Religion

Religious traditions identify themselves with, and draw sustenance from, the texts that they hold sacred. In Sarah Lawrence College religion courses, those texts command and hold our attention. As students explore the sacred text of a particular religion—whether studying Buddhism, early Christianity, or the origins of Islam—they gain insight into the social and historical context of its creation. Using critical, hermeneutical, and intellectual historical approaches, students enter into the writings in such depth as to touch what might be the foundation of that religion. In addition, work with contemporary texts (such as those by religious activists on the Internet) gives students insight into what most moves and motivates religious groups today. The College’s religion courses provide an important complement to courses in Asian studies and history.

2018-2019 Courses

Religion

First-Year Studies: Judaism, From Religion to Radicalism

Open , FYS—Year

Judaism, since the biblical age, has defied easy categorization—oscillating between religion and ethnicity, law and spirituality, tradition and rupture. This dynamism is further complicated by the very nature of the diasporic experience, which has involved both resisting and appropriating aspects of the dominant culture (e.g., gender, magic, mysticism, and martyrdom). This course provides an introduction to Jewish spirituality and culture by looking at the interplay between its texts and contexts. We begin with formative works like the Bible, the Talmud, classics of Jewish philosophy, and Kabbalah. We then engage with texts produced by modern movements that challenged, displaced, or reinforced normative Jewish practice, such as messianism, Hasidism, nationalism (e.g., Zionism), Freudian psychoanalysis, and revolutionary Marxism. The desired outcome is an awareness of how the Jews’ outsider status has helped produce bold, varied conceptions of the world that, in turn, challenge our own.

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The Jews of Europe

Open , Lecture—Fall

This course conceives European Jewry as forming a dynamic counterpoint to dominant non-Jewish European societies down to today. First, we examine the Talmud-centered, insular “Ashkenazic” Jewish communities of medieval France and Germany. Then we proceed to the more worldly “Sephardic” Jews in Muslim and Christian Spain, encountering poets, philosophers, Kabbalists, and secret Judaizing “Conversos.” We follow the exiles of Spain as they return to open Jewish practice and examine the widespread embrace of a messianic pretender named Shabbetai Tzvi. We then turn to the blossoming Jewish life in Eastern Europe, with its extensive self-government, economic niches, world-renowned yeshivas, and popular mysticism (Hasidism). In the last part of the course, we examine the dissolution of the “ghetto” throughout Europe, the rise of religious innovations like Reform Judaism and Orthodoxy, the simultaneous rise of racial anti-Semitism, and Jewish political responses like Zionism, Socialism, and radicalism down to the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. Throughout, we attempt to balance negative flashpoints like Crusades, blood libels, the Inquisition, pogroms, and genocide with European Jewry’s major economic, intellectual, and spiritual innovations.

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American Religious Mythmaking: The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Open , Seminar—Fall

History, like the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, is the telling of a story that reveals something about who we are, how we came to be here, and what our purpose is. In this course, rather than looking at past events in chronological order, we will explore some of the stories that Americans have told themselves over the centuries to make sense of their peoplehood and their place in the world. By exploring iconic events, institutions, texts, and artifacts from the Great Awakening to the Black Church to Fiddler on the Roof, we will see how religious narratives have informed interpretations of the American past, layering ancient stories of conquest, redemption, and rebirth onto memories of the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. While intentionally foregrounding Protestant religious narratives because of their dominance in American culture, this course will also attend to indigenous, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Mormon experiences and stories.

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Buddhist Meditation in India, Southeast Asia, and Tibet

Open , Seminar—Fall

Buddhists believe that there are three modes of karma, or “action”: 1) bodily, 2) verbal, and 3) mental. That is to say, we can “do” things with our bodies, with our speech, and with our minds. All three modes of karma have moral value in the sense that whatever actions we perform are either good, bad, or neutral—and all actions of body, speech, and mind have consequences that are inevitably experienced sometime in the future. The results of physical and verbal actions may be more immediately obvious than those of mental actions (thoughts and emotions), but Buddhists regard the latter as even more consequential; for they are the underlying ideas and intentions that motivate and inform speech and physical action. Moreover, Buddhists hold that deluded thinking concerning the “self” and external “things,” because it gives rise to unwise attachment, is the root cause of all suffering experienced by humans and other living beings in the round of rebirth (samsāra). Given this fundamental outlook, Buddhists regard regulation of one’s own mind as the key to both individual happiness and social harmony and justice. They say that among the three kinds of karma, “mind” is primary—but that it is also the mode of action that is sublest and hardest to control. Throughout its long and diverse history, the Buddhist tradition has developed a wide variety of techniques for controlling and developing one’s own mind, many of which have been referred to in English using the word “meditation.” This course focuses on major types of meditation practiced in the Buddhism of India, Southeast Asia, and Tibet. Those include: techniques for calming the mind and entering into deep trance states; procedures for gaining insight into what is ultimately real; the cultivation of “mindfulness” of one’s own physical and mental actions, which has now been borrowed by Western psychotherapy; mental exercises designed to suppress negative emotions (e.g., anger) and foster positive ones (e.g., loving kindness); the “contemplation of impurity,” which involves meditating on decomposing corpses; procedures for recalling and repenting bad deeds done in the past; and a wide range of Tantric visualization practices designed to put one in direct touch with powerful sacred beings and forces. This is a self-contained, semester-long course taught in the fall that is also designed to complement a companion course that is taught in the spring: Buddhist Meditation in East Asia. Students may take just one or the other of the two courses without any problem, but those who take both will get the kind of sustained, integrated, in-depth exposure to all aspects of Buddhist meditation that is characteristic of a yearlong seminar at Sarah Lawrence College.

