When We Forget Our Roots

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by Aaron Hughes

I have been asked to respond to Rachel Fulton Brown’s piece at the University of Chicago Divinity’s School Sightings. I’ll leave it to others to adjudicate her political leanings or apparent support for Milo Yiannopoulos’ cross-country speaking tour of university campuses. I thought that I would rather respond in my capacity as a scholar of religion who also happens to be trained in medieval studies. However my understanding of the academic study of religion, not to mention the Middle Ages, departs rather radically from hers.

I was rather struck by Brown’s suggestion that “culture’s wellspring is religion.” This locution strikes me as rather odd. Not only does it raise the age-old “chicken and egg” dichotomy, it would imply that religion gives birth to culture as opposed to vice versa. I am not at all sure that this is sustainable. She offers no support for her claims, but instead echoes a discourse with its roots stretching back at least to Schleiermacher via the usual suspects like Eliade and Otto. In so doing, Brown ignores all of us who work to document the social construction of religion and identity, not to mention the triangulation between religion, power, and ideology. I would like to think that the majority of students at the Divinity School, who I assume are raised on a steady diet of Durkheim, Weber, Marx…(J. Z.) Smith, Lincoln & co., had finally put the old canard that religion is somehow distinct from the political or the social to bed. Apparently not.

But Brown is not a scholar of religion. Instead she writes as a persecuted minority, as someone who, in her own words, is afraid to mention her faith or suggest that it affects her work as a scholar. However, in making these claims, she seems to show little or no awareness that the field of religious studies is built upon the corpses of those invested in such debates. There is an entire body of literature—much of it produced in the Divinity School itself—that she either ignores or is, at the very least, unaware of. While she certainly says nothing new that any decent scholar of religion should be able to contextualize, what is truly surprising is the rather strange end to which she directs her venom.

Brown further opines that “this denial of religion as the basis of culture is the source of the violence we are now witnessing, both on campuses and across America at large.” I note that with this statement she selectively leaves out the legal separation of Church and State in the U.S. and what this has meant for non-Christian minorities. Unless, of course, she wants to see that separation torn asunder, which she may well. Or, perhaps more accurately, it seems that she wants to keep the protections afforded by the majoritarian religion that she perceives to be under threat from secular society on the one hand and minority religious traditions (read: Jewish and Islamic) on the other.

Brown then provides us with the founding statement of Harvard: “Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3.”

While I follow the rather bad argument up to this point, I missed altogether the jump from the importance of a good religious (read: Christian) education to “why American college students and faculty find Milo’s talks so threatening.” If we knew that “God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life,” presumably we know that Milo’s speech was what…religious and not political? I’m lost.

And then we get to old insider/outsider debate. Instead of religion, we professors peddle the pablum of “multiculturalism; race, class, gender; the purportedly secular ideals of socialism and Marxism.” This ostensibly is what conditions us feeble-minded academics to resist the appeal of hate-speech and prevents us from the possibility of conversion, and of opening our hearts and minds to such speech.

I would, quite honestly, have expected more from a publication produced at the Divinity School. But, maybe it is a test. Maybe it is meant to show readers what happens when we forget what the critical study of religion can and should do? Maybe it is meant to show graduate students that there is a clear line behind the rather bad theological argument that Brown espouses and the critical study of religion? Then again, maybe it is meant to show what happens when we forget the discourses that got us from there to here?

Let me end by saying that, like Prof. Brown, I, too, am a medievalist. My Middle Ages, however, are not those of the dominant and hegemonic Christian West, but the much more uncertain and unstable Middles Ages of the Jews. Those of us who work with medieval Jewish texts, especially those produced within the orbit of Christendom, know well the consequences of hateful speech motivated by political gain and legitimated through an intricate type of sublimation.

