Reed College Catalog

Kenneth E. Brashier

Chinese religions.

Michael E. Foat

Christianity.

Kambiz GhaneaBassiri

Islam.

Kristin Scheible

Buddhism, Hinduism.

Steven M. Wasserstrom

Judaism. On sabbatical 2015–16.

The academic study of religion is an integral part of the liberal arts. The aims of the curriculum are two: to introduce students to the various religious traditions of the world—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, for example—and to acquaint students with a variety of recognized methodologies employed in the study of religion—philosophical, social scientific, and historical. The department’s courses serve both to develop in students the capacity for critical assessment of religious thought and action, and to provide an adequate grounding for independent, analytic inquiry into the history of religious traditions.

The curriculum of the department reflects the staff’s commitment to a diversity of approaches in religious studies. Majors in religion are expected to be familiar with this methodological and theoretical spectrum, and to concentrate upon particular approaches in their research.

While the study of religion is an independent academic field, the department encourages the pursuit of interdisciplinary work in philosophy, classics, literature, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and other fields.


Requirements for the Major

  1. Two 100-level introductions in different religions.
  2. Religion 201 (theories and methods).
  3. At least four additional units in at least two different religions, three of which must be at the 300 level or above.
  4. Religion 402 (junior seminar).
  5. Religion 470 (senior thesis and religion symposium).
  6. Completion of two units in a foreign language of at least the second-year level or demonstration, by means acceptable to the department, of equivalent proficiency. To satisfy this requirement a student must do one of the following: pass a second-year language course at Reed, pass a second-year language course that has been approved by the department at another accredited college or university, or pass a language placement examination at the second-year or higher level. A number of placement examinations are offered at Reed every year during orientation. Students desiring to meet the language requirement by any means other than second-year coursework at Reed should consult with their adviser in advance. The department recommends students study the sacred language of a religion in which they are especially interested.

Recommended but not required: Humanities 210, 220, or 230.

For students wishing to pursue the standing ClassicsReligion interdisciplinary major, please refer to the requirements in the interdisciplinary section.

Some students may wish to pursue an ad hoc program that is not listed with the regular interdisciplinary majors. Students should inquire with faculty advisers and departments regarding an ad hoc program. 

Requirements for an Ad Hoc Interdisciplinary Major

  1. Two 100-level introductions in different religions.
  2. Religion 201 (theories and methods).
  3. Three other units in religion.
  4. Course requirements as specified by the related discipline.
  5. Completion of two units in a foreign language of at least the second-year level or demonstration, by means acceptable to the department, of equivalent proficiency. To satisfy this requirement a student must do one of the following: pass a second-year language course at Reed, pass a second-year language course that has been approved by the department at another accredited college or university, or pass a language placement examination at the second-year or higher level. A number of placement examinations are offered at Reed every year during orientation. Students desiring to meet the language requirement by any means other than second-year coursework at Reed should consult with their adviser in advance.
  6. Religion 402 (junior seminar).
  7. Religion 470 (senior thesis and religion symposium).

Religion 105 - Understanding Religion

Full course for one semester.  This course provides students with an opportunity to consider religion from a variety of perspectives employed in the contemporary study of religion. Evidence for religion and religions will be examined from multiple traditions, geographical locations, and historical periods, but the course is not intended to be a survey of “world religions” or a historical overview of classic books in the academic study of religion. Instead, exemplary humanistic and social scientific approaches to the study of religion will provide a basis for empathetically exploring religious self-understandings while critically examining them within larger social, political, cultural, and epistemological contexts. Conference.

Not offered 2015-16.

Religion 115 - Religion and Philosophy in Preimperial China

Full course for one semester. This course is a study of religion and philosophy in preimperial China (i.e., before 221 BCE) alongside their literary and artistic manifestations. While a billion people can today claim an intellectual inheritance from Greece, more than two billion recognize ancient China as their foundation. Beginning with the oracle bones and sacrificial bronze vessels, the course will progress to the Confucian classics and the blossoming of Chinese philosophy. Analyses will include bronze-age material culture (including the new discoveries of Sanxingdui), The book of songs from the Confucian tradition, The Zhuangzi from the Daoist tradition, and the preimperial narrative histories of the Zuo commentary. Conference.

