This course introduces students to the comparative study of religion by focusing on a major theme within two or more religious traditions. Traditions and topics will vary from year to year. In 2012-13 the major traditions will be Islam and Judaism, and the theme will be death. Death is involved in life-passages both for those who die and for those they leave behind. This complex and universal concern raises questions about the very nature of being human and believing in the divine as we consider the ways in which the living make sense of death within particular religious and cultural contexts. Specific themes to explore include views of the metaphysical causes of death, descriptions of the experience of being dead, rituals surrounding the dead, ideas concerning the continued sentience or power of the departed, and beliefs about their capacity to communicate with the living and/or to return to life.
Fall semester. Professors Jaffer and Niditch.2021-22: Offered in Fall 2021
Science Fiction film and literature imagine possible near or distant futures for human (and other) life. This course explores imagined futures from different points of view. We will analyze films, novels, and short stories to see what they convey about the time in which they were imagined, their reflections on worldviews and religious traditions, and the more general question of what a narrative approach can contribute to the academic study of religion. We will discuss questions concerning human nature, ontology, and morality: What makes us human? What is reality? What is a good life? A central part of the course will thus be to identify and articulate questions about life, religion, and ethics through reading narratives in relation to theories of interpretation (hermeneutics), feminist theory, and critical studies of film and literature. The course aims to supply students with tools of analysis for exploring aesthetic and narrative expressions of existential questions.
Fall semester: STINT Fellow Eriksen.
2021-22: Not offered
(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.2021-22: Offered in Spring 2022
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. Two class meetings per week.
Spring semester. Professor Dole.2021-22: Not offered
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.2021-22: Offered in Spring 2022
An introduction to the historical development and contemporary reality of religion in the United States. The course will survey three phases of historical development: the Atlantic world phase (origins through the American Revolution); the continental phase (from the Constitution to World War I); and the global phase (from World War I to the present). Attention will be given throughout to the changing shape of religious diversity, various (and often mutually opposed) efforts to reform society or forge consensus around religious ideals, and the intersection of religion and the realities of race. Emphasis will also be placed, especially with regard to the “global phase,” on the complex relation of religious movements, ideals, and leaders to the United States’ ever-increasing role as a world power.
Spring semester. Professor Wills.2021-22: Not offered
(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.2021-22: Not offered
This seminar focuses on the reading in translation of primary Buddhist texts from the Pali Tipitaka which highlight the early Buddhist model of mind and the role of meditation in mental development, ethical conduct and psychological transformation. Beginning with a look at how psychological perspectives emerged from the intellectual milieu of ancient India, and proceeding through a systematic study of the major elements of Buddhist psychology, the program culminates with an examination of some contemporary perspectives on the influence of meditation and Buddhist mind science on the modern fields of healing, psychotherapy and cognitive science. Spring semester. Visiting Professor Olendzki.2021-22: Not offered
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.
Fall semester. Professor Niditch.2021-22: Offered in Fall 2021
Christianity is often thought of as a European or “Western” religion. This overlooks, however, much of the early history of Eastern Christianity and, more importantly, the present reality that Christianity is increasingly a religion of “non-Western” peoples, both in their ancestral homelands and abroad. This course will trace the global spread of Christianity from the first century forward, with emphasis on modern and contemporary developments. Attention will be given both to the thought and practice of Christian missionary movements and to the diverse forms of Christianity that have emerged in response to them. To what extent can European and American missionaries be seen simply as agents of colonialism--or of a neo-colonial globalization of consumer capitalism? In what ways and with what success has an imported Christianity been adapted to cultural settings beyond the sphere of Western “Christendom”? How have Christians outside “the West” understood themselves in relation to it? Particular attention will be given to the spread of Christianity in Africa and in Asia and to the presence in the United States of Christians of African and Asian descent.
Spring semester. Professor Wills.2021-22: Not offered
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.2021-22: Offered in Fall 2021
This course deals with issues which arose in the first five centuries of the Christian Church. We will examine first how Christians defined themselves vis-à-vis the Greek intellectual environment, and also Christian separation from and growing intolerance towards Judaism. Secondly, we will investigate Christians’ relationship to the Roman state both before and after their privileged position under Constantine and his successors. Thirdly, the factors at play in the debates over the divinity and humanity of Jesus will be examined. Finally, we will look at the rise and function of the holy man in late antique society as well as the relationship of this charismatic figure to the institutional leaders of the Christian Church. Note will be taken that if it is primarily an issue of the holy man, what happened to the realization of the claim that “in Christ there is neither male nor female?" What too of the claim that “in Christ there is neither free nor slave?"
