November 18 2017

Sarah Jacoby, Northwestern University

A protest sign reads "Bring Back Facts! Make America THINK again!"

The impact of the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump as 45th President of the United States reverberated across campuses all over the country, affecting students and their professors in religious studies classrooms in myriad ways. In the immediate aftermath of the election, teachers faced emotionally charged classrooms, replete with students who were weeping and despondent, terrified and stunned, elated and vindicated, and the full-range between. Walking into the classroom bleary-eyed the morning after the election raised immediate pedagogical questions for those of us standing in front of students in the throes of processing the results. Should we initiate a discussion about students’ reactions or avoid addressing it head-on given the emotional intensity of the moment? Should we stick tightly to the scheduled topic of the day, or veer off the syllabus to consider what was, to many, a shocking election outcome? Should we maintain a neutral stance in the classroom, giving all students’ voices a chance to be heard while maintaining our own objectivity? Or was that even possible, let alone morally conscionable, in the face of rhetoric (not to mention the specter of impending legislation) that left some students and their families endangered?

Interview with Kristian Petersen

Bhrigupati Singh, assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University, speaks about how his examination of the Sahariyas, a tribe living in extreme poverty in Northwest India, stretches and blurs the boundaries of religion and secularity in studying how the tribespeople reflect on questions of ethics, happiness, and quality of life. His work encourages scholars of religion—particularly those engaging with nonwestern traditions—to develop a comparative vocabulary that goes beyond Eurocentrism and Postcolonialism alike.

Singh is the author of Poverty and the Quest for Life: Spiritual and Material Striving in Rural India (University of Chicago Press, 2016), which won the AAR's 2016 Book Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of analytical-descriptive studies.

by Morgan Shipley, Michigan State University

Shot from behind him, Trump walking out from the capitol building to being inaugurated as president on Jan 20, 2017.

Drawing from Max Weber’s distinction in The Sociology of Religion between the prophet and the priest, this short article explores how Trump’s application of American civil religion (a public faith that inculcates political values) operates to routinize a discourse and politics governed by intolerance. Addressing a dire need to resuscitate what he views as a decrepit American project resulting from decades of progressive agendas, Trump assumes a dual position as savior of a sullied America (exemplified in his emphasis on building a barrier—physical and rhetorical—to protect American interests, and repeated promises to return jobs to America) and enforcer of traditional values (demonstrated in his defense budget or “America First” maxim).

Yet the shift from Trump’s candidacy, where he functioned as the charismatic prophet, to his presidency, where he assumes the position of status quo priest, illustrates the incongruity of these dual roles, highlighting the ability for Trump to offer an outsider’s vision to save the American project while failing to account for the structural and routine constraints that temper such an agenda (the courts, Congress, media, and citizen protests have all hampered Trump’s agenda). Such incongruity not only helps explain the challenges Trump and America faces, but also more significantly, unveils how Trump, in the name of his prophetic vision, subverts traditional ideals when it comes to American civil religion and the place of pluralism. In other words, Trump’s shift from candidate to president allows us to trace the means by which prophetic promises, in order to find priestly delivery, often necessitate a return the status quo modeled through marginalization. Trump’s role as prophet thus reintroduces—in order to legitimate—a historic trend within America that predicates the inclusivity of civil religion through practices of exclusion.1 That is, in turning to the sacred symbols of the United States, Trump returns to an exceptionalist construction of civil religion: a project established through God’s will, expressed through division, and delineated by a characteristic American identity—white and Christian.

by Antonio Eduardo Alonso, Emory University

Illuminated manuscript page, Mary Magdalene announcing the Resurrection to the Apostles, St. Albans Psalter, 12th century

The articles that form this issue of Spotlight on Theological Education emerged out of the work of Theological Education Between the Times, a project funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment to the Candler School of Theology. This project seeks to renew and resource conversations on the purposes of theological education in a season of profound change. The empirical origins of this project are the kinds of dramatic shifts that most of us committed to the work of theological education can easily narrate even as the degree to which each of us feels those shifts on a day-to-day basis varies widely with our institutional contexts. The changes are substantial.

by Anonymous

Interior of Budapest train station

A new chapter of my life started a few weeks ago with sudden changes—loss of an important romantic relationship and the death of a beloved friend. It was indeed quite a lot to digest all at the same time. I’m still digesting with much less indigestion than before, but nevertheless chewing at the changes.