Religion 116 - Religion and Philosophy in Early Imperial China

Full course for one semester. Once China unified and became a self-aware entity in terms of history and territory, its philosophies and religions likewise crystallized into recognized schools and distinct churches. Its philosophers endeavored to uncover cosmic patterns, define existence, and map out the ethical life. Its religious specialists imposed structure on the ancestors, streamlined the state cult, and set standards for achieving salvation. This survey of imperial history’s first 600 years will examine state religion, the foundations of the Daoist church, and Buddhism’s entry from India. Devoted to primary texts in translation, it will explore Daoist theoretical musings (including the Liezi and three commentaries to the Daode jing), Confucian ceremonial guidelines (including the Ritual Records), and Buddhist texts (including the Diamond and Vimalakirti sutras). It will also study how particular individuals reacted to this environment, including Emperor Wang Mang, who transformed his capital into a cosmic fulcrum, and the cynic Wang Chong, who dismissed religions that anthropomorphized the cosmos. This course will also draw upon contemporaneous literary, poetic, and material cultures (including the Portland Art Museum collections). Conference.

Religion 123 - Islam in the Modern World

Full course for one semester. This course introduces students to how Muslim institutions and conceptions of authority changed in the modern era in relation to such historical developments as industrialization, scientific progress, European colonialism, the rise of nation-states, and feminism. Readings include literary works and autobiographies of Muslims from different cultural backgrounds as well as ethnographies and historical studies of social groups and institutions. Conference.

Religion 131 - Introduction to Hinduism

Full course for one semester. This conference will explore the foundations and developments of the South Asian religion called Hinduism. Our sources draw from the vast corpus of mythic and epic literature: cosmogonic Vedas, philosophically speculative Upanishads, duty-focused (dharma) epics, and later devotional (bhakti) poetry. Through primary sources as well as ethnographic accounts of diverse lived traditions we will familiarize ourselves with several gods, goddesses, heroes, ideas, and practices that persist throughout South Asian history. Conference.

Religion 132 - Introduction to South Asian Buddhism

Full course for one semester. This course is designed to explore the foundational “three jewels” of Buddhism: the Buddha, the dharma (the teaching), and the samgha (the Buddhist community). This survey of Buddhist thought and practice in its Indic context will introduce various philosophical and practical currents that have made an indelible mark on the variety of Buddhisms historically practiced throughout the world. The emic “three jewels” framework will organize our inquiry: special attention will be given to 1) the centrality of the Buddha biography; 2) the canonical teachings, speculative abhidharma literature, philosophical systems of the Mahāyāna, and scholasticism; and 3) the practical impact of the samgha in history, including Buddhist nationalism and activism today. Conference.

Not offered 2015-16.

Religion 141 - Introduction to Ancient Christianity

Full course for one semester. This course is a chronological survey of the varieties of Christianity from their origins to the sixth century. It requires extensive reading of the Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic sources in English translation. Intended to provide both an introduction to the materials and a narrative context in which to pursue more advanced studies, the course is open to first-year students. Lecture-conference.

Religion 151 - Introduction to Judaism

Full course for one semester. This course is an introduction to the self-definition of Judaism. The course will analyze Judaism’s understanding of itself by examining such central concepts as God, Torah, and Israel. This central self-definition will then be tested by close readings of selected representative texts and investigation of the varieties of Jewish history, as manifested in such phenomena as mysticism, sectarianism, and messianism. Lecture-conference.

Not offered 2015-16.

Religion 201 - Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion

Full course for one semester. An introduction to various interpretive frameworks and methodological issues that inform religion as a critical, reflexive, academic discipline. Texts pertaining to the definition and scope of the inquiry and methods of investigation will be critically engaged and their applicability tested with an eye toward their utility for understanding religion and religious phenomena. Prerequisite: Humanities 110 and at least one 100-level course in religion. Lecture-conference.