Spring semester. Professor Doran.2021-22: Not offered
(Offered as RELI 282 and ASLC 282 [WA].)This course deals with the life of Muhammad (the founder and prophet of Islam) and the Qur’an (the Muslim Scripture). The first part deals with the life of Muhammad as reflected in the writings of the early Muslim biographers. It examines the crucial events of Muhammad’s life (the first revelation, the night journey, the emigration to Medina, the military campaigns) and focuses on Muhammad’s image in the eyes of the early Muslim community. The second deals with the Qur’an. It focuses on the history of the Qur’an, its canonization, major themes, various methods of Qur’anic interpretation, the role of the Qur’an in Islamic law, ritual, and modernity.
Spring semester. Professor Jaffer.2021-22: Not offered
(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?
Limited to 25 students. Spring semester. Professor A. Dole.2021-22: Not offered
(Offered as ASLC 326, RELI 326 and WAGS 326.) In this course we will study the lives of prominent female teachers in Tibetan Buddhism from its inception up to the present day. Our focus will be on reconstructing the narratives of the trajectories to realization that women like Yedshe Tsogyal, Mandarava, Yid Thogma, Machig Labdron, Sera Khandro, and Ayu Khandro, among others, undertook, often at high personal and societal cost. By utilizing biographical and--as much as possible--autobiographical records (in English translation), we will analyze the religious and social aspects of these women’s choice to privilege the Vajarayana path to enlightenment, often (but not always), at the expense of more conventional and accepted lifestyles. In order to do so, we will explore in depth the meanings attached to femininity, masculinity, sexuality, and gender dynamics within Tibetan monastic and lay life.
The course will combine methodology from Buddhist studies, Tibetan studies, women and gender studies, critical theory, and literary criticism in an effort to unravel and explore the complex negotiations that Buddhist female teachers engaged in during their spiritual pursuit, in the context of traditional as well as contemporary Tibetan culture.
Recommended requisite: Previous knowledge of Tibetan culture and Buddhism. Spring semester. Professor Zamperini.2021-22: Not offered
The eighteenth-century Calvinist Jonathan Edwards and the nineteenth-century Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson are among the most complex and influential figures in the history of American religious thought--an influence that has grown, not receded, in recent decades. Both were innovative and very distinctive thinkers, yet each also serves as a major reference point for ongoing and centrally important tendencies in American religious life. American Evangelical Protestantism has for the most part long since departed from the Calvinism that Edwards espoused, yet many of its core convictions (e.g., the necessity for conversion and the prospects for a wider spread of Christianity in the world) nowhere receive a more powerful analysis and defense than in the works of Edwards. Emerson stands in similar relation to very different currents of thought and practice, both within and beyond American Protestantism, that emphasize self-realization and an inclusive, pluralistic attitude that draws insights from a diverse range of religious traditions. This course will closely examine selected texts by both figures, but will also place them in the context of New England religious thought from Puritanism to Transcendentalism and consider their engagement with some of the major issues of the period (e.g., issues of race and slavery). Attention will be given to the similarities that exist alongside their differences. The course will conclude by examining their relation to subsequent (and contemporary) trends in American religious thought and practice.
Fall semester. Professor Wills.2021-22: Not offered
(Offered as RELI 252 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.
Fall semester. Professor M. Heim.2021-22: Offered in Fall 2021
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.2021-22: Not offered
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.
Spring semester. Professor Niditch.2021-22: Not offered
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. In fall 2012 the course will focus on the biblical book of Qohelet / Ecclesiastes. We will examine the questions Qohelet poses to the Hebrew wisdom tradition, focusing on themes of death, justice, meaning, work, fate, and pleasure. Subsequent communities of interpreters have wrestled with the contradictions in the book, and we will study and compare the readings of the early church fathers, rabbinic writings, later thinkers, and the ongoing influence of the book in literature and art.
Fall semester. Visiting Professor Barbour.2021-22: 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 theses 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.2021-22: Not offered
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.
Fall semester. Professor Jaffer.2021-22: Not offered
(Offered as RELI 285 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.
Spring semester. Professor Jaffer2021-22: Not offered
Independent Reading Course. Reading in an area selected by the student and approved in advance by a member of the Department.
Fall and spring semester. The Department.2021-22: Offered in Fall 2021, Spring 2022
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.2021-22: Offered in Fall 2021
Spring semester.2021-22: Offered in Spring 2022