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Japanese Religion and Culture

Open , Seminar—Fall

Prior study or experience of things Japanese (language, literature, history, etc.) is desirable but not required.

A historical survey of religious beliefs, practices, and institutions in Japan from ancient times down to the present, this course covers all of the major religious traditions and movements—Shintō, Buddhism, Shūgendō, Confucianism, and the so-called New Religions—as well as various elements of religion and culture (e.g., Noh theatre, Bushidō) that are not readily subsumed under any of the preceding labels. Readings include many primary sources (Japanese texts in English translation), and audio-visual materials are used whenever possible to give a fuller picture of traditional religious art, architecture, and ritual performance in Japan. This is a self-contained, semester-long course taught in the fall that is also designed to complement a companion course that is taught in the spring: Religion in Contemporary Japan. Students may take just one or the other of the two courses without any problem; but those who take both will get the kind of sustained, integrated, in-depth exposure to all aspects of the religions and culture of Japan that is characteristic of a yearlong seminar at Sarah Lawrence College.

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Readings in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis and Exodus

Open , Seminar—Fall

The Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible has remained at the mythological foundation of Western culture. Genesis has informed Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theology. If that weren’t enough, the book contains a great and memorable cycle of stories from Adam and Eve and Noah and the Flood to the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, just to name a few. These stories permeate our literature, our art, indeed our sense of identity. The narrative itself is the beginning of a greater epic of liberation, including Exodus and the rest of “the five books of Moses.” What are these books? How were they written? Who wrote them, and for whom? Who preserved them? How do we read them so that their ancient perspective, their social and historical context, is not lost? In order to recover this ancient context, we will also read contemporary writings such as The Babylonian Creation Story, as well as The Epic of Gilgamesh.

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Sufi Sciences of the Soul

Open , Seminar—Fall

Muslim mystics have left us with a vast body of literature that explains the faculties and capabilities of human beings. These theoretical writings go hand in hand with the experiential dimension of Sufi practice, which includes the careful and diligent cultivation of spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical disciplines. The purpose of their path, as they often label their thought and practice, goes beyond that of religious salvation—at least as understood in the usual sense. Their goal might be best described as a desire to attain intimate knowledge of the true nature of reality, as in the saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “Our Lord, show us things as they really are.” Following another saying of the Prophet, “He who knows himself, knows his Lord,” Sufis have insisted that this deeper knowledge can be accomplished only by a greater understanding of oneself. This necessarily involves the deconstruction of any solid or static notions about what is perceived to be the self. According to Sufis, what we think of as ourselves is really a cacophony of forces from within and without that flow through and interact with different faculties within us. The spiritual disciplines in which Sufis immerse themselves are intended to destabilize the false self by enabling the practitioner to become more conscious of these forces and faculties. Furthermore, according to Sufis, there is a strong relationship between our level of awareness, our attitudes and behaviors, and the way in which we perceive reality. Changes within us change the reality that seems to be outside of us. Through a series of readings from Sufi figures in the past and present, this course will explore their systematic exposition of the “sciences of the soul.”

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Muslims in Europe

Open , Seminar—Fall

More than five percent of the total population of Europe is now Muslim, and this percentage could easily reach 10 percent or more by 2050. More than a million migrants and refugees streamed into Europe in 2015 alone, many of them fleeing the horrific violence of Syria and other conflict-ridden areas. That year, they entered a continent that was reeling from a decade of terrorist attacks within its own borders. In January 2015, two French citizens of Algerian descent stormed the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 writers, cartoonists, and other staff members. The cover of the magazine that day was a caricature of Michel Houellebecq, whose novel Soumission (Submission) had just been released. Houellebecq’s bleak fictive account of a not-so-distant future in which a newly elected Muslim head of state begins initiatives to supplant European values and institutions with authoritarianism and polygamy was an instant best-seller. The novel joined a slew of popular nonfiction works that have presented stern warnings of a Europe on its deathbed if non-Muslim Europeans do not wake up and address the failures of their policies of minority assimilation or multiculturalism. But is the growing Muslim population in Europe the enormous threat to modern European values and security that these writings make it out to be? What responsibilities, if any, do European nations have to migrants and asylum seekers who frequently come from nations that were former European colonies? To what degree must Muslim citizens in European states assimilate to the cultural mores of other Europeans? In the books mentioned above, the voices of Muslims are almost entirely absent. In this course, we will seek out a broad array of voices and historical perspectives to examine the challenges that have emerged in the increasingly diverse European societies of the 21st century.