Aaron W. Hughes holds the Philip S. Bernstein Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester. Professor Hughes’s books include:  The Texture of the Divine (Indiana University Press, 2003), Jewish Philosophy A-Z (Palgrave, 2006), The Art of Dialogue in Jewish Philosophy (Indiana University Press, 2007), Situating Islam (Equinox Publishing, 2007), The Invention of Jewish Identity (Indiana University Press, 2010), Defining Judaism: A Reader (Equinox Publishing, 2010), Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford UP, 2012), The Study of Judaism: Identity, Authenticity, Scholarship (SUNY Press, 2013), Rethinking Jewish Philosophy: Beyond Particularity and Universality (Oxford UP, 2014), and Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception (Equinox Publishing, 2015). 

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Comparative Approches to Religion and Violence: Call for Papers, AAR/SBL 2017

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The Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence Group is affiliated with the Journal of Religion and Violence. Please note that conference papers presented through this AAR program unit will be considered for publication in the journal. 

Submission due dates: March 1, 2017

For the 2017 AAR national conference and its theme of religion and the underprivileged, we seek papers that examine the intersections of religion and violence, with attention to the conditions under which religion lends itself to the justification and/or promotion of violence. Papers should demonstrate comparative or theoretical approaches. Below are our calls for next year:

1. Religion, Media, and Violence. Whether it is pop-cultural venues such as Facebook or Twitter, the Huffington Post, or traditional televised sources such as MSNBC, Fox News or CNN, the media has had made enormous impacts on people’s perceptions of religion. How has the media covered the relationship between religion and violence? How has the media affected religiously-motivated violence? What are the ways in which the media has influenced the outbreaks of or tempering of religiously-motivated violence?

2. Religion, Fantasy, and Violence. Fantasies—whether imaginative operations, narrative structures, communal illusions, media constructions, or fanciful fictions—abound in human life and culture, and intertwine with religion in ways that invite, necessitate, or mitigate violence. We seek papers to address aspects of this dynamic. How are violent and anti-violent ideologies supported by (or hindered by) fantasy? How does fantasy affect and effect violence (or peace) in religious contexts? What roles does fantasy play in the spread, cessation, or commemoration of religious violence?

3. Religion and Blasphemy. Possible co-sponsorship with the SBL program unit on Violence and Representations of Violence. Religious violence is often facilitated by the discursive constructions of “Others.” A classic mechanism for constructing Others is the charge of blasphemy, in which the Other is said to have spoken or acted in a way that is deemed sacrilegious. We invite papers that explore charges of blasphemy in religious discourse, particularly those that pay attention to the work that such charges perform in the context of (inter)religious violence, competition, or conflict.

4. Religion and Hate Crimes. Possible Co-sponsorship with the Afro-American Religious History Program Unit. The FBI reports in 2015 a dramatic rise in hate crimes across the United States. Entering into a presidential era of Donald Trump, we invite papers that examine the relationship between hate crimes and black religious groups.

5. Cross-Cultural Manifestations of Islamophobia. Possible co-sponsorship with the Contemporary Islam Group. Muslims have increasingly become targets of hate speech and violent actions worldwide. We seek papers that examine variegated ways in which Islamophobia has manifested in different regional, institutional, and religious contexts, e.g., Burmese Buddhist rhetoric about the Rohingya, Chinese discourse on the Uighur, and U.S. Christian discussions about Syrian and Sudanese Muslim immigrants.

6. Trauma, Harm, and Memory in Japanese Religions. Possible co-sponsorship with the Japanese Religions Group. This panel addresses ways concepts of harm, trauma, and related matters – including violence, damage, recovery, and reconstruction – have taken shape within Japanese religious milieus. We seek a broad range of disciplinary approaches. Papers may address doctrine, literature, institutional history, material religion (such as memorials) and/or ways religious dimensions of Japanese discourse, care initiatives, or other practices may illuminate categories linked to trauma. We seek work on a range of historical periods, and papers that engage broader theoretical inquiry into genealogies of “trauma,” “harm,” and related concepts are particularly welcome.