Religion 256 - Islam in U.S. Religious History

Full course for one semester. This course will examine the history of Islam in America from the colonial period to the aftermath of 9/11. Through examination of select primary sources the course will contextualize the phenomenon of American Islam at the cross section of both American religious history and modern Islamic history. It will inquire into how the history of American Islam could enrich conventional understandings of religious pluralism in the United States and the relationship between Islam and modernity. Topics to be discussed include the relationship between race, ethnicity, and religion in the U.S.; the influence of comparative theology and religious studies on American conceptions of religious diversity; the relationship between missions, colonialism, and industrialization in the late nineteenth century; the role of Islam in the civil rights movement in the U.S. and in nationalist movements in Muslim-majority societies; and the rise of militant Islam as a matter of global concern. Prerequisite: Religion 121 or 123, or consent of the instructor. Conference.

Not offered 2015-16.

Religion 305 - History, Hermeneutics, and Religion

Full course for one semester. This course frames a series of critical inquiries into the varieties of rules and practices that affect the historical understanding of religions. It is best understood as motivated by one question: what might it mean to say that one is doing history of religions? It presumes that work in the history of religions requires reflection on the relationships among the human experience of time, the interpretive practices of the historian, and religions construed as an object of social-historical inquiry. Prerequisite: Humanities 110 and at least one 100-level religion course. Conference.

Religion 310 - Death and Remembrance in Chinese History

Full course for one semester. Using Reed’s study collection of Chinese hell scrolls as a springboard, this course explores texts and images that trace out the cycles of death and rebirth in literary genres. We follow the monk Mulian as he looks for his mother in hell, and we witness Emperor Taizong as he faces judgment before the underworld magistrates. We study Chinese sutras as well as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and we unpack the 400-page travelogue of Taiwanese monks who in the 1970s undertook scores of day trips to hell via spiritual mediums. Throughout we will consider which theoretical lenses in religious studies are most useful in increasing our understanding of Chinese retributive hell. Prerequisite: Religion 113 or 115, and Religion 201 or Humanities 230, or consent of the instructor. Conference.

Not offered 2015-16.

Religion 312 - Early Chinese Cosmology and Its Ritual Response

Full course for one semester. This course is an examination of the diverse cosmological traditions that underpin later institutional faiths, and will explore early Chinese attempts to locate the human being within a larger natural order. Early Chinese scholars wrestled with ideas of a pervasive yin and yang as well as other forms of correlative interaction, and in their application of these ideas they formulated systems that explained everything from the inner workings of the body to the greater astronomical order. The course examines their broader concepts such as time and space as well as specific topics such as astronomy, alchemy, and afterlife. It also considers the ritual response to this cosmology—that is, the means whereby humans accessed the larger natural order. Rituals mimicked cosmological hierarchies, and they also interacted with that cosmology through sacrifice, divination, shamanism, and seasonal festivals. Students will explore the archeological evidence, and their readings will focus upon primary texts in translation. Prerequisite: Religion 115 or 116, and Religion 201. Conference.

Not offered 2015-16.

Religion 313 - Early and Medieval Chinese Buddhism

Full course for one semester. In its theoretical guise, Chinese Buddhism focused on the idea of “emptiness,” of everything (including the self) being empty of any permanent, independent qualities. This course will begin with the Buddhist sutras and catechisms (e.g., the Perfect Enlightenment, Diamond, and Platform sutras) that endeavored to unpack this idea of emptiness. It will then turn to how religious Buddhism paradoxically attempted to give concrete form to that emptiness, translating theory into the lives of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, into mosaic disciplines and hellish fears, into poetic expression and material culture. Ultimately, our guiding question will be as follows: “Does emptiness actually survive the translation to make Buddhism a unique religion?” Prerequisites: Religion 115, 116, 132, and 201 or consent of the instructor. Conference.

Religion 321 - Islamic Thought in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Full course for one semester. A chronological survey of Islamic thought during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Focusing on conceptions of God and of the ideal human relationship with God in selected Muslim religious writings, the course will analyze the interrelation between sociohistorical and theological developments in the Islamic tradition during this period. The geographical focus of the course will be primarily on the Middle East and South Asia. Among the authors whose theologies we will examine in depth are: Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Muhammad Iqbal, Abu‘l-A‘la Mawdudi, Jamal ad-Din Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh, Sayyid Qutb, ‘Ali Shari‘ati, and Ruhallah Khomeini. Prerequisite: Religion 121 or 123. Conference.