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Buddhist Meditation in East Asia

Open , Seminar—Spring

Buddhists believe that there are three modes of karma, or “action”: 1) bodily, 2) verbal, and 3) mental. That is to say, we can “do” things with our bodies, with our speech, and with our minds. All three modes of karma have moral value in the sense that whatever actions we perform are either good, bad, or neutral; and all actions of body, speech, and mind have consequences that are inevitably experienced sometime in the future. The results of physical and verbal actions may be more immediately obvious than those of mental actions (thoughts and emotions), but Buddhists regard the latter as even more consequential—for they are the underlying ideas and intentions that motivate and inform speech and physical action. Moreover, Buddhists hold that deluded thinking concerning the “self” and external “things,” because it gives rise to unwise attachment, is the root cause of all suffering experienced by humans and other living beings in the round of rebirth (samsāra). Given this fundamental outlook, Buddhists regard regulation of one’s own mind as the key to both individual happiness and social harmony and justice. They say that among the three kinds of karma, “mind” is primary; but it is also the mode of action that is sublest and hardest to control. Throughout its long and diverse history, the Buddhist tradition has developed a wide variety of techniques for controlling and developing one’s own mind, many of which have been referred to in English using the word “meditation.” This course focuses on major types of meditation practiced in the Buddhism of East Asia: China, Korea, and Japan. Those include: techniques for calming the mind and entering into deep trance states; procedures for gaining insight into what is ultimately real; mental exercises for recalling and repenting bad deeds done in the past; the recollection of buddhas and bodhisattvas performed in conjunction with devotional prayer; a wide range of visualization practices designed to put one in direct touch with powerful sacred beings and forces; and the “investigation of words” attributed to Chan and Zen masters, also known as kōan practice. This is a self-contained, semester-long course taught in the spring that is also designed to complement a companion course that is taught in the fall: Buddhist Meditation in India, Southeast Asia, and Tibet. Students may take just one or the other of the two courses without any problem; those who take both will get the kind of sustained, integrated, in-depth exposure to all aspects of Buddhist meditation that is characteristic of a yearlong seminar at Sarah Lawrence College.

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Religion in Contemporary Japan

Open , Seminar—Spring

Prior study or experience of things Japanese (language, literature, history, etc.) is desirable but not required.

An examination of religious beliefs, practices, and institutions in Japanese society today, this course covers all the major religious traditions and movements in contemporary Japan: Shintō, the various schools of Buddhism, Shūgendō, Christianity, and the so-called New Religions that have flourished in the postwar period. Issues of historical development are touched upon but only as an aid to understanding the current religious scene. The approach is thematic, with a focus on elements of Japanese religiosity that recur in different traditions, such as ancestor worship, beliefs in fate and karma, festivals, pilgrimages, the sanctification of natural phenomena, taboos against impurities, exorcisms, and rites of purification. Extensive use will be made in class of a variety of audiovisual materials, including animated films, documentaries, and amateur videos of ritual performances. The aim of the course is to provide insights into the intellectual, ethical, aesthetic, and spiritual wellsprings of contemporary Japanese culture at large, not simply to familiarize students with the basics of Japanese religion narrowly conceived. This is a self-contained, semester-long course taught in the spring that is also designed to complement a companion course that is taught in the fall: Japanese Religion and Culture (a historical survey). Students may take just one or the other of the two courses without any problem; but those who take both will get the kind of sustained, integrated, in-depth exposure to all aspects of the religions and culture of Japan that is characteristic of a yearlong seminar at Sarah Lawrence College.

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Religion, Healing, and Medicine in the United States

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Spring

Processes that the discipline of medicine understands primarily in biological terms—such as the cycle of conception, pregnancy, and childbirth; recovery from illness or injury; pain; death—are frequently experienced as spiritual or religious experiences by those who undergo them. Understanding such experiences may even bring us close to understanding the essence or fundamental meaning of religion; for while specific beliefs and practices vary enormously between and within religious traditions, most—if not all—religions incorporate ideas about physical and spiritual healing. Some scholars have even argued that religion is, at root, a kind of medicine that may be described as a balm in Gilead, a practice of yoga, or a careful balancing of complementary forces. In this course, we will learn about the religious traditions informing practices such as traditional Chinese medicine, healing prayer, and mindfulness meditation. We will also pay attention to the ways in which religion and spirituality affect persons undergoing modern Western medical treatment and will investigate some of the ways in which religious knowledge, belief, and practice may either help or hinder physical well-being.

