Religion

Department News

2022

March 17 - PRPL Division Speaker: Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm

Dr. Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm is a Historian and Philosopher of the Human Sciences from Williams College. Dr. Ānanda Josephson Storm will be speaking here at Reed on April 20, 2022. Please email Cory Chambers for the Zoom link.
The End of Theory of “Religion”? Process Social Ontology and Reconceptualizing the Human Sciences
Religious Studies used to be able to presuppose its object of analysis. It was often taken for granted that there were different “religions” that by virtue of their classification as such ostensibly shared a common essence, function, or perhaps even origin. For a considerable period, the special task allotted to our discipline was to advance the understanding of the nature of religion. But those days are long gone. For more than fifty years, a host of theorists have challenged the universality of religion and its utility as an analytical category.  It may surprise readers coming from other disciplines, but most scholars trained in Religious Studies today now consider it naïve to presume “religion” as a concept.
This might seem to pose a special challenge for our discipline. Religious Studies has no distinctive methodology or clearly delimited territory of focus. The only thing we supposedly share is our commitment to a category we no longer believe in.
This talk will set out from the dissolution of “religion” as an analytical object, but rather than restoring it to its former glory it will complete its disintegration. It will argue that granting the critiques of “religion” and related analytical categories, actually tell us something fundamental about the categories themselves. Based on work elaborated in my new monograph—Metamodernism: The Future of Theory (2021), I will argue that many of these critiques can be solved if the social world is understood in terms of a Process Social Ontology. Thus, the very things that were supposed to have precluded the study of “religion” will turn out to be the opening to what amounts to new theory of society and how it should be studied. This work thus proffers a re- theorizing of the social sphere, and its materialization including a fresh theory of the formation of social categories (applicable to religion, race, science, art, and so on). If we want to change society, we need to understand it better.

January 26 - Student Thesis Titles for Spring 2022

Our religion seniors are busy writing their thesis papers. Please join us in cheering the seniors on as they tackle their topics.

Ben Fung - Looking to the Past to Find the Future: Dalit Buddhism and Modern Religion 

Shiloh Grannan - TBA

Birch MacLeod - Isuramu: Defining Islam as a Religion’ in WWII-era Japan

Yasmin Mayer - Constructing Paradise Online: Divine Gardens and the Internet

Tieran Sweeny-Bender - An Apocalypticism of Defense or Defiance: Analyzing the Role of Authority in Nicholas of Lyra’s Commentary on the Apocalypse of John

Hellie Smith - More than Mary: Understanding the Allure of Faith and Belonging at the Grotto                                                                             

Claire de Vroede - A Rhetorical Comparison of the Qur’an and the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report

Yoela Zimberoff - Birth in the Bedroom; Exploring Religious Arguments of the U.S. Home Birth Movement

2021

December 2 - Prof. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri weighs in on a historical deep dive into one man’s life in the ‘melting pot’ of seventeenth-century New Amsterdam

Prof. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri weighs in on a historical deep dive into one man’s life in the ‘melting pot’ of seventeenth-century New Amsterdam, a story about religion, territory, and piracy, as well as an exercise in reimagining American history.

“The New York of Anthony Jansen van Salee” by Tom Verde

https://www.aramcoworld.com/Articles/November-2021/The-New-York-of-Anthony-Jansen-van-Salee

Tom Verde explores the life of Anthony Jansen van Salee, who grew to become one of the wealthiest and most important citizens in New Amsterdam (now New York) in the 1600’s. The tale is a fraught one, involving piracy, lawsuits, old maps, neighborly squabbles, a changing cityscape, and reimagining American history. Our own Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, professor of Religion and Humanities, weighs in on the importance of van Salee’s life as “the first person from a Muslim background that we know of who ended up settling and owning land in the territory that became the United States.”

Van Salee’s life is interesting not only in its ability to provide us a historical time capsule into 17th century New York life, but in his lasting legacy. The property he owned “remains some of the priciest real estate in the U.S.” to this day. Van Salee was at the heart of economic and cultural development on the east coast of North America. And his influence carried through time- “van Salee’s descendants include US presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, actor Humphrey Bogart,” and other such recognizable names.

Prof. GhaneaBassiri communicates in the last word of the article the importance of figures like Anthony van Salee to a history largely forgotten in the United States. A leading scholar of Islam in America, Prof. GhaneaBassiri tackles issues around how histories are told in relation to religion and religious identities. His courses at Reed, such as The Erasure and Placement of Muslims in “Western” Humanities, helps students locate Muslims within the context of exchanges and rivalries that have historically and genealogically connected Europe, Africa, and Asia. Van Salee’s story itself is but one iteration of these larger connections around the Atlantic world, of which Muslims were (and are) a vital part. Religious studies helps us notice these global and historical trends, to connect the dots through the complicated web of connections which makes human life -- both historical and current -- so rich and unique.

October 11 - An Interview with Professor Tobias Zürn

This year the Religion Department welcomed Dr. Tobias Zürn as a visiting professor in Chinese Religions and Chinese Humanities. Religion Senior Benjamin Fung had an opportunity to ask Dr. Zürn about what led him to the study of religion and about his teaching and research interests in Chinese religions. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

What got you interested in the study of religion?

