June 04 2023

Jessica L. Tinklenberg, Claremont Colleges

Empathy by John Edward Marin

In 2011, Sara Konrath and her colleagues published a study indicating that college students’ empathy skills seemed to be in steep decline.1 By reviewing the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) scores of college students between 1979 and 2009, researchers concluded that “Empathic Concern was most sharply dropping, followed by Perspective-Taking” and that much of the decline in these two subcategories of dispositional empathy had taken place in the previous decade.2 Konrath et al.’s meta-analysis launched a thousand Higher Ed think pieces and spawned a bevy of initiatives to introduce empathy into the college learning environment.

Bissera Pentcheva interviewed by Kristian Petersen

Bissera V. Pentcheva, winner of AAR's 2018 Award for Excellence in Historical Studies for her book Hagia Sophia: Sound, Space, and Spirit in Byzantium, talks about how digital technology, as applied to the ancient and medieval aural experience of the Hagia Sophia, makes it possible for historians to see, feel, and hear primary textual and liturgical sources in new ways.

Countering the narrative that Langston Hughes was uninterested in religion, scholar and author Wallace Best describes the poet as an "avid and eclectic churchgoer" who returned time and again to the question, construction, and meaning of salvation in American religious history.

Wallace Best's book Langston's Salvation: American Religion and the Bard of Harlem (NYU Press, 2017) won the 2018 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the Textual Studies category, presented by the American Academy of Religion. He is professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University.

by Deonnie Moodie, University of Oklahoma

Anne Monius, professor of South Asian religions at Harvard Divinity School, died on August 3, 2019. Anne was a member of the AAR for nearly thirty years where she served as editor of the Religion in Translation book series (2005–2014); associate editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (2006–2010); chair of the Jain Studies program unit (2009–2011); and presider, panelist, and respondent in dozens of Annual Meeting sessions throughout her distinguished career. Colleagues and friends will remember her work and contributions to the field during this year's AAR Annual Meeting in San Diego. The details for that session appear below this remembrance, written by one of Anne's students, Deonnie Moodie, who is now assistant professor of South Asian religions at the University of Oklahoma.

Anne’s wedding present to me was a wall hanging, a colorful tapestry featuring Ganesh, Lakshmi, and an array of beautiful pastoral images. Her card indicated that I was to hang it over my marital bed to ensure the birth of sons. After a lengthy bout of laughter with my partner about the very intimate nature of this gift from my PhD advisor—a woman widely admired and even feared for her intellectual prowess—I had two thoughts. The first was, “And she’s funny too!” and the second, “She can’t seriously want me to have a baby, right? Does she have any idea how long that would delay my dissertation?”

Nancy Levene, professor of religious studies at Yale University, joins Kristian Petersen in a conversation about her book, Powers of Distinction: On Religion and Modernity, which won AAR's 2018 Award for Excellence in Constructive-Reflective Studies.

Don't miss another AAR interview. Subscribe to the American Academy of Religion's audio feed in your favorite podcast app.

by Beatrice Gurwitz, National Humanities Alliance

A group of five humanities advocates talk together outside an office door at the Capitol

For three years in a row, the Trump administration has called for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and other humanities funding streams. In both 2017 and 2018, thanks to robust advocacy from the humanities community, the Republican-controlled Congress rejected the administration’s efforts and passed increases for the NEH and several other humanities programs. This year, we are seeing support on Capitol Hill for even greater increases for the NEH and other humanities programs. The possibility of these increases is partly a result of the Democratic takeover of the House, but that isn’t the whole story—a Democratic majority has not always meant proposed increases for the humanities. Support for the NEH has grown on both sides of the aisle, largely as a result of our collective efforts to showcase just how valuable the humanities are to communities around the country. 

by Mary L. Keller, University of Wyoming

Ocean, broken ice, and a sunset off the coast of Greenland

In a June 2016 op-ed for RSN, I wrote that as of 2019, when my duties as co-chair of the Feminist Theory and Religious Reflection Unit were over, I would no longer be attending the AAR in light of the unsustainable carbon budget of the travel and venues. Colleagues in the AAR and SBL wrote that my absence would be a loss to the community. Many wrote with suggestions for collective action, like implementing Mitchell Thomashow’s The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus at their respective schools.1 Catalyzed, we coordinated swift, and immediate strike actions at our colleges and universities. “You are not alone,” they wrote to me, and it was true.

photo of Luis Leon posing with student Elaine Penagos in December 2016

Luis León, scholar of American Latinx religions, passed away last year. Colleagues and friends have organized a panel session to honor León's contributions to the field during the 2019 AAR Annual Meeting in San Diego.

by Sarah Jacoby, Northwestern University

a small tower of rocks built on an enbankment in front of a forest

The 21st-century has seen a rapid expansion of interest in contemplative pedagogy across institutions of higher education, not to mention K-12 education. Even as contemplative pedagogy can be found everywhere from courses on law to language, it has a more complex relationship with religious studies. Although the fiction of pure objectivity has receded in intellectual inquiry more broadly, many religious studies departments defend themselves from critics on all sides by presenting themselves as engaged in the “scientific study of religion” (religionswissenschaft). Promoting contemplative practice in the classroom can risk crossing the line into proselytizing, as well as into the culturally imperialist decontextualization and appropriation of others’ traditions, leaving some religious studies scholars wary of first-person approaches to learning that are based on practices associated with particular religions.

by Scott C. Alexander, Catholic Theologican Union, editor

Prefatory miniature from a moralized Bible of "God as architect of the world", folio I verso, Paris ca. 1220–1230. Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum 1' 1½" × 8¼". Public Domain.

Although not trained as a “theologian,” for years I’ve written and taught about theology. I’ve done this primarily as a student of Islamic history and societies, and I have committed to communicating to my own students some of the intricate subtleties and deep wisdom of the medieval kalām tradition (dialectical or “scholastic” theology)—the intellectual stock-and-trade of such famous practitioners as al-Ghazali, Maimonides, and Aquinas.