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Modern Jewish Literature

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Spring

As Jews were emancipated in Europe, many began to grapple with the challenges of modernity through literary genres like poetry, autobiography, and fiction. Writers like Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, Primo Levi, S. Y. Agnon, Sholem Aleichem (whose works formed the basis of Fiddler on the Roof), Grace Paley, and Cynthia Ozick achieved universal acclaim. But the path of the modern Jewish writer nearly always entailed alienation, rebellion, nostalgia, and a need to grapple with increasingly virulent forms of anti-Semitism—culminating in the Holocaust. In new centers in America and Israel, the Jews’ improved status yielded new kinds of alienation, witnessed especially in works by authors like Philip Roth, Amos Oz, and David Grossman. Despite the tension and occasional anguish that runs through modern Jewish literature, we will discover works of beauty, poignancy, and illumination. The Jewish writer's “pariah” status seems to have offered a unique perspective on the world and profound insights into the modern condition.

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Salafi and Jihadi Thought

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

The turmoil of recent decades in the Middle East and the high-profile attacks in Europe and the United States have sent journalists, public intellectuals, and scholars racing to define and assess the theological doctrines behind various political and militant groups. The terms salafi, wahhabi, and jihadi have been used repeatedly in the media but generally without the necessary context to understand the diversity of orientations and groups being described. In this course, we will study the geneaology of these terms and movements, as well as the social and political contexts that gave rise to them. There are quietist Salafis who avoid all engagement with politics and could be easily compared with conservative Christians or Jews. These individuals are very different from the Salafi-Jihadis, who believe in the religious legitimacy of using violence to achieve their goals. Although the main focus of this course will be on the theology and practices of Salafi and Jihadi groups, we will also examine the discourse on “Islamic radicalism” and “Islamic terrorism” in Europe and the United States and its relationship to economic and political entanglements with countries that support these groups as part of their religious establishment or as destabilizing forces to be used against others. Memoir or other literary material will help us understand the appeal of these religious orientations, as well as the disenchantment of those who have rejected them. While there is no background required for this course, a strong interest in reading texts explaining the intricate details of Islamic theology and law is essential.

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Readings in Early Christianity: The Johannine Community

Intermediate/Advanced , Seminar—Fall

The Fourth Gospel of the Christian New Testament and the epistles associated with its authors, 1-3 John, have been particularly significant for the development of Christian thought. In this course, we will study The Gospel of John closely, engaging in the hermeneutical arts with an eye to the development of Christian theology, as well as uncovering the history and growth of the early Christian community responsible for its unique prose and views regarding Jesus of Nazareth and the role of Christian discipleship. We will immerse ourselves in the Hellenistic world, especially as it relates to Mediterranean Judaism. In doing so, we will examine the roots of Christian anti-Semitism and the development of Gnosticism and Christian docetism.

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Classical Sufi Texts

Intermediate/Advanced , Seminar—Spring

Previous course work in or knowledge of Islamic Studies, Sufism, or another mystical tradition is desirable for this course. Permission of the instructor is required.

Between the 11th and 13th centuries, an impressive body of literature emerged from the religious movement that came to be known as Sufism. These are writings that describe spiritual disciplines, moral guidelines, and metaphysical thought—sometimes in highly appealing stories and poetry and sometimes in dense, rich prose. In this course, we will explore excerpts in English translation from the classics of three of the most influential of the mystics from this time period. Qushayri, Rumi, and Ibn “Arabi” are among the most widely read and studied Sufis. Their remarkable intellectual and literary talents have given their works longevity, especially among those who continue to mine them for spiritual wisdom and guidance. All three were intensely committed to Muslim practices, which they sought to understand in profound and expansive ways. This meant thoughtful attention to the details of the legalistic norms of Shari‘a even as they articulated a more refined system of ethics based on their readings of the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. For these Sufis, the subtler virtues to which humans aspire are inextricably linked to views of reality and the human self that are radically different from common notions. Spiritual practice is as much about discipline as it is about seeking knowledge. The ultimate goal is intimacy with God. The works to be studied will include long passages from Qushayri’s Risala, Rumi’s Mathnawi, and Ibn “Arabi’s” Futuhat al-makkiyya.

