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A window on culture

Religious studies finds a place at a public university

Religion is universal to the human experience, yet it is often overlooked as a discipline that offers a rich field for studying human values and culture. This may be especially true at a public university, where the separation of church and state are paramount, and there is a fear that religious studies will be associated with evangelism.

At the University of Minnesota, the role of religious study has been re-examined recently and carefully defined. One of the motivating factors is that the creation of two endowed chairs, one in Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible, and the other in New Testament and Christian Studies, has given new life to the religious studies program.

Another reason is more fundamental. "Our society is becoming less culturally literate, and part of this is knowing about religion," says Professor William Malandra, chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, which houses the religious studies program. "What we're seeing is that most students know very little about religion--religion in general or their own faith. There is a loss of knowledge of our cultural traditions. And when that's true, you open the door for all kinds of sects and bizarre interpretations of traditions."

When religious studies is taught as an academic discipline, the goal is for students to learn about religion, not to promote a single one. "Just as we at the University study different political theories, we study a wide spectrum of religions and faiths," says Malandra. "Our general approach is that we teach with an enormous amount of respect and with the expectation that our students, whatever their faith backgrounds, will engage in a serious and respectful discussion of religion."

Malandra and his colleagues in Minnesota have an excellent model to follow that is quite close to home: the University of Iowa was the first state university in the country to offer a complete academic program in religion. In fact, the School of Religion at the University of Iowa recently celebrated its 70th year of study.

"The rationale for teaching religion in a public university is that it enhances our understanding of the world in which we live," insists Professor Robert Baird, director of Iowa's School of Religion. "But our world is not just Iowa or Minnesota. There is news every day from different countries and cultures that affects all of us; it helps us communicate with people if we have information that helps us understand them, whether we're talking about law or politics or international business. The right reason to learn about religion is to understand our world and the people in it--and that's the basic liberal arts goal."

Baird admits that practices in his department at the University of Iowa have changed over the years to ensure that religious study is objective and global. In the early years of the religious school, experts on various religions were "contributed" by their respective religious communities; so the Jewish community offered a Jewish scholar, and the Catholic community sent a priest with an academic specialty to handle Catholic studies.

"Almost 30 years ago we had this transition when our Catholic chair retired and we had to look for a replacement," Baird says. "Up to that point, the person in this position always had been Catholic. But around that time, it became clear to our department that this was an academic appointment that should not be made by a religious group. We had to do a thorough, academic search and that involved a certain amount of clarification about what religious study should be."

In the fall of 1998, Bernard Levinson will arrive at the University of Minnesota to hold the Berman chair in Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible. This chair was endowed in 1997 through a gift from two generations of the Berman family, Nathan and Theresa, along with their son, Lyle, and his wife, Janis. Levinson, who is currently in residence at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, is an outstanding researcher and academician. After an exhaustive search, he was selected to hold the Berman chair not only due to his academic prowess but because his philosophies about teaching religion are wholly consistent with the mission of the religious studies program.

"In teaching about religion, about the values of religion, and how to think critically and intellectually through religion, you encourage students to evaluate some of the basic assumptions about our culture," Levinson says. "People often come to understand, through the study of religion, that they have entered this world to make a contribution and make it a better place."

The search for someone to hold the complementary Chair in Christian and New Testament Studies, recently established through a gift from the Lee Sundet family, is ongoing. But those who are involved in the process clearly intend to match Levinson's skills and principles with the candidate they present.

"I would hope that both chair holders would be excellent in their fields,' says former St. Paul Archbishop John Roach, who was co-chair of the fundraising drive for the Christian studies chair. "But we are not looking for spiritual tutors. These are people who will allow students to go as deeply into the questions of their respective religions as they want to go, but without being fearful of crossing the line of separation between church and state."

The chair holders will walk a second line, once they are comfortably in place, as they fulfill the University's request that they reach out to the communities in their areas of study. William Malandra himself sets the example. As an expert in ancient Persian religions, Malandra is very involved in the Zoroastrian community in North America--made up of those who practice religions of the Magi--though he, himself, belongs to the Jewish faith.

Professor Levinson and his Christian studies colleague will, in time, be resources for the community. Just as a University archaeology professor might be consulted by a lay person who finds a rare fossil in his yard, the religious studies faculty will provide expert research and advice on matters of religious concern. In addition, the University hopes to attract more prominent speakers, writers, and theologians based upon the expanded religious studies presence; and some of these special events will be available to the public.

"Neither chair will exist in isolation," Malandra says. "One way interaction will take place is when we bring a well-known scholar to campus, we'll have one presentation in the classroom and another presentation, perhaps less scholarly, open to the community. Also, we hope our chair holders will become involved with other religious educators so the system of religious schools will have an academic place of reference."

This religious studies program, which hardly existed just a year ago, has the potential to enrich the lives and knowledge of University students, faculty, and members of the community. Many who have been involved in creating it talk openly about their hope that it will continue to grow and eventually become one of the premier religious studies programs in the country.

"The Jewish and Christian studies chairs are only two segments of the larger circle," says Herbert Chilstrom, former bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Archbishop Roach's co-chair. "I would hope that the other segments--Muslim, Far Eastern, African and Indian religions--might be built in at another time. The purpose of this program is to teach all religious studies in a global context."

Clearly, religious studies is important in global and social contexts. But it is also germane to our understanding of other fields in the humanities. As Levinson says, "Being literate in the Bible changes how you read Shakespeare or Milton or Donne, and how you understand Kierkegaard.

--Ann M. Bauer

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