August 08 2022

A Conversation with AAR President, Thomas A. Tweed

photo of Thomas A. Tweed

Thomas A. Tweed is the 2015 president of the American Academy of Religion and a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame where he also holds the Harold and Martha Welch Endowed Chair in American Studies. Tweed’s historical, ethnographic, and theoretical research has been supported by grants and fellowships, including three from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and his diverse professional service includes work as external reviewer, expert witness, blog contributor, and media consultant. He edited Retelling U.S. Religious History (University of California Press, 1997) and coedited Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History (with Stephen Prothero, Oxford University Press, 1998). He is the author of The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844–1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent (Indiana University Press, 1992) and Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (Harvard University Press, 2006). His books America’s Church: The National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami (Oxford University Press, 1997) both won AAR Awards for Excellence.

RSN: At what point did you decide you wanted to become a scholar of religion?

TT: I began my first semester as a pre-med student in cell biology thinking about how the smallest organic units worked. Gradually my questions changed—and expanded—until I was asking: Why is there something instead of nothing? How do we explain moral evil? How should I act? The moral questions prompted me to conclude I should do something that reduced suffering, so after a summer internship as a social worker I decided that was how I’d spend my life. I’d take on those big questions in my free time and save the world nine-to-five. Well, it’s obvious both from the state of the world and my current profession I didn’t follow that plan. I got hooked on the big questions, which I pursued first at Harvard Divinity School and then by teaching world religions and ethics to high school students. I again thought I’d found my calling.

I was happy teaching—and coaching basketball—but another summer experience prompted another turn. I was studying Buddhism with Professor Robert Thurman, and he arranged a guest lecture by a Japanese-American Buddhist scholar who told a story that set me on my career path and has haunted me ever since. While his parents were interned at Manzanar and he was in Japan studying during World War II, the nineteen-year-old was riding on a train. In the distance, suddenly he and his fellow passengers eyed a mushroom cloud on the horizon, the billowing traces of the atomic bomb. That scholar recalled hearing a Christian missionary say that the bomb was God’s just condemnation of the “heathen.” I was stunned by that heartbreaking story, my eyes filling with tears. That was the moment I decided to go on for a PhD in religion. I wasn’t exactly sure what I could do, but I felt called to change things. No more arrogance. No more bombs.

RSN: So was that what compelled you to choose your areas of research and ethnography?

TT: Right. Even though that moral impulse is not obvious in all my research, that’s what drove me at first and was never too far from the surface later. I started by thinking about the long history of Christian contacts with non-Christians. That meant knowing more about other traditions—I focused first on East Asian Buddhism—and tracing the history of Western thinking about religious diversity. My first book dealt with US representations of Buddhism in the nineteenth century, and I later did more work on Asian religions in the United States, including collections of primary sources and articles on Buddhism in the Pacific World.

I continued my historical and ethnographic work on Christianity too, including two books about Roman Catholicism—Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami and America’s Church: The National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital. Yet I couldn’t shake the larger questions, including questions of method and theory in the study of religion. Convinced that the usual theories of religion didn’t illumine all practices and peoples—including women and migrants—I extended my work on Latino migrants to propose a theory of religion, Crossing and Dwelling, that I hoped might yield more inclusive accounts. That motive also nudged me to challenge the standard stories about US religion, as in my edited volume Retelling U.S. Religious History and my current research, which seeks to more fairly represent the distant and recent religious past by including peoples, places, and practices that have been obscured in the dominant stories.

RSN: Can you tell us about your current academic life at Notre Dame?

TT: Sure. The good news is that I get to write and teach about all that at Notre Dame. I have a joint appointment in American studies and history, and that allows me to continue to think about historical narratives of the United States as I try to reconstruct the religious past. At the same time, I’ve been grateful for cross-disciplinary conversations about religion’s deep history and global flows. The Colloquium on Religious History provides a forum for exchange, and I talk regularly with colleagues in other academic units, including several institutes and centers. As a faculty fellow in the Institute for Latino Studies I continue to pursue that trajectory in my work, while my affiliation with the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies allows me to circle back to the moral concerns that prompted my professional journey.

