2013-2014 Religion Courses
First-Year Studies: The Emergence of Christianity
There is, perhaps, no one who has not heard the name of a seemingly obscure carpenter’s son executed by the Romans around 33 CE. Why? The religion we call Christianity has shaped the Western world for at least 1,500 years. In this course, we will study the origins of this tradition. As we study the origins of this movement, we will also explore Judaism in the strange and fertile Second Temple period (515 BCE-70 CE). We will encounter the learned societies of holy men like the Pharisees and the Qumran sectarians, as well as the freedom fighters/terrorists called the Zealots. Our main source will be the New Testament of the Christian Bible, although this will be supplemented by other primary materials. Excerpts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic literature, and Hellenistic texts from this period provide the cultural backdrop in which Christianity has its roots. We will learn about the spread of the new movement of “Christians,” as it was called by its detractors in Antioch. How did this movement, which began among the Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean, come to be wholly associated with Gentiles by the end of the second century? Who became Christian? Why were they hated so much by the greater Greco-Roman society? What did they believe? How did they behave? What are the origins of “Christian anti-Semitism”? What kind of social world, with its senses of hierarchy and gender relations, did these people envision for themselves?
First-Year Studies: The Buddhist Philosophy of Emptiness
The concept of a “thing”—a distinct entity that exists in and of itself whether or not human beings attach a name to it—is nothing but a useful fiction. In the final analysis, there are no such things as “things.” This, in a nutshell, is the startling proposition advanced by the Buddhist doctrine of sunyata or “emptiness,” as the Sanskrit term is usually translated. Often misconstrued by critics as a form of nihilism (“nothing exists”), idealism (“it is all in the mind”), or skepticism (“we cannot know anything with certainty”), the emptiness doctrine is better interpreted as a radical critique of the fundamental conceptual categories that we habitually use to talk about and make sense of the world. This course has several specific aims. The first is to impart a clear, accurate understanding of the emptiness doctrine, as it developed in the context of Buddhist intellectual history and found expression in various genres of classical Buddhist literature. The second is to engage in serious criticism and debate concerning the “truth” of the doctrine: Is it merely an article of Buddhist faith, or does it also stand up to the standards of logical consistency and empirical verification that have been established in Western traditions of philosophy and science? The third aim of the course is to explore ways in which the emptiness doctrine, if taken seriously as a critique of the mechanisms and inherent limitations of human knowledge, might impact a variety of contemporary academic disciplines. More generally, the course is designed to help first-year students gain the kind of advanced analytical, research, and writing skills that will serve them well in whatever areas of academic study they may pursue in the future. Both in class and in conference work, students will be encouraged to apply the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness in creative ways to whatever fields in the humanities, social sciences, or sciences that interest them.
Japanese Buddhist Art and Literature
The religion of Buddhism, first imported from Korea and China in the sixth century CE, has had a huge impact on every aspect of Japanese culture from ancient times to the present. The sponsorship of monks and monasteries belonging to different schools of Buddhism has been a major factor throughout the history of Japan in struggles for political and economic power, resulting in an outpouring of related art and architecture. In the eighth century, the Emperor Shomu constructed a massive bronze buddha image in the capital city of Nara in an attempt to consolidate the fledgling imperial system (modeled on that of China) by mobilizing his followers in an awesome display of wealth and power. Throughout the Heian period (794-1185), courtiers and landowning aristocrats patronized the Tendai and Shingon schools of Buddhism with their elaborate Tantric rites for worldly benefits, and Buddhist ideas informed the poetry writing that was a favorite pastime of the elites. The Kamakura period (1185-1333) was ushered in by samurai warlords, who seized power and sponsored an entirely new style of monastic institution imported from China, under the name of “Zen,” to legitimize their rule and foster an elite artistic culture based on that of the Confucian literati. Around the same time, Buddhism filtered down to the common people who, by faith in the saving power of Amida Buddha, were assured of rebirth in his Pure Land (paradise). That faith, spread via paintings and folktales, led to peasant revolts and helped to produce yet another wave of temple building on a grand scale. During the Edo period (1603-1868), every family in Japan was required to patronize a Buddhist temple and its mortuary rites, and the religion reached its apogee of cultural influence. The Meiji period (1868-1912) saw a severe persecution of Buddhism, as Japan rushed to modernize on the Western model; but it bounced back in a number of new cultural formulations (e.g., as Japan’s only native tradition of “fine art”) and has survived to the present. In the modern period, Japanese novels, films, and animated cartoons have continued to be informed by Buddhist themes. This course focuses on the Buddhist art and architecture of Japan and on various genres of Japanese literature that have promoted or been influenced by Buddhist beliefs and practices. Subjects covered include: paintings and sculptures of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and monks; styles of monastery architecture produced in different historical periods; ink painting and calligraphy; tea ceremony; landscape gardens; Noh theatre; martial arts; classical poetry; folklore and popular narratives; sutra literature; and doctrinal treatises produced by the monk founders of various schools of Buddhism. No prior knowledge of Japanese is required; all readings are in English or English translations of primary texts. The course is designed, however, to accommodate students with established interests in things Japanese, including those who wish to continue their Japanese language study at an advanced (fourth year or higher) level. Such language study will be organized on an individual basis in the context of conference work.