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Specters of the Subject: Hauntologies of Ghosts, Phantasms, and Imaginings in Contemporary Life

Advanced , Seminar—Year

“The future belongs to the ghosts,” remarked the philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1996. As his interlocutor Bernard Stiegler phrases the main idea behind this statement, “Modern technology, contrary to appearances, increases tenfold the power of ghosts.” With the advent of the Internet, various forms of social media, and the ubiquity of filmic images in our lives, Derrida's observations have proven to be quite prophetic, such that they call for a new field of study—one that requires less an ontology of being and the real and more a “hauntology” (to invoke Derrida's punish term) of the spectral, the virtual, the phantasmic, the imaginary, and the recurrent revenant. In this seminar, we consider ways in which the past and present are haunted by ghosts. Topics to be covered include: specters and hauntings, figures and apparitions, history and memory, trauma and political crisis, fantasy and imagination, digital interfaces, and visual and acoustical images. We will be considering a range of films and video, photography, literary texts, acoustic reverberations, Internet and social media, and everyday discourses and imaginings. Through these inquiries, we will be able to further our understanding of the nature of specters and apparitions in the contemporary world in their many forms and dimensions. Students will be invited to undertake their own hauntologies and thus craft studies of the phenomenal force of specters, hauntings, and the apparitional in particular social or cultural contexts.

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First-Year Studies: Gods, Heroes, and Kings: Art and Myth in the Ancient World

Open , FYS—Year

In modern terms, myth has come to be commonly understood as the antithesis of history. Whereas history is taken as a reasoned, factual account of the past and how things came to be, myth appears to operate in the realm of fiction or fantasy. Myths may have the claim of venerable tradition, but they are no longer accepted as an accurate record of events. The ancient world, however, made no such black-and-white distinctions. In antiquity, myth was accepted as early history. Its heroes were real, and their actions were thought to exemplify essential paradigms of political order and morality. Consequently, this course will apply a different approach in which myth is distinguished from history not by a truth test but, rather, by virtue of its function as a means of cultural self-representation. We shall examine the myths of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome—both in their literary form and in various media of visual art. Throughout, our goal will be to understand the potency of these narratives as vehicles of social or cultural values and as tools of power legitimizing and justifying closely entwined notions of religious and political authority. The course will close by considering how, in Late Antiquity, Christian narratives and ideologies in the literary and visual arts developed from the mythic traditions that preceded them.

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East vs. West: Europe, the Mediterranean, and Western Asia From Antiquity to the Modern Age

Open , Lecture—Year

Historically, competition or conflict between the European or Mediterranean West and the regions of the Middle East has been seen as a struggle between Christian and Muslim worlds with roots in the era of the Crusades, whose precedent and implications reach into the present time. While this course will focus extensively on the medieval period, it seeks to do so by situating the relations between Christian Europe and the Muslim world within a larger context as the result of geopolitical patterns that long antedated the emergence of Christianity or Islam. In the fall, the course will begin with the Greek invasion of the Near East under Alexander as a war of retribution for the Persian invasion of Greece more than a century earlier. We will consider how the political structure and culture of the multiethnic Hellenistic Greek kingdoms emerged from the wreckage of the Persian Empire and how Rome subsequently built on Hellenistic Greek experience and conflict with the Near East in establishing its empire. We will examine the emergence of Christianity as an example of a Roman or Western response to an originally Eastern religion and, conversely, the emergence of the Islamic faith and its new empire as an Eastern challenge to the Christianized Roman Empire of Late Antiquity. In the spring, we will see how this approach affords a very different view of the Crusades and the battle for the Holy Land as the outgrowth of longstanding cultural and political interactions or competitions that transcend religious faith and doctrine. The course will look at Christian and Muslim cultural relations in Spain and then close by examining the rise of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which originated as a Muslim regime in Eastern Europe and became a major power in Asia only after it had conquered the remaining symbol of the old Christian Roman Empire, Constantinople, in 1453. We will consider primary historical and literary sources, as well as major artistic monuments.

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“A Talent for Every Noble Thing”: Art, Architecture in Italy, 1300-1600

Open , Seminar—Year

This course involves an in-depth survey of the major monuments of Italian art and architecture from 1300 to 1600. Equal emphasis will be given to the histories and societies of major city-states such as Pisa, Siena, Florence, Venice, and Rome; the canon of art works by artists such as Giotto, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo; readings of major critics and historians of Italian art; and the broader intellectual trends, social realities, and movements that provide a context for our understanding of the artists’ and, to a lesser extent, the critics’ creations. Thus, unified Italian church designs will be juxtaposed with gender-segregated social practice, theories of genius with concepts of handicraft, pagan ideals with Christian rituals, creative expression with religious orthodoxy, and popes with monks, dukes, financiers, and “humanist” intellectuals. The first semester will focus on a close reading of texts surrounding the first polemical “humanist” pamphlets about art in early modern history—Alberti’s On Painting and On Architecture—and will include works by Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Gombrich, and Michael Baxandall. The second semester will engage the development of the “High” Renaissance and the intellectual and aesthetic debates surrounding Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael as philosophers, naturalists, geniuses, models, and marginalized outcasts. Class papers will deal with developing a vocabulary for compositional analysis, critical issues in Italian intellectual and social history (particularly, gender studies), and varied interpretive strategies applied to works of visual art and culture. Conference projects may involve selected topics in religion, history, and philosophy of the Italian Renaissance and art and architecture in Europe and the “New World” from 1300 to the present.

