UC center takes interdisciplinary approach to religion
By Lou Fancher
From avid believers to avowed agnostics, few people will deny the impact of religion on mankind. Over the course of history, faith and its exploration have led not only to scholarly theological debate but to a mixed-bag of populist occurrences: the advent of written words, iconic works of art, global institutions, cultural enrichment and decimation, social justice and intolerance, enemies, alliances, wars
It's little wonder then, that the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion in Dwinelle Hall on the UC Berkeley campus is a beehive of investigation. A joint initiative organized in the College of Letters and Science with support from the deans of Humanities and Social Sciences, BCSR draws together UC Berkeley faculty from an array of departments, including history, anthropology, music, East Asian languages and cultures, political science and sociology. An ambitious events calendar of public lectures, workshops and conferences introduces faculty and guest lecturers from a multiplex of fields: science, technology, film, politics, psychology and others.
The annual "Summer Research Grants in Religion" program supports graduate student interdisciplinary projects. In 2015, $58,000 was awarded to 12 recipients.
Helmed by three directors, Susanna Elm (history), Mark Csikszentmihalyi (East Asian languages and cultures) and Jonathan Sheehan (history), the center reflects the interests of faculty conducting research relating to religion, Elm says. "It's an interdisciplinary think tank," she says. "I'm a historian, so I look at religion from a particular perspective."
Many universities and colleges relegate theology to one department, but Elm says the subject is "elevated" by BCSR's approach. "Is religion better served by approaching it from a number of methodological angles, or is it better to have a center for religious study? There's not a universal answer."
Similarly, there's not one religion and if for no other reason than that, faculty approach the subject from oblique angles and the center attracts a diverse following. An October event presenting photographer Toni Greaves and images from her book, "Radical Love: A Photographic Narrative of Cloistered Religious Life," attracted primarily people not directly affiliated with the university. "The photographs are beautiful and there's great interest in cloistered life that cuts across religion to other categorizations," Elm says. "The story of a young person with a rigorous spiritual life attracts people. The subject--radical devotion to something beyond the here and now--is an abiding human need."
A three-year, $1 million grant announced in May from the Henry Luce Foundation funds among other elements the current 2015-16 program of events and an international conference on theology and the public university in spring 2018.
"We're just beginning to plan specifically, so this is seed money," Elm says. "This is a glimmer in our eyes. It was a big deal, particularly because it's due to the people (doing research) here." Already, the grant supports investigation into connections between economics and theology; the challenges of maintaining theological pluralism amid interreligious conflicts; and religious practices in contemporary life.
Inevitably, the Internet enters the conversation. "Mass media adds scale that we didn't have in the past. Regional conflicts didn't have the broad distribution they have today. Anecdotally, social media lets people come together very quickly to support each other. It also exacerbates conflict because everyone can comment anonymously."
Looking ahead, Elm says upcoming lectures examine Islam, the diversity of the Church of the East, and sacred images and how they relate to struggles broader than religion. Further forecasting, research relating to Pope Francis is of interest. "The media apparatus of the Roman Empire was always on the cutting edge. The visual impact of it can be understood by anyone, no matter how literate. Pope Francis chose his name as a signal of poverty. He wears black and brown shoes instead of the papal red--very visual, very deliberate. You can see that's a sophisticated use of symbols right there." Elms adds that the pope's visit to America was powerful, moving. "It was an exquisite, expensive, perfectly modeled and crafted visit. It will be fascinating to watch the research. The Catholic Church can't change too quickly, but they can't be static either."