I grew up as a Catholic in the south of Germany. In my early teenage years, however, I became interested in black metal music and became agnostic. Nonetheless, I kept the fascination with religion as a phenomenon throughout my life. At that time, though, it was mainly an antagonistic debate with my religion teacher in highschool.

After a year as a civil servant in a gerontological hospital, I decided to study comparative religion at the Free University, Berlin. Unfortunately, I was not very happy with the program, and so I moved into the direction of philosophy. In 2008, I came to the US to pursue an academic career. I became a graduate student in premodern Chinese religions and thought at UW Madison and returned to the study of religion. At that time, I realized that there is an issue in the way my field is organized. Contrary to those who work on later materials, scholars of early China often define themselves and the materials they engage in as inherently philosophical. I was puzzled by this fact and started to wonder why it is that way.

In any case, I slowly moved back into religious studies since its interdisciplinary scope seemed to offer far more flexibility and diversity of approaches than philosophy. In other words, my old interests got rekindled, and so I became a historian of religion.

Do you have any interests in your particular field?

Yeah, sure. I don’t know how much you know about the specific ways people engage in early Chinese materials. There is this very famous historiographical model called the Axial Age by Karl Jaspers. The idea is that the “great” civilizations of the world—that is, Persia, India, China, Palestine, and the Greco-Roman world—developed around the same time a kind of self-awareness and started to speculate what it means to be in this world. The idea is that within these different civilizations some sort of philosophical thinking developed around the years 800-200 BCE. 

This model had a profound impact on the study of early China. Scholars oftentimes construed the Warring States period as a kind of golden age of Chinese philosophy that was thought to have deteriorated afterwards. Even though many scholars have questioned such grandiose historiographical models recently, this vision is still around and oftentimes silently underlies scholars’ interpretation of early Chinese textual cultures. It just fascinated me that the division into the disciplines of philosophy and religion, an enlightenment ideal nonetheless, seemed to be reflected in the ways scholars engaged in materials associated with early and medieval China, despite the fact that these disciplinary differences didn’t necessarily fit the Chinese context. At the beginning of grad school, for example, I was enamored with a fascinating text called the Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Lü that is highly intertextual and constructed. The first part of this text consists of a super-symmetrical almanac that prescribes the ritual activities for a ruler. I began wondering, why somebody would create a text like this if its main goal is simply to teach anyone something about the world and how it works? Why would these early Chinese masters spend so much time on a text’s design if their main concern is participation in some sort of debate? And so, I became increasingly interested in why my colleagues seem to assume that early Chinese texts were inherently created to partake in philosophical debates rather than explore alternative contexts for our understanding of these early materials.

This doubt in the field’s institutionalized reading strategies even increased further when I learnt more about Chinese religions. I just started to wonder about the reasons why we read texts like the Spring and Autumn Annals as philosophical writings. Does the reason for these interpretations lie in the text itself and its historical context? Or are these interpretations influenced by disciplinary assumptions about early China? And that’s where my interest came in, through asking questions like “Why do scholars in the field of Early China so frequently assume that discourses and philosophical debates are the backdrop of these types of writings” despite the fact that the Han dynasty was immensely interested in ritual performances. My work questions these trends and tries to rethink early Chinese classics beyond the predominant assumption that they are philosophical writings. For example, my first book-project on the Huainanzi as a ritual object opposes its predominant reading as an encyclopedic collection of philosophical treatises. My second book project on the reception history of the Zhuangzi and its “Butterfly Dream” follows a similar pattern. They all resituate, recontextualize, and reinterpret early Chinese classics by generating critical questions towards the way how we, as modern-day people, engage with them. What are the justifications for our engagements with the classics in the way we do it? And why don’t we choose different angles and different lenses in our interpretations?

What is your current research project? 

Currently, I am finishing my first book on the Huainanzi as a ritual object. It basically asks the type of questions we were just engaging in. Why do we assume that texts like the Huainanzi were created to purport any kind of meaning or develop thought systems? Because when you look at the early reception of the Huainanzi, when you look at how people were describing Liu An, the purported author of the Huainanzi, it seems as if these early receptions depict the text as a kind of performative artifact. Gao You, the Huainanzi’s first commentator, for example, wrote in his “Preface” several passages that describe Liu An’s text in terms of the sage and the Way (Dao). Moreover, the Huainanzi is a very self-reflexive text, and it fashions itself as a unifier and harmonizer of the known world. I wonder why scholars had ignored these “peculiar” aspects of the text’s early reception. Why did they simply assume that the text only represents the ideas of Liu An and his helpers? How do these visions fit to later Daoist lore according to which Liu An became an immortal and went up into Daoist heavens. I always wondered why we ignored these narratives or at least didn’t even attempt to reconcile our interpretations with these traditional voices. So, I tried to find a framework within which these narratives would make sense, one that I think is more in line with early receptions of the text and more in line with how the text talks about itself. And that is the idea that the Huainanzi is a textual manifestation or embodiment of the Dao and as such performs the same activities that the Way is thought to perform. Since the Dao is, first and foremost, a non-being that does not speak, talk, or educate, but performs ordering powers that make the world run smoothly, I conclude that the Huainanzi might have been created in such an extraordinary way to achieve the same outcome: a well-ordered universe. In other words, it might have functioned as a ritual artifact that was meant to help the imperial Liu clan in their ritualistic endeavor to order all under Heaven.    