Not offered 2015-16.

Religion 322 - Semantics of Love in Sufism

Full course for one semester. Sufism broadly refers to a complex of devotional, literary, ethical, theological, and mystical traditions within Islam. More specifically, it refers to the activities associated with institutionalized master-disciple relationships, which define the paths (turuq) through which Muslims have sought experiential knowledge of God. In both the broad and narrow sense of Sufism, love has been a prominent means of Sufi self-representation. In this course we will explore the ideas and practices semantically associated with love in the Sufi tradition and analyze the ways in which these ideas and practices have both shaped and been shaped by individual lives, religious institutions, and sociocultural contexts. Prerequisite: Religion 121 or 123. Conference. (Previously numbered Religion 332.)

Religion 333 - Arousing Faith in Hinduism and Buddhism

Full course for one semester.  This course explores the affective domain of religion, training attention on the literary and material cultures that prompt and sustain Hindu and Buddhist devotional practices. An emphasis will be on the close reading of primary sources: stūpas and temples that inspire pilgrimage; the creation, use, and interpretation of devotional images of a vast pantheon of deities, Buddhas, and bodhisattvas; and literature in translation (including canonical Buddhist jātaka tales, Amitāyurbuddhānusmrti Sūtra, and seventeenth-century poet Alagiyavanna Mahoāla; from Hindu sources, the Bhāgavata Purāna, poetry of the sixth- through ninth-century Vaishnava Alvars, Jayadeva’s twelfth-century Gītagovinda, and modern poetry).  Prerequisite: Religion 201, or consent of the instructor. Conference.

Not offered 2015-16.

Religion 334 - Gender and Buddhism

Full course for one semester. In this conference, we will consider the ways in which categories such as “woman,” “man,” ubhatovyanjañaka” (“intersex”), paṇḍaka,” feminine,” “masculine,” “gender,” “nun,” and “monk” have been explained and imagined by Buddhist communities through various historical and cultural locations. We will begin with an examination of early Buddhist sources, including depictions of the Buddha as a sexualized “bull of a man,” and the stories surrounding the founding of the nun’s order and the songs of women saints (Pāli Therīgāthā). We will then explore gender(ed) imagery in Mahāyāna sources, with a focus on the gender transformation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara in India to Guānyīn in China and Kannon in Japan, as well as the feminine principle envisioned by Tibetan Vajrayāna traditions. Key questions drive our inquiry: how do Buddhists, especially those who have taken vows, understand theoretical and practical tensions inherent in the Buddhist tradition? How do sacred images relate to social realities? Prerequisites: Religion 132 and 201, or consent of the instructor. Conference.

Religion 341 - Ascesis in the Benedictine and Orthodox Monastic Traditions

Full course for one semester. The course focuses on a complex set of literary, communal, and embodied practices concerned with training and self-regulation, or ascesis, that promises the possibility of self-transformation and an experience of God. With an eye toward understanding contemporary Benedictine and Orthodox Christian monastic thought and practice, the literature of ascesis will be explored in a number of contexts: the late ancient Mediterranean; the medieval West and Byzantium; and the United States, Russia, and Greece in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Academic theories of asceticism and works addressing social-historical contexts will provide the basis for critical reflection and sustained comparison. Prerequisite: Religion 141 or consent of the instructor. Conference.

Not offered 2015-16.

Religion 343 - Early Syriac Christianity

Full course for one semester. Although marginal from the perspective of histories that focus on the development of institutional Christianity in the Greek and Latin speaking world, the regions east of Antioch, where many people spoke Syriac, were home to distinctive and durative forms of Christianity. This course provides an introduction to the historical evolution, social practices, religious imagination, and transconfessional exchanges of Syriac Christianity from its origins to its initial encounter with Islam. Prerequisite: Religion 141 or consent of the instructor. Conference.

Not offered 2015-16.