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Writing India: Transnational Narratives

Open , Seminar—Fall

The global visibility of South Asian writers has changed the face of contemporary English literature. Many writers from the Indian subcontinent continue to narrate tumultuous events surrounding the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan that occurred with independence from British rule. Their writings narrate legacies and utopian imaginings of the past in light of current dystopic visions and optimistic aspirations. The seminar addresses themes of identity, fragmentation, hybridity, memory, and alienation that link South Asian literary production to postcolonial writing from varied cultures of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Accounts of South Asian communal violence reflect global urgencies. The cultural space of India has been repeatedly transformed and redeployed according to varied cultural projects, political interests, and economic agendas. After briefly considering representations of India in early chronicles of Chinese, Greek, and Persian travelers, we explore modern constructions of India in excerpts from writers of the British Raj. Our major focus is on India as remembered and imagined in selected works of writers, including Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Film adaptations are included. We apply interdisciplinary critical inquiry as we pursue a literature that shifts increasingly from narrating the nation to narrating its diasporic fragments in transnational contexts.

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Images of India: Text/Photo/Film

Open , Seminar—Spring

This seminar addresses colonial and postcolonial representations of India. For centuries, India has been imagined and imaged through the lens of orientalism. In recent decades, writers and visual artists from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have been actively engaged in reinterpreting the British colonial impact on South Asia. Their work presents sensibilities of the colonized in counter narration to images previously established during the Raj. Highlighting previously unexposed impressions, such works inevitably supplement, usually challenge, and frequently undermine traditional accounts underwritten by imperialist interests. Colonial and orientalist discourses depicted peoples of the Indian subcontinent both in terms of degradation and in terms of a romance of empire, thereby rationalizing various economic, political, and psychological agendas. The external invention and deployment of the term “Indian” is emblematic of the epoch, with colonial designation presuming to reframe indigenous identity. Postcolonial writers and artists are, consequently, renegotiating identities. What does it mean to be seen as an Indian? What historical claims are implicit in allegories of ethnicity, linguistic region, and nation? How do such claims inform events taking place today, given the resurgence of Hindu fundamentalism? For this seminar on the semiotics and politics of culture, sources include works by influential South Asian writers, photographers, and filmmakers.

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Religion and the State in China

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Year

News coverage of China often highlights the government’s persecution of religious groups, among them Falungong and Tibetan Buddhism. And yet, the same government tolerates a widespread cult to the deceased Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong as the god of wealth and business success. This course seeks to place China's often contradictory attitudes toward religion within a broader historical and cultural context by looking at the rise and unfolding of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and popular religion. We will focus on two related themes: 1) how different religious groups in China interacted with and affected the state; and 2) how the state created its own religious structure and ultimately shaped the various religions. Questions to be raised will include the following: How did the traditional religions both support and oppose the state? How did the state adopt the symbols and practices of these religions to legitimize its authority? How did the traditional Chinese state conceive of the sacred role of the emperor? What assumption led to its creation of a state religion that controlled private religious practices? How has the contemporary Chinese government borrowed, transformed, or eradicated the traditional relationships between religious groups and the state? We will attempt to answer these questions from a multidisciplinary approach that encompasses religious, institutional, intellectual, and cultural perspectives. Although readings will include secondary sources, emphasis will be placed on primary documents. Sources will include government edicts, ritual manuals, legal cases, religious texts, temple records, private memoirs and diaries, miracle tales, didactic fiction, and folklore.

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Sacrifice

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

This seminar explores themes of sacrifice in classical Indian and Western traditions. After exploring case studies from ancient India and Greece, we analyze survivals of classical sacrifice in contemporary literature and cinema. Sacrificial practices bridge religious, political, and economic aspects of culture. The sacrifice of a scapegoat channels violence and legitimizes acts of killing or destruction in order to serve social interests of surrogacy and catharsis. As sacrament, sacrifice represents transformational mystery. As ceremonial exchange, it facilitates negotiations of status, observance of boundaries, and the redistribution of goods. In specific cultural settings, sacrifice functions as celebration, as a manifestation of goodwill, as insurance, and/or as a source of communion. Seminar topics include: offerings, gift exchange, fasting and feasting, the warrior ethic, victimization and martyrdom, bloodletting and scarification, asceticism, and renunciation. The seminar addresses the politics of sacrifice and scapegoating through critical inquiry into sati (widow immolation) in India, charity and service tourism, court rituals and judicial proceedings, the targeting of ethnic scapegoats, and gender bullying. Primary texts include Hindu myth and ritual, Greek tragedies, Akedah paintings, the Roman Catholic Eucharist, and selected contemporary short stories and films. Readings are drawn from anthropology, literature, comparative religions, and cultural studies.