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Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group: Call for Papers, 2017 AAR/SBL

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Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group:

Deadline March 1, 2017

Call for Papers For 2017 AAR/SBL Annual Meetings in Boston

2017 is the anniversary of several key works in critical theory. The Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group invites proposals on the following works. In each case we expect papers that critically explore the boundaries of a work’s disciplinary significance and current utility:

  • Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” (100th anniversary). For possible co-sponsorship with the Secularism & Secularity Group.
  • Deleuze & Guattari’s Capitalism & Schizophrenia (40th and 30th anniversaries of English translations). For possible co-sponsorship with the Religion & Economy Group.
  • Horkheimer & Adorno’s Dialectics of Enlightenment (70th anniversary). For possible co-sponsorship with the Religion & Economy Group.

CTDR additionally invites proposals on the following topics:

  • Affect theory and other critical theories of bodies and emotions: a comparative harangue. What is the relationship between affect/emotion, culture, and religion? How does affect theory compare to other approaches to the body in the humanities? How does an attention to specific affects—like rage, passion, or love—shape our analysis of religion and other social formations? For possible co-sponsorship with the Religion, Affect, & Emotion Group.
  • Media conjurations of race, gender, and class during the 2016 presidential election: classifications, naturalizations, and theorizations from alt right rhetoric to the New York Times and beyond.

Method of submission: PAPERS: http://papers.aarweb.org/

Process: 
Proposals are anonymous to chairs and steering committee members during review, but visible to chairs prior to final acceptance or rejection.

Leadership:

Co-Chair                David Walker, dwalker@religion.ucsb.edu

Co-Chair                Sean McCloud, spmcclou@uncc.edu

About this Group:

The CTDR group offers an interdisciplinary and international forum for analytical scholars of religion to engage the intersection of critical theory and methodology with a focus on concrete ethnographic and historical case studies. Critical theory draws on methods employed in the fields of sociology, anthropology, history, literary criticism, and political theory in order to bring into scrutiny all kinds of discourses on religion, spanning from academic to nonacademic and from religious to nonreligious.

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What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?: T. Nicole Goulet

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In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here

by T. Nicole Goulet

Our Religious Studies Department teaches numerous sections of RLST 100: Introduction to Religion, as part of IUP’s Liberal Studies requirement. The course description for the syllabus of record is as follows:

An introduction to the academic study of religion through an examination of various dimensions of religious expression and traditions. Will cover such areas as problems about definition of religion; approaches to the study of religion; the goals, language, and rituals of religion; cases of religious experience; faith, disbelief, and alternatives to religion; religion and the sociocultural context.

I teach this course as an introduction to the methodological and theoretical frameworks that are used to understand and study religion in an academic setting. I do this by parsing out certain themes found in a variety of religions, including myth, ritual, mysticism, and violence. After introducing students to traditional approaches and content, I gradually start calling their attention to the ways thinking seriously about race, class, and gender changes how we understand religious practice. I pay close attention to what I view as lacunae in how religion has historically been studied, but I omit mention of this pedagogical strategy from my syllabus, as students at IUP are hesitant to engage in discussions about religion as a cultural construct.

This is because many students on our campus have not been exposed to different religions, let alone different ideas about religion. They are predominantly white, and from working and lower middle class background. Christianity is typically their only point of reference for understanding what “religion” means, and many see little relevance to understanding other religious traditions, let alone utilizing a critical lens essential to the academic study of religion. For many, perhaps most, knowledge of religion is rooted in devotional practice and personal belief.

I challenge my students’ assumptions about religion from the first day of class. Our first lecture is “What do you know about religion?” They take the PEW Religious Knowledge Quiz (http://www.pewforum.org/quiz/u-s-religious-knowledge/), which serves to show how little students know about the basics of the major world religions, and they work in small groups to answer the following questions:

1) Why do you think IUP has included this Religious Studies course as a Liberal Studies requirement?
2) How does the Religious Studies Liberal Studies requirement contribute to your major?

Specifically, I ask them to brainstorm ideas, and to take creative risks in making connections between their majors, their career goals, and this course.

It turns out that with a little encouragement most students readily recognize the need for Religious Studies as a Liberal Studies requirement. They understand that IUP’s mandate is the promotion of multiculturalism and acceptance of diversity, and that religion is an aspect of that. However, the connections that they make between this course and their degrees are less clear. While students suggest there are practical applications, such as making it easier to work with people different from themselves, they see little connection between critically engaging in representations and cultural constructions of religion, and their future professional lives. That is for the rest of the semester to address.

