent philosophical discussions of these questions. We will read works by J. L. Mackie, Nelson Pike, John Hick, Alvin Plantinga, Robert and Marilyn Adams, and others.

Omitted 2016-17.  Professor A. Dole.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2010, Spring 2015

322 Religion, Empires, and Secular States in the Nineteenth Century

(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 2016-17.  Professor Ringer.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2012, Spring 2014, Fall 2015

323 Religion and Conspiratorial Thinking

Conspiracy theories are not inherently religious, but they are frequently informed by religious conceptions and valuations, and often circulate within particular religious communities.  If religious and conspiratorial thinking can get along fine without each other, why do they intersect as often as they do within history?  Addressing this question will require locating religion and conspiracy theorizing in relationship to each other within a broader field of thinking about the dynamics of human social interaction.  Readings for this course will include prominent examples of religiously-informed conspiracy theories from the modern period and works that explore the characteristic features of religious and conspiratorial thinking.  Of particular interest will be works that stand on the margin between conspiratorial thinking and social critique.  Authors will include John Robison, Jedediah Morse, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Blanshard, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, David Noebel, Pat Robertson, and Michel Foucault.  

The course will require the close reading and understanding of challenging texts, engagement with the ideas these present in class discussion, and the written exposition of positions and arguments.

Omitted 2016-17.  Professor A. Dole


2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2014

352 Buddhist Ethics

(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.

Spring semester. Visiting Lecturer Angowski.

2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017
Other years: Offered in Spring 2010, Spring 2011, Fall 2012, Spring 2015

362 Folklore and the Bible

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.

Omitted 2016-17. Professor Niditch.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Spring 2013, Spring 2016

365 Personal Religion in the Bible

In contemporary discussions about the role of religion in the lives of individuals we often hear questions such as the following: Does God hear me when I call out in trouble? Why do bad things happen to good people? How do I define myself as a believer? What is the role of prayer? Do I have a personal relationship with a divine being, apart from the institutional religion?  What roles do material objects, personal images, and private practices play within my religious life?  This course will suggest that questions such as these are entirely relevant to the study of early Judaism in the late biblical period, a time when the preserved literature and the evidence of material culture place great emphasis on the individual’s spiritual journey.  This course introduces students to ways of thinking about personal religion and applies that theoretical framework to the study of a variety of sources in the Bible and beyond.  Topics include the Book of Job, the confessional literature of the prophets, psalms of personal lament, visionary experiences, vow-making, incantations, ancient graffiti, and memoirs written in the first person. This course has no prerequisites and provides students with the methodological and historical background to appreciate this interesting corpus, its social context, and its composers.

Omitted 2016-17.  Professor Niditch.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2010, Spring 2013

370 Close Readings:  The Classics of Judaism and Christianity

This seminar offers an opportunity for students to engage in the close reading of one or two classic works in the history of Judaism or Christianity. The texts chosen will vary from year to year.

Omitted 2016-17.  Professor Doran 

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Fall 2013

372 The Secret Jesus

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.

Fall semester.  Professor Doran.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2012

382 Islamic Intellectual Tradition: The Classics

(Offered as RELI 382 and ASLC 382 [WA].) This course introduces students to the intellectual tradition of Islam. It focuses on the pre-modern period. We will explore works of theology, philosophy, and political theory that were composed by Muslim intellectuals of various stripes. We will use primary sources in English translation to examine the ideas that Muslim intellectuals formulated and the movements that they engendered. In our discussions we will investigate questions concerning the rise of sectarianism, language and revelation, prophecy, heresy and apostasy, God and creation, causality and miracles, the role of logic and human reasoning with respect to the canonical sources (Quran and Hadith), and conceptions of the Islamic state.

Falll semester. Professor Jaffer.

2016-17: Offered in Fall 2016
Other years: Offered in Fall 2008, Fall 2012, Fall 2013

385 The Islamic Mystical Tradition

(Offered as RELI 385 and ASLC 356 [WA])  This course is a survey of the large complex of Islamic intellectual and social perspectives subsumed under the term Sufism. Sufi mystical philosophies, liturgical practices, and social organizations have been a major part of the Islamic tradition in all historical periods, and Sufism has also served as a primary creative force behind Islamic aesthetic expression in poetry, music, and the visual arts. In this course, we will attempt to understand the various significations of Sufism by addressing both the world of ideas and socio-cultural practices. The course is divided into four modules: central themes and concepts going back to the earliest individuals who identified themselves as Sufis; the lives and works of two medieval Sufis; Sufi cosmology and metaphysics; Sufism as a global and multifarious trend in the modern world.

Omitted 2016-17. Professor Jaffer.

2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Spring 2009, Spring 2010, Spring 2011, Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015

490 Special Topics

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
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Spring 2014, Fall 2014, Spring 2015, Fall 2015, Spring 2016

499 Senior Honors

Spring semester.

2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2009, Spring 2010, Spring 2011, Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Spring 2016

499D, 498 Senior Departmental Honors

Required of candidates for Honors in Religion. A continuation of RELI 498. A double course.

Open to seniors with consent of the instructor. Spring semester. The Department.

2016-17: Offered in Spring 2017
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2009, Spring 2010, Spring 2011, Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Spring 2016

Related Courses

BLST-315 Myth, Ritual and Iconography in West Africa (Course not offered this year.)
HIST-319 Religion, Empires, and Secular States in the Nineteenth Century (Course not offered this year.)