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Pilgrimage and Tourism: South Asian Practices

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Spring

Among global cultures of travel, pilgrimage is prevalent in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi Islamic traditions of South Asia. At temples and shrines throughout the subcontinent, pilgrims perform sacraments, rites of initiation, sacrifices, and other acts of renunciation. Pilgrim fairs and festivals serve multiple functions, providing venues not only for religious expression but also for arts performance, social negotiation, and economic exchange. This seminar explores the proposition that pilgrimage and tourism are functionally indistinguishable. If categories of travel are to be defined, what role, if any, do travelers’ intentions play in such an analysis? Is a spiritually inscribed journey qualitatively different from tourism with a recreational, cultural, or service agenda? How does the transitional process of a journey from home relate to the experience of arrival at a destination? Through a study of travel memoirs, we explore themes of quest, discovery, and personal transformation. Postcolonial writings on spiritually inscribed journeys raise issues of dislocation, exile, memory, and identity. We inquire critically into traditional mappings of “sacred geographies” and the commercial promotion of competing destinations. We analyze travel industries and the specialists who service the many spectacles and attractions found along pilgrim and tourist routes. Films and photographic sources are used extensively. Readings are drawn from cultural studies, history of religions, anthropology, and personal narrative.

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Romantic Europe

Open , Seminar—Year

Between the 1790s and the middle of the 19th century, European culture was largely shaped by the broad current of thought and feeling that we know as “Romanticism.” This course will examine the rise of the romantic sensibility in the decades between the 1760s and 1800 and survey diverse manifestations of Romanticism in thought, literature, and art during the subsequent half-century. We will pay particular attention to the complex relations between Romanticism and the three most portentous historical developments of its era: the French Revolution; the birth of industrial society in Britain; and the rise of national consciousness among Germans, Italians, and other European peoples. Readings will include prose fiction by Goethe, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Walter Scott; poetry by Wordsworth, Shelley, Hölderlin, and Mickiewicz; works on religion, ethics, and the philosophy of history; and political treatises by the pioneers of modern conservativism, liberalism, and socialism.

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The Enlightenment

Open , Seminar—Year

The 18th-century Enlightenment was arguably the most important single episode in the last thousand years of European intellectual history—the true watershed between the “premodern” world and the “modern” world. Yet historians have found the Enlightenment to be a singularly elusive phenomenon. Enlightenment thought was woven of several very different strands; the champions of “enlightenment” shared a surprisingly large number of assumptions with their supposed opponents; and some of the beliefs that we regard as most characteristic of the Enlightenment were already being attacked by Rousseau and other adventurous pre-Romantic thinkers before the century was half over. This course will examine the development of the Enlightenment from its origins in the age of the Baroque to its demise in the era of the French Revolution and Romanticism. While the course’s central focus will be ideas, values, and sensibilities, we will also consider the economic, social, and political context of the Enlightenment and examine the revolutionary upheavals in European politics and culture that brought it to an end. We will conclude by discussing several key texts of the 1790s that typify the revolt against the Enlightenment outlook with which the 18th century ended.

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The Bible and Literature

Open , Lecture—Year

The Bible: the story of all things, an epic of human liberation and imaginative inspiration; a riven and riveting family saga that tops all others in its depiction of romance, intrigue, deception, seduction, betrayal, existential dread, love, reconciliation, and redemption; an account, as one commentator described it, of God’s ongoing “lover’s quarrel” with humanity; a primary source book for major literature across the planet, still powerful in its influence on the style and subject matter of both prose and poetry. In the first term, this course will provide close readings of major biblical narratives and poetry in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Lectures will explore and interpret a number of patterns and literary types: the major historical narratives of both scriptures; the poetics and speech acts of creation, blessing, promise, covenant, curse, and redemption; the visionary prophetic tradition from Moses to John, the writer of the Apocalypse; the self-reflective theological interpretations of history by Hebrew chroniclers and the New Testament letters of Paul; the sublime poetry of the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and the Apocalypse of John; and the dark wisdom of the Book of Job and of Ecclesiastes. The second term will study the work of major writers who have grounded their own work in biblical themes, narrative patterns, characters, and images and who have so transformed their biblical sources as to challenge their readers to rethink what scripture is and how it works. Selections will be drawn from the work of Dante Alighieri, John Milton, John Bunyan, William Blake, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison. If there is enough interest in the class, there will be a “Bible Blockbusters” film series on Sunday evenings during the spring term.