Nicole Goulet is an Assistant Professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, PA. Her work focuses on religious practice in Hinduism, with attention paid to race, class, and gender.

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What’s in Your Religion Syllabus? Vaia Touna

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In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here

This semester I’m teaching a course entitled “Theorizing Ancient Greek Religion.” The course aims at problematizing common assumptions in the way we approach ancient Greece, and how that relates to the present. One way into this is by looking at the category “religion,” and how it has been used in describing the past.

This is how the course is described in the syllabus:

In the study of religion scholars often talk about ancient religion in general, and, in particular, ancient Greek religion. But there is always a danger of projecting contemporary assumption backward in time—a concern we likely ought to keep in mind when it comes to studying such things as ancient Greek religion. This course therefore examines how the ancient Greek world is described and represented in the present, in museums, social media, scholarly works, etc. and towards what modern effects. We will also be discussing such topics as heritage, tradition, identity formation and nation-states, as they relate to discourses on the ancient Greek past, all in an effort to develop skills for how we study religion and the past.

Deciding what will be included in the syllabus (i.e., readings) and its various components (i.e., assignments) is never an easy process, but one way that I go about making those choices is by thinking of the course like writing an essay, that is, every reading is building towards an argument.

Initially we read Jan Bremmer’s article “Greek Religion [Further Considerations]” from the Encyclopedia of Religion, which serves as our primary data for the course. The rest of the course is designed in a way that will give students the necessary tools, and a critical thinking perspective to return later to analyze Bremmer’s article.

Each day’s class is divided into two sections: (i) theory and (ii) applying it to data.

During the first section students are assigned to read an article (they are also required to write an abstract and have one question regarding the article) that we discuss and analyze in class, for example we read W. J. Mitchell’s “Representation” (1995) [from Critical Terms for Literary Study]; Hayden White’s “The Fiction of Factual Representation” (1985 [1978]) [from Tropics of Discourse]; Brent Nongbri’s “Lost in Translation” (2013) [from Before Religion]; Pierre Bourdieu’s “Identity and Representation” (1992) [from Language and Symbolic Power]; Bruce Lincoln’s “The Politics of Myth” (2014) [from Discourse and the Construction of Society, 2nd Edition]; and Eric Hobsbawm’s “The Social Function of the Past: Some Questions” (1972).

During the second section, each day one student is responsible for presenting a piece of data, something that they have read in a newspaper, a book, etc. and which relates to the past (whether that is ancient Greece or some other culture), and which we then discuss in relation to the article we read during the first part of class that day. That way the article is applied to an example of a student’s choice; both the article and the e.g. serve as small examples where a particular issue is examined. As the class progresses, students are able to see how all of the articles are connected and how they help us in our analysis of the examples students bring in class.

At the end of the course we will revisit Bremmer’s opening article, in hopes that students will be able to identify and analyze in his article some of the issues discussed throughout the course, and generally start understanding that modern discourses about the past (whether we are talking about ancient Greek Religion or the past in general) are closely related to the present, that is, to who is talking, for what purpose, and towards what effect.

During the course we will also have two guest visits: Athanasia Kyriakou an archaeologist from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, and member of the scientific team excavating at the archaeological dig in Vergina (Aegae). Kyriakou will be skyping with us from Thessaloniki, Greece, but she will also be visiting our class in March. Our second guest visit is Brent Nongbri, who will skype with us from Aarhus, Denmark, to discuss his book Before Religion (2013), since one of the chapters of the book is among the articles students are assigned to read.

