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From the Chair

How Do We Undertake the Academic Study of Religion?


Photo of Tony K. StewartThe faculty in the Department of Religious Studies begin with the assumption that from an academic perspective, religion must be approached as a fundamentally human experience.  This perspective places the study of religion squarely in the heart of the concerns of the Arts & Science.  The study of each religious tradition begins descriptively.  How people are religious, what they do in their ritual practices, how they express their commitments literally and symbolically, how they construct their cosmologies and perspectives on the world—all of these serve as the objects of study.  Religious experience and the resulting phenomena of religion cannot be fully understood if reduced to the perspective of a single discipline, such as history, theology, literature, art, and so forth.  As a result, the academic study of religion is one of the few areas of intellectual inquiry in the Arts & Science that must be multidisciplinary at its base, while leading to a true interdisciplinary integration at the advanced level. 

To this end, not only do our faculty deploy multidisciplinary approaches in their individual classes, but the Department of Religious Studies strengthens its course offerings by regularly relying on the rich resources of other departments and programs in the College of Arts & Science, such as History, Anthropology, Jewish Studies, Asian Studies, and occasional offerings from other departments, such as Art History, Philosophy, or Sociology.  By special arrangement, the Department of Religious Studies likewise provides special training for Divinity students in professional degree programs, while select Divinity faculty provide much-needed resources for the undergraduate study of Christianity and Judaism.  Given this plethora of resources, students in the Major in Religious Studies will be well-prepared to undertake the rigors of the Senior Seminar, which seeks to blend select disciplined approaches into a truly interdisciplinary understanding.  In other words, the discrete approaches of basic work are synthesized into a higher level, more complex understanding that not only conveys knowledge, but generates insights that create new knowledge of the basic human issues with which all religions are concerned.

Students who elect this course of study for the undergraduate degree, either as Major or Minor, will develop a highly portable, analytical skill set that will prepare them for any vocation, whether further study on the graduate level or a move into the professions, such as medicine, law, diplomacy, or business.  Majors will take away the ability to reason intelligently about one of the most difficult and sensitive topics to be found in any society.  They will be able to articulate both orally and in writing the complexity of higher level abstractions such topics require. That training will prepare students to become truly responsible global citizens.  It was the faculty’s commitment to this vision of religious studies as a core humanistic education that persuaded me to uproot after twenty-five years in North Carolina and accept the position of leadership in the Department of Religious Studies.  And now we are moving to build actively on that promise.

Tony K. Stewart, Chair
Department of Religious Studies
Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in Humanities