RSN: What is your greatest joy in teaching?

TT: That’s difficult to say since I’ve had so many joys teaching undergraduate and graduate students at several good universities for more than a quarter century. It’s satisfying when students do well. I remember undergraduates I recommended getting admitted to professional schools or volunteer service programs, or landing jobs they wanted. I remember the shared elation when graduate students got their first tenure-track position or published their first book.

Other joys stay with me, small moments before, during, or after class. This might sound a bit over the top, but I’ve always thought that the greatest joy comes when the classroom door closes. That’s life at its most intellectually charged and morally urgent. Anything can happen. All ideas are on the table. Any of us could say or do something that might change a life. And I remember lots of those joyfully transformative moments. I remember a moment, just after we’d noted that historian Perry Miller had been told there was no future in thinking about Puritans or doing intellectual history—of course, that was wrong!—when the Carolina and Duke students in that graduate seminar began excitedly brainstorming about which unexpectedly generative idea of theirs might change the field in the years ahead. There was more chatter than usual as those students left. I recall the same sort chatter after an undergraduate class. The students in that first year seminar had just decided that the class needed external funding to complete our proposed collaborative project on Buddhist temples, and they went off together, in groups of two and three, starting to formulate a plan. They went on to write a successful grant application to the state’s humanities council a few weeks later.

I remember a more private moment after a final exam at the University of Texas. To try to help poor students feel comfortable and procure books, I announced—as I did in most undergraduate courses—that my family’s income was below the federal poverty line when I went to college and that I’d find them copies if they couldn’t afford them. Anyway, at the final exam that semester three students, each carrying a stack of books, surprised me. They handed me their expensive textbooks, instructing me to loan them out next semester to students who couldn’t buy them. Then there was a touching moment during an undergraduate class at Notre Dame. The students sitting around the seminar table seemed especially engaged that day as they passionately discussed historical sources about social injustice—I think it was about poverty—and I turned to them and said, oddly and theatrically, “Why don’t we save the world. You wanna?” I’m not sure if it was the power of those marginalized voices we’d been reading, or Notre Dame’s students’ robust tradition of volunteering about social justice issues, but they all looked up at me earnestly and casually, nodding as if to say “Sure. When should we start? I’m free after my last class on Thursday.

RSN: What are your goals as the Academy’s president in 2015?

TT: Well, you won’t be surprised to learn that during my presidential year I hope we might focus on a related theme: “Valuing the Study of Religion.” That theme includes two concerns. First, looking out beyond the campus gates, I hope we can consider how religion and the study of religion is valued—and devalued—in public spaces, including but not only in legislatures, schools, prisons, courtrooms, hospitals, airports, news media, the state department, the military, the arts, and popular culture. Second, looking at our own practices, I hope we can think more about how we enact epistemic, moral, and aesthetic values in our research, teaching, and public outreach. I began my term as president by rereading all the AAR’s official policies and resolutions to identify our stated organizational values, and then I asked the staff in Atlanta, members of AAR working groups, and my colleagues on the board to think about what we value and how well we’re enacting those expressed values in our organization’s work. My presidential address also will deal with that theme and so will several presidential plenary sessions. We’re still refining the plans for one session, which will deal with religion in the public arena, but two others are set. “Normativity and the Academic Study of Religion” aims to reframe the crucial but stale conversation about the relation between theology and religious studies by trying to clarify what we share and what we don’t. “The Moral Challenges of Research,” another session, will bring together diverse scholars who use different methods and sources. We will ask panelists to discuss the most challenging moral dilemma they’ve faced in conducting or presenting their research—and ask them to tell us how effectively our newly drafted AAR statement on responsible research practices deals with that particular challenge. By the early fall, the group I’m cofacilitating will have a draft of that statement, and we’ll try to provoke a wider conversation in the months ahead as we invite AAR members to raise questions and give advice.

Image of Tom Tweed from the University of Notre Dame's YouTube channel video, "The History of Religion in America - Tom Tweed, Professor of American Studies and History."