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Theory & Religion Series: Ting Guo

Blade-Runner-2-Director

“Spirituality” as the Creative Self in the Digital Age

This post is part of the Theory & Religion Series, where contributors are asked to discuss a current project they are working on, or a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

by Ting Guo

For this post in the Theory & Religion Series, I’d like to talk about my article “‘Spirituality’ as reconceptualisation of the self: Alan Turing and his pioneering ideas on artificial intelligence”, which is a summary of my doctoral project. It looks at Turing’s personal trajectory in life and asks to what extent his search for artificial intelligence (AI) was inspired by considerations other than purely technical ones. To make AI is to reproduce what is the essential “us,” what Pamela McCorduck refers to as an “odd form of self-reproduction”. The desire for such machines, I argue, is a desire equally rooted in fear and allure, and reflects not only the drive for knowledge and human progress, but the discovery of the human self, driven by fundamental problems of being human. Ultimately, my fascination lies in individuals’ struggle for identity, how they define themselves amidst radical social changes or against political, ideological or religious contexts.

In the study of religion, arguably since the 1990s, there is a scholarly trend of placing the enquiry into “spirituality” within a framework of unchurched beliefs and praxes with emphasis on affective experience. In particular it was manifested through the countercultural movements in the 1960s-80s. This view of spirituality is offered most notably by Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead’s “spiritual revolution” thesis, according to which traditional forms of religion are giving way to “holistic spirituality”, sometimes still referred to, in the parlance of the 1970s, as “New Age”. Proponents of holistic spirituality advocate “seeking out, experiencing and expressing a source of significance” which lies within “the process of life itself”, categorised by Heelas as a framework of “spiritualities of life”.

This framework, however, remains vague, as it lacks a clear theoretical account, substituting “spirituality” with an equally ambiguous notion—“life”. Furthermore, by placing spirituality within “unchurched” experience, this “spiritualities of life” framework has neglected the changing human conditions in the current time – the Digital Age.

In contrast, my paper relates the question of spirituality to the underlying agenda of the philosophy of Artificial Intelligence (AI)—the central problem of computer science, aiming precisely to complement the understudied aspect of spirituality in the Digital Age. Few existing studies have taken into account the impact of technological advances on people’s understanding and concept of themselves. Most have considered religious sensibilities or affective experience, giving little attention to the rational aspect of spirituality and how it is manifested in the modern era. Retrieving a lost meaning of the term “spirituality” that is concerned with the human intellect, this paper proposes a conceptual model of spirituality as a process of self-reconceptualisation as exemplified in the life and ideas of Alan Turing (1912-1954)—who tragically committed suicide in his prime—and his pioneering theory of AI.

The new model of “spirituality” presented here denotes an active process of self-reconceptualisation, with the search, adaptation and transformation of self-knowledge as three main components. My etymological analysis of spirituality shows that the origin of this term includes a meaning regarding the human intellect. In ancient Greek, Latin, French and Middle English, the etymological origins of spirituality all contain meanings of the “power of knowing,” the “rational soul” and “the rational spirit, the power by which the human being feels, thinks, decides.” This aspect of meaning contrasts with the ubiquitous reference to feelings, institutional criticism, and personal experience in current scholarship and public discourses. This model focuses on how the modern person conceptualises him or herself through the faculty of reasoning, its central components indicate a dynamic process as follows:

1) the search for self-knowledge

2) adaptation of that knowledge; which, in turn, stimulates

3) the intellectual aspiration for self-transformation.

Each component is a manifestation of the rational mind, which continuously thinks and reflects, whereby the three parts are interrelated. The first component, “search,” emphasises the endeavour of actively looking for meaning and understanding of one’s self.

“Self-knowledge” is used here as a philosophical term that connotes knowledge of the ontological nature (that is, nature of being, identity conditions and character traits) of the self. In this project I choose to focus neither on the immediate mental states nor on the singular or multiple arguments of the self but, rather, on the endeavour and process of reconceptualising one’s sense of self (multiple or singular)—which encompasses various stages of pursuit and adaptation of self-knowledge—and on how such pursuit and adaptation amount to a rational aspiration for self-transformation. It is this rational endeavour that constitutes my model of “spirituality”, and differentiates it from the majority of scholarship on “spirituality” in the study of religion.