I’ve travelled… a lot. I just turned fifty this year, and during this glorious lifetime I’ve had the good fortune to visit over 60 countries on all the continents (except for the polar ones). I’ve spent the past couple of years trying to settle down in one spot. And I’ve made some decisions about where to stay and work that didn't go so well. So I moved some more. In fact, since the 2000, I’ve moved fifteen times between seven countries.

Interview by Kristian Petersen

In the Zoroastrian Empire of Iran during late antiquity, what were the limits of Christian identity? Richard E. Payne, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Ancient Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago, explains how Christians were able to navigate the Iranian political world and how their identity as Christians did not necessarily preclude political participation in a thoroughly Zoroastrian empire.

Payne is the author of "A State of Mixture: Christians, Zoroastrians, and Iranian Political Culture in Late Antiquity" (University of California Press, 2015), which won the AAR's 2016 Book Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of historical studies.

 

Francis J. Beckwith with Kristian Petersen

Francis J. Beckwith, professor of philosophy & church-state studies at Baylor University, discusses how we form complex beliefs and if the difference between the process of developing so-called religious beliefs and secular beliefs might be smaller than we think.

Beckwith is the author of "Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith" (Cambridge University Press, 2015). The book won the American Academy of Religion's 2016 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of constructive-reflective studies.

Interview with Edward Slingerland, Project Director, Database of Religious History

screen shot from an entry in the Database of Religious History

The University of British Columbia, since 2016, has been working on the creation of the Database of Religious History, a crowd-sourced, interactive, dynamic, and searchable encyclopedia. The digital humanities project is premised on the Big Data approach—a comparative methodology popular among historians, linguists, and anthropologists, but as of yet, less prevalent with scholars of religion.

DRH director, Edward Slingerland, talks to RSN about the project’s theoretical groundings, obstacles to success, and the promise of data collection and the comparative approach to discovering some of the biggest questions in the development of religious practice across history and geography.

by Tuve Floden

Assessing the temporary school structure constructed by USAID

A degree in religion opens many opportunities for jobs outside or parallel to academia, especially in a field like national and international development. While searching for such jobs—let alone securing one—can seem a daunting process, I come bearing good news: a student of religion is a great fit for the development field. These employers value the fact that religious studies is multidisciplinary—incorporating fields like history, literature, political science, and anthropology. Graduates have a solid understanding of the pluralistic and multicultural world we live in, not to mention the diverse groups present within our nation itself. Religious studies also teaches strong critical thinking, reading, and writing skills—essential tools for managing programs, writing grant proposals, and working with a wide range of clients.

by Arvind Sharma, McGill University

Huston Smith

In my most recent conversations with Huston Smith, he had expressed a wish to see for himself what lies beyond the veil. His wish was fulfilled on December 30, 2016. May he rest in the Real, "should there be one," as he might have added cautiously.

Huston Smith was born to Methodist missionary parents in China, where he spent the first seventeen years of his life which are nostalgically recalled in his autobiography (Tales of Wonder, 2010). He set out to be one himself but soon discovered that he would rather teach than preach and found himself at the University of Chicago, where he obtained his PhD in 1945. He then taught at the University of Denver and Washington University at St. Louis before being hired by M.I.T. in 1958 to teach philosophy. Subsequently he went on to teach at Syracuse, and then at Berkeley after he had retired in San Francisco, rich in years and honors.

Huston Smith enters the Hall of Fame of the scholars of religion holding a book, which originally bore the title: The Religions of Man (1958) and subsequently The World’s Religions (1991), after it had been revised. Together these two versions have sold over three million copies. Wilfred Cantwell Smith said of this book that it made the (academic) study of religion possible. This is not an exaggeration, and I have used it throughout my professional life to introduce students, at all levels, to the world’s religions. 

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