Islam in Europe and the United States
In this course, we will study Muslims who have lived and are living in the West, as well as non-Muslim Western representations of Islam. While Islam is often viewed as a foreign and even alien religion to Europe and the United States, its presence in the West has been substantial ever since the Muslim conquest of Spain in the eighth century. We will begin by examining the cultural interactions that occurred in Spain during the nearly 800 years of Muslim rule, exploring such areas as literature, philosophy, architecture, and political theories on religious diversity. Looking at Islam in the imagination of Europeans, we will read about medieval depictions of the prophet Muhammad as the demonic figure Mahound and the sexual and mystical exoticism located in the translations of the Arabian Nights and Persian Sufi poetry that began in the 18th century. Moving across the Atlantic, we will study the complex and distinctive history of African American Islam, from the first Muslim slaves brought to America in the 16th century to the establishment of the Nation of Islam and contemporary African American Muslims. Other Muslims in America and in Europe today are primarily immigrants or the descendents of immigrants from the Middle East and Asia. Through the essays, literature, art, and music of these Muslim communities, we will examine the challenges arising from European and American multiculturalism and the post-9/11 political environment. These self-representations will be compared with representations of Islam and Muslims in the news media, books, and films. Issues such as the prohibition on veiling in French schools will be used to discuss minority beliefs and practices and assimilation into Western secular societies.
Readings in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis
The Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible has remained as the mythological foundation of Western culture. Genesis has informed Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theology. If that weren’t enough, Genesis contains a great and memorable cycle of stories from Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, just to name a few. These stories permeate our literature, our art, indeed our sense of identity. The narrative itself is the beginning of a greater epic of liberation, including the rest of “the five books of Moses.” What is this book? How was it written? Who wrote it, and for whom? Who preserved it? How do we read it so that its ancient perspective, its social and historical context, is not lost? In order to recover this ancient context, we will also read contemporary writings such as The Babylonian Creation story, as well as the Epic of Gilgamesh. This course may be taken in conjunction with The Wisdom Tradition (spring) as a yearlong seminar.
Modern Jewish Thought
In this course, we will examine some of the major statements in Jewish thought from the 19th century into the 21st. What happens to Judaism in modernity? What is Jewishness? What have Jews thought about themselves, their past, and their place in the world? Class exploration will revolve around a varied sampling of texts from a wide variety of positions and movements: rationalist, mystical, secularist, conservative, postmodern. Our readings will bring us to the borders of classical text and modern interpretation; religion, philosophy and politics; belonging and resisting. Though no knowledge of Hebrew is required, some familiarity with Judaism and Jewish history will obviously enhance participation in the course.
Readings in the Hebrew Bible: The Wisdom Tradition
The question of theodicy is most acute in times of social and political crisis. Theodicy refers to the problem of evil in the context of a religion at whose foundation is a monotheistic belief in God. In the Bible, the Book of Deuteronomy promises Israel that adherence to the Torah will lead to a good life. This belief system was severely challenged by the loss of Israel in the Babylonian invasion of 587BCE. The destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile of the Israelites engendered a rich and complex body of literature. Jewish scribes wrote books of wisdom intended to guide Israel into the uncharted waters that their God had presumably taken them. To this end, we will read books like Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Ben-Sira with a view to understanding how these works addressed theological issues of their day. This course may be taken in conjunction with Readings in Genesis (fall) as a yearlong seminar.
Religion, Ethics, and Conflict
Religion’s role in starting, perpetuating, or accelerating conflict in the world has been the focus of a large number of academic and policy-driven analyses in recent decades. Much less broadly publicized, but just as extensively studied, has been its role in conflict resolution, social activism, and faith-based initiatives in domestic and foreign policies. The different roles that religion plays in contemporary public life sometimes support and sometimes challenge secular liberal notions such as the separation of church and state, universal human rights, and humanitarian actions and interventions. In this course, we will explore religious and secular justifications for the use of force and violence, definitions of individual and communal rights and responsibilities, universalist versus communitarian theologies and ideologies, and the development of contemporary political theologies. We will also look at how religion is talked about by public intellectuals, with someone like the late Christopher Hitchens arguing that “Religion poisons everything” and others speaking of “militant atheism” and “aggressive secularism.” We’ll examine the religious content in recent statements and speeches by world leaders. Readings will include discussions of “postsecularism” and critiques of “religious illiteracy” in education, journalism, the military, and foreign policy.
The Holocaust raises fundamental questions about the nature of our civilization. How was it that a policy of genocide could be initiated and carried out in one of the most advanced and sophisticated countries of Europe? To what extent did residents of the countries in which mass murder occurred, especially in Eastern Europe, facilitate or obstruct this ghastly project? And finally, what were the various reactions of the various victims of this lethal assault by one of the great powers of Europe? In this course, we will attempt to explain how these events unfolded, beginning with the evolution of anti-Semitic ideology and violence. At the same time, we will attempt to go beyond the “mind of the Nazi” and confront the perspectives of victims and bystanders. How victims chose to live out their last years and respond to the impending catastrophe (through diary writing, poetry, mysticism, violence, hiding, etc.) is reflected in memoirs, literature, and sermons. The crucial but neglected phenomenon of bystanders—non-Jews who stood by while their neighbors were methodically annihilated—has been the subject of several important recent studies. We shall inevitably be compelled to make moral judgments, but these will be of value only if they are informed by a fuller understanding of the perspectives of various actors in this dark chapter of European history.