The creative capacity of self-knowledge is based on the notion of human intelligence as a progressive and evolving dynamic, put forth most notably by French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). In Creative Evolution, Bergson refutes the Western tradition of metaphysics, which sees abstract conceptions as a timeless unchanging ultimate reality underlying the world of sense-perception. His understanding of intelligence is not something thought, but something lived. For him, intelligence can be understood as a “dynamic formulation” of one’s life, in the sense, first, that intelligence constantly creates new ideas and new needs, driving us further into unlimited fields, and frees us from constraints, thanks to the creativity and potentials that our intelligence can offer. Moreover, in progressing and evolving, intelligence reconstructs concepts, including concepts of life. As new knowledge of ourselves comes to light, we also need to create new concepts and even new methods of thinking to conceptualise the self. The reconstructions of concepts of self, for Bergson, can be understood as the means that an intelligent being bears within him or her to transcend his or her own nature; in my paper, the continuous self-reconceptualisation comprises the adaptation and transformation of self-knowledge, which is my conceptual model of “spirituality”. “Self-knowledge” here denotes personal knowledge of the ontological nature of one’s own self and the scientific knowledge of the human mind and consciousness. Accordingly, the significance of a biographical study of Turing’s life and ideas lies in unpacking his reconceptualisation of himself as an individual as well as of himself as a member of humanity: 1) Turing as the forefather of the Digital Age sought, adapted and transformed the understanding of the human mind as scientific knowledge, and 2) Turing was a man whose pursuit, adaptation and transformation of ontological self-knowledge motivated his scientific studies of the nature of the mind and how the mind could be simulated and reconfigured into a machine. His scientific quest to discover the mechanism of the mind aided him in his quest for ontological self-knowledge. In short, Turing’s ontological and scientific self-knowledge complement one another in his lifetime quest to discover both “truths.”

In order to render a vivid account of how AI best manifests this conceptual model, I apply a biographical method to examine the scientific and personal reflections upon the self of Alan Turing, the founder of AI, as he conceptualised the key notions for this field. By further analysing the ways in which these reflections are valued and integrated into contemporary studies on AI and AI-based technologies after Turing’s death, this project seeks to illustrate the relevance of “spirituality” for the current Digital Age and to crystallise a fresh meaning of this term.

Historically, as I argue, Turing’s core idea of intelligent machinery, which is derived from an idealised conception of the human calculator (literally a “person who calculates”), was driven by his personal and scientific reflections on the extent and limitations of the human mind, including a drive to surpass these limitations. Furthermore, Turing’s endeavour to seek, adapt and transform the existing knowledge of human limits not only formed the theoretical foundation for AI, but has also posthumously inspired contemporary avant-garde fields of science, technology and philosophy, including theories of human enhancement technology, transhumanism and post-humanism. By aiming to alter and advance the intellectual and cognitive characteristics and capacities of humanity, scientists and theorists in those fields seek to show that human nature is not fixed and determined, but can be reinvented. This reflexive endeavour to seek self-knowledge and use it to adapt and transform the self underpins the model of “spirituality” that my project sets out to invoke, underscoring the broader cultural values carried by AI-based sciences and technologies in the Digital Age.

Guo, T. “Spirituality’ as reconceptualisation of the self: Alan Turing and his pioneering ideas on artificial intelligence”. Culture and Religion: An Interdisciplinary Journal Volume 16, Issue 3, 2015: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14755610.2015.1083457?journalCode=rcar20#.VjjYd7erSUk

Ting Guo is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center on Religion and Chinese Society, Purdue University. She obtained her PhD from Religious Studies, University of Edinburgh. Prior to joining Purdue, she worked for the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. She is interested in critical theories of religion, religion and culture (food, cinema and art), and the broad constitution of religion and identity in social changes and political movements.  She is currently working on a co-authored book on global immigration, nostalgia and food to be published in Taiwan in 2016, refining her PhD thesis into a monograph on the meaning of being human in the Digital Age, and a new project on left-wing Christians in Republican Shanghai. As an active academic and writer, she contributes for BBC Chinese, OpenDemocracy, Los Angeles Review of Books and other media platforms. She can be reached at @tingguowrites and http://ting902.com.