Religion 345 - The New Testament

Full course for one semester. Although the works comprising the canonical New Testament represent a fraction of the extant ancient writings that attest to Christian origins, the task of understanding them has long been a discrete field for students of Christian antiquity. This course serves as an introduction to various modes of critical New Testament study and offers students the opportunity to explore the five major classes of works in the collection: the epistles of Paul, the synoptic gospels and Acts of the Apostles, the deuteron-Pauline epistles, the general pseudepigraphal epistles, and the Johannine literature. The modes of New Testament criticism and their associated criteria to which students will be introduced include textual, source, form, redaction, canonical, rhetorical, narrative, and sociohistorical, as well as various liberationist and confessional modes. Students taking the course for Greek credit will meet in extra sessions and their written work will engage the Greek text of the most recent revision of Nestle-Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece. Classics majors may not use the course as a substitution for Greek 210. Prerequisite for Greek credit: Greek 110 or consent of the instructor. Prerequisite for religion credit: Religion 141 or consent of the instructor. Conference. Cross-listed as Greek 245 in 2013–14.

Not offered 2015-16.

Religion 347 - Eastern Orthodox Christianity

Full course for one semester. Rooted in the Greek patristic and Byzantine Christian traditions, Eastern Orthodox Christianity became a lasting expression, lived and institutionalized, of the Christian faith in Greece, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Russia. This course will provide students with an introduction to Orthodox Christianity. Particular attention will be given to its historical development and distinctive theological, liturgical, artistic, ascetic, and soteriological dimensions. Frameworks for critical reflection will be provided by academic works concerned with ethnicity and religion, material culture and religion, ritual, and sacred architecture. Prerequisite: Religion 141, or Religion 201, or consent of the instructor. Conference.

Not offered 2015-16.

Religion 349 - Reading Pseudo-Dionysius

Full course for one semester. This course provides an introduction to a major writer in the Christian mystical tradition. The course situates the thought of the Pseudo-Dionysius within the social-historical environment and the main intellectual currents of the Mediterranean world of the fifth century of the Common Era. Prerequisites: Humanities 110 and Religion 141, or Religion 201, or consent of the instructor. Conference.

Not offered 2015-16.

Religion 361 - To Hell with Comparative Religions

Full course for one semester. The pedagogical tour of retributive hell is probably the most detailed religious phenomenon common to a great number of religious traditions. No matter whether the visitor is named Muhammad or Mulian, Vipashchit or Viraf, St. Patrick or Moses, Odysseus or Dante, the protagonist is led through the grisly horrors of hell so that he (or, more rarely, she) can return to the living and warn them to live moral lives. This course explores the usage of hell as a religious tool both past and present. We will begin by studying theories and methods regarding the comparison of religions, and then we will study several hell tours in depth, such as the American evangelical phenomenon of Hell House and the Chinese art tradition of the 10 hell kings. After that, participants will specialize in a particular hell tour from a religious tradition of their own choosing, and as a group we will consider 1) the validity of comparison, 2) the utility of comparison, and 3) the possible reasons behind the popularity of this hellish phenomenon. Prerequisite: Religion 201 or consent of the instructor. Conference.

Not offered 2015-16.

Religion 381 - Special Topics in Islamic Studies: New Trends in the Study of Early Islam

Full course for one semester. This course is a research seminar devoted to the investigation of a particular topic in the contemporary study of Islam. Prerequisite: Religion 121 or 123 and Religion 201 or consent of the instructor. Conference.

Religion 382 - Special Topics in Jewish History

Full course for one semester. This course is a research seminar devoted to the investigation of a particular topic in Jewish history. Prerequisite: Religion 201. Conference.

Not offered 2015-16.

Religion 402 - The Junior Seminar in Religion

Full course for one semester. This course offers intensive study of a particular topic, drawing on various methodologies in the study of religion. While the course is intended to prepare department majors for the senior program, it is open to all qualified students.  Prerequisite: junior standing, Religion 201, and three additional courses in religion, or departmental permission. Conference.

Religion 470 - Thesis and Religion Symposium

Full course for one year.

Religion 481 - Individual Work in Special Fields

One-half or full course for one semester. Prerequisite: approval of instructor and division.