Why study religion?


I have taught at the University of Texas at Austin, Bucknell University, and the University of Chicago. At Australian Catholic University I am currently co-supervising two PhD theses, and I am a dissertation committee member for a PhD thesis at Princeton Theological Seminary.

I believe the study of religion provides students with invaluable resources for later life, regardless of their future career. My undergraduate teaching aims to empower students to recognize the implicit influence of religion upon public life, to trace the breadth and complexity of religious traditions across times and places, and to draw upon religious thought in order to address the issues that matter to them.

My courses reflect my interest in contemporary theory and the history of Christian thought, with a particular focus on the way in which religious and political concepts influence each other. For instance:

 
 

The Politics of Hope

Hope is a key site of intersection between religion and politics: despite Karl Marx's complaint that religion pacifies the masses, modern revolutionaries have often drawn upon religious motifs. We will begin by examining political reflection upon the figure of the messiah, which leads from the Hebrew Scriptures through medieval Judaism to the secularized messianism of Immanuel Kant, Marx, and Jacques Derrida. Second, we will reflect upon important expressions of Christian reflection on the future, from the apocalyptic eschatology of Joachim of Fiore and the Apostle Paul to the ethic of hope described by Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth. Finally, in relation to these diverse sources, we will consider the meaning of hope and its effect on politics, and we will analyze the relation between religion and the politics of hope.

 

The Bible and Its Interpreters

For 2,000 years Western philosophy and literature have drawn upon biblical motifs in a dizzying range of contexts. We will begin by reading select texts from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as carefully as we can. We will then examine modern authors such as Spinoza and Benjamin Jowett who argue that the Bible should be read in light of its historical origins, and we will compare their approach to the emphasis of Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin upon the literal sense. Next we will turn to the symbolic interpretations that emerged from the early Christian confrontation with Judaism exemplified by Philo, Origen, and Paul of Tarsus. We will trace the development of this tradition in the monastic rumination on scripture described by Bernard of Clairvaux and practiced during daily prayer, and we will reflect upon the ways that the Bible has been refracted in a variety of contexts - aesthetic, practical, and political – by diverse readers, some of whom don’t identify as religious at all.

 

Introduction to Christianity

This course provides a broad introduction to Christian thought and practice by examining four sources of Christian reflection. Since Christianity centers upon the person of Jesus of Nazareth, it relies upon the texts about Jesus collected in Christian scripture. However, Christians have from the beginning disputed both what texts constitute Christian scripture and how those texts should be interpreted; they have thus claimed continuity with the past practice of Christian tradition in order to adjudicate such disputes. To understand scripture and tradition, reason is required, which some believe independently connects Christians to God (and to non-Christian thought). Because Christianity is a discipline of prayer and ethical practice as well as an intellectual exercise, the experience of Christian worship and of the wider world has played a decisive role in shaping Christian identity. Although these topics cluster according to time periods and traditions, the method of the course is thematic rather than linear, juxtaposing material from different times and places in order to clarify their diversity.

 

Spirituality and Power

It can be difficult for resistance to find a foothold at a time in which rebellion has become a way to sell cars and clothing; it is for this reason, some say, that spirituality is so important, for it inspires imagination of radically changed ways of being. This course begins with readings from Michel Foucault that characterize the dominant modern forms of power and describe their relation to a spirituality of self-care. Against this background, we compare the diverse ways in which thinkers from Martin Luther King to Latin American liberation theologians articulate a spirituality of resistance, and we analyze the relationship between spirituality and commodification in Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement. In conversation with philosophers, theologians, and political theorists, students will be invited to reflect upon the difference religion makes in each case, paying particular attention to the relation between the explicit aims of each work and its unstated rhetorical effects.