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What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?: Sarah F. Haynes

Nuns and PhonesIn this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here, here, and here.

by Sarah F. Haynes

My most popular upper-division course is titled: Buddhism. Yes, it is that broad. At a regional mid-western school like Western Illinois University many junior-level courses are broadly cast as a means of drawing in those from other programs. This is particularly important at WIU where the major in Religious Studies was dismantled last year. In light of this restructuring, the task of retooling my upper-division courses has been more extensive than in previous years.

The course description reads:

This course introduces students to Buddhism; its textual traditions and practices in its different manifestations throughout Asia and the West. We examine the historical development and philosophical traditions of Buddhism and consider how they have been shaped by and helped shape different cultures, communities, and worldviews. In addition, we pay particular attention to the lived experiences of Buddhist lay and monastic communities. Students will engage in critical reflection on Buddhist teachings and practices through primary source material, visual images, and various other media.

The broad nature of Buddhism and its relatively low enrollment (in recent years under twenty students each semester) affords me the opportunity to tailor the course based on student interest and current events. Come August when registration stabilizes I am able to look at the roster, students’ majors/minors, to consider last minute reading and assignment changes.

Since ordering books occurs so much earlier than the course starts, the “traditional” textbook that I continue to return to is Introducing Buddhism by Charles Prebish and Damien Keown. What I rather like about Introducing Buddhism (and the whole Routledge Introducing series) is the attention paid to modern manifestations of Buddhism and themes relevant to Buddhism in the 21st century. It helps that students have responded favorably to the textbook, its study tools, and other useful resources.

Each week students are required to read two or three chapters of Introducing Buddhism, along with primary source material. Here I turn to the Internet as a means of lowering students’ book costs. Students are directed to one or two sutras that elucidate material discussed in the textbook. The first half of the semester follows this format.

To ensure students are doing the weekly readings, they are required to submit, typically before class, a two-page typed reading response that critically engages with an aspect of that week’s readings. Additionally, students are required to come to class with at least two questions that foster class discussion. If it becomes apparent during class that students are struggling with the material, I allow them to revise their reading response and resubmit it a couple hours after class.

The second half of the semester is the part of the course that I tinker with the most, and it often focuses on a few broad topics that are then informed from the various Buddhist traditions. Past topics have been: gender, politics, modernity, socially-engaged Buddhism, and pop culture. However, as a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, I rarely have the opportunity to teach it at WIU. So I often pepper the last half of the course with Tibetan Buddhist material. For example, Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas by Kim Gutschow allows students to engage in a dialogue with concepts learned from the first half of the semester and what it means to be a Tibetan Buddhist nun in the 21st century.

The last couple of offerings of Buddhism have paid particular attention to Buddhist developments from the 19th-21st centuries. It is this material that students have responded most favorably. In discussing Buddhist modernity, I have turned to David McMahan’s two books, The Making of Buddhist Modernism and the more recent anthology Buddhism in the Modern World.

The course inevitably includes students drawn to it based on preconceived notions of Buddhism derived from popular culture. I have started to take advantage of this by including non-traditional assessment methods for end of the semester assignments. For example, when I taught the class in 2014, week after week I would listen to my Buddhism students talk passionately before each class about The Walking Dead. I jumped on the bandwagon so to speak, and we discussed the possibility of developing a final project around Buddhism and the zombie apocalypse. It was the most energized I had seen them all semester. We spent time as a group developing the zombie apocalypse scenario. Taking ideas from other pop culture representations, not simply copying The Walking Dead. After the scenario was set I had them write Buddhist responses to the zombie apocalypse.

This type of assignment is indicative of one of my goals for this course. I aim for my students to be able to apply theory, method, and concepts to the world beyond the classroom. For them, the zombie assignment seemed like a fun, easy project. However, they quickly realized a firm grasp of the concepts was needed to develop a “plausible” response. And while a zombie apocalypse is unlikely, I am content leaving my students with the ability to identify how and why Buddhism is manifested in and ever-changing around the world.

Sarah F. Haynes, PhD (University of Calgary) is associate professor in the Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Western Illinois University where she teaches courses related to Asian religious traditions. Her areas of research include Tibetan Buddhist ritual and Buddhism in North America.

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