Is there anything that you’d like to tell Religion students about the classes that you’re currently teaching? 

Sure. I teach a Zhuangzi seminar that engages in the proto-Daoist classic and its reception history. The goal is to help students develop a higher level of critical reading skill while simultaneously liberating the text from the grasp of those that are only concerned about its “original” meaning. Once you engage with a text like the Zhuangzi that has a reception history of at least 2,000 years, you realize that the text took on very different forms in different time periods. Therefore, it is not only important to excavate what the text meant at its creation but also how humans responded to it over time. In other words, texts never only have one but multiple meanings that become shaped throughout peoples’ long-term engagement with them. And these various readings can serve as critical tools or lenses on our own assumptions about the classics. For example, by exploring how the Zhuangzi was read as a religious text in some contexts, not only as a speculation on what we may know in this world as it is typical for current scholarship on the proto-Daoist classic, we may debunk stereotypes about Daoism, especially the separation between Daoist philosophy and religion, that still impact the Zhuangzi’s interpretation. In addition, a focus on the Zhuangzi’s reception—for example, in form of South Park episodes, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, or Ursula Le Guin’s writings—encourages us to become a part of the classic’s long reception history by creating our own visual or otherwise creative responses to the text. At the same time, they help us explore forms of expression beyond the written word. In other words, I simply use the Zhuangzi to open up a plethora of intellectual, artistic, and self-reflective avenues for the students—exactly what the text has done to a global audience over the last two millennia

The other class that I teach is an intro to Shinto through popular cultural products. It wonders whether it is possible to engage meaningfully in computer games, manga, or anime from the perspective of religious studies. The goal is for students to realize that it is not very helpful to interpret these popular cultural products as accurate representations of Shinto. That being said, we may meaningfully engage in them to see what Jolyon Thomas calls “recreating religion”: that is, the phenomenon that watching anime can take on religious functions. In other words, this class puts emphasis not on what animes say and mean but on how audiences interact with them in a religious manner (cosplay, shrine visits, fan boards, canonization of anime, creation of religious communities based on anime, etc.). 

Do you have any hobbies/pets?

[Looks around] Moments ago, one of our cats was rubbing herself against my feet. We have two cats, one is called Moira after Moira Rose; we have another cat called Kitty Cat.

Personally, I still try to get back into playing team handball and it will happen at some point at Reed. It’s just a matter of time. I loved handball quite a lot when I was a teenager. I actually did not intend to become an academic, I intended to become a professional athlete until nature failed me, and I turned out to be too short for a professional career. But other than that, I do like hiking, video games, board games, and cooking. That’s something that I started when I was 17 with my mom, and it’s something I still very much like.  

 

September 30 - An Interview with Professor Montrose

The Religion Department welcomed Dr. Victoria Montrose as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion this year. Religion Senior Benjamin Fung had an opportunity to ask her about her research and teaching interests. 

What got you interested in the study of religion?

I have been interested in religion from the time I was a child. I was always eager to attend religious services of all kinds with friends from various traditions. In college, I studied political science because I was interested in international human rights law, but my studies left me with a desire to understand the underlying beliefs and world views that motivated politics and the law. So after college and a two year stint teaching English in Japan, I turned to religious studies and found my intellectual home there. 

Do you have any interests in your particular field?

My interests center on the ways in which Buddhism, especially Japanese Buddhism, responded and contributed to modernizing and globalizing forces. That has led me to look at new Buddhist movements and Buddhist education as two lenses through which to examine these modernizing and globalizing forces.

What is your current research project? 

My current research project looks at the establishment of modern universities by Buddhist groups in 19th century Japan. I examine the ways in which the university as a novel institution radically transformed the way Japanese Buddhists envisioned their place within global Buddhism and the emerging framework of the "world religions." My research also illuminates the way Japanese Buddhist intellectuals actively contributed to the formation of the modern field of Buddhist Studies internationally. 

I know that you’ve only taught at Reed for a short time but how does it compare to the other places that you may have taught?

In my short time here, I have observed that Reedies are very hard working and curious. This combination makes for an educator's dream classroom environment. I'm frequently challenged and impressed by the types of questions and ideas students bring to conferences.   

Is there anything that you’d like to tell Religion students about the classes that you’re currently teaching? 

Alongside the material in every course, students in my classes are expected to do a lot of self reflection on the ideas and experiences they bring to the course. We interrogate our role as scholars in the study of religion and the ways in which the work we do in the classroom is itself a part of Buddhism's story.

Do you have any hobbies/pets?
I have an old scruffy rescue mutt named Reginald (Reggie). As for hobbies, I'm an avid consumer of podcasts and a major comedy fan.