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17th-Century British Literature

Open , Seminar—Year

Prerequisite: At least one year of a college-level class in the humanities or a strong AP course in literature.

In England during the 17th century, the great ordering coherences of medieval and earlier Renaissance thinking seemed to disintegrate under the warring impulses of individualism and authority, empiricism and faith, and revolutionary transformation and reinforcement of tradition. Yet, even as monarchy and established church were challenged and torn apart, the 17th century produced an extraordinary flowering of drama, poetry, and prose that expressed the contradictory energies of the period. This course will study English writing of the 17th century in a roughly chronological sequence. The first semester will explore the aesthetics and ideology of the Stuart court and the robust and bawdy urban center of London through a reading of masques and plays by Jonson and Shakespeare and their contemporaries; dramatic and meditative experiments in “metaphysical” and moral verse by John Donne, Ben Jonson, Aemilia Lanyer, George Herbert, and other poets; various developments in scientific, philosophical, and meditative prose by Francis Bacon, Richard Burton, and Thomas Browne; and the early poetry of John Milton. The second semester will study major writing in the period of the English Revolution and Restoration. Our focus will be on Milton, but we will also study the poetry of the Cavaliers, Katherine Philips, Andrew Marvell, and John Dryden and the prose of Thomas Hobbes, John Bunyan, Aphra Behn, and Margaret Cavendish.

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Holy Lives: Spirituality, Saints, and the Cult of Celebrity in the Middle Ages

Open , Seminar—Spring

The saint in the Middle Ages fostered a cult of celebrity. The rise of pilgrimage, the pervasive fascination with relics, and sensational tales of both martyrdom and miracle popularized saints across England and the Continent. This course will focus on stories interested in the heroism, intercession, and sacrifice of saintly figures, with readings to include Latin, Old English, and Middle English saints’ lives, as well as devotional narratives. We will consider how the paradox of saints—disembodied yet concretely present, at a liminal position between Heaven and Earth—might have transformed conceptions of the spiritual life. Taking a gendered approach, we will pay special attention to the narratives of heroic women saints and their reading communities. This course will encourage visits to see reliquaries and other saintly artifacts housed in New York to complement our classroom study of the textual and material remains of saints.

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How to Become Who You Are: Readings in Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Life

Open , Seminar—Fall

In this course, we will read selected works from different phases of Nietzsche’s career and become acquainted with some of the central themes of his philosophy, including his views of art, tragedy, history, and morality. While we will give each theme its own due, our guiding thread will be Nietzsche’s promotion of a morality grounded in an affirmation of life—“yes-saying,” as he called it—and his rejection of all ethical appeals to something beyond this life, this body, this world. To cast light on the profound impact and enduring life of this philosophy, we will accompany our primary readings in Nietzsche with critical appropriations of his thought by leading 20th-century philosophers, including Heidegger, Irigaray, Deleuze, and Foucault.

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Building Resilience: Tools From Positive Psychology

Open , Seminar—Fall

For decades, psychology could be considered the study of what is wrong with individuals. Recent contributions from positive psychology are an effort to redirect the field toward areas where human beings get it right. An introduction to the relevant theories and research in positive psychology will help ground our thinking about this perspective and what it has to say about human potential and well-being. A review of recent empirical research will allow students to contemplate the following questions: Does money make us happy? Can listening to music build resilience? Why do some people persevere through adversity while others do not? How does our biological need to connect with others act as a buffer against stress? What benefits do clinical research and practice stand to gain from an integrated positive psychology perspective? Readings will draw upon topics related to attachment and social connection, mindsets and optimism, pleasure and happiness, and meaning and purpose. Particular attention will be paid to the effects of stress and negative thought patterns on physical and mental wellness. Weekly challenges and reflections will be used to connect course materials to students’ lived experiences.

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First-Year Studies: Forms and Fictions

Open , FYS—Year

This class explores the gift of form as it comes to us from writers from around the world. We will read and then write our versions of folk and fairy tales, epics, short stories, short plays, and anything else we care to try. Second semester will involve writing seven episodes of a fiction. In other words, we will learn how to use a short form to write a long work. Class may involve a discussion of literature, a sharing of our writing, an exercise, a collaboration. While we are exploring the boundaries and premises of various forms, we will step over other boundaries—between the real and the imaginary, this world and another, text and picture, and one form and another. Students will be invited to add visual and sound components to their work, if they wish. In addition to classes, students will have an individual conference every other week and a half-group conference on alternating weeks.

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Eco-Poetry

Open , Seminar—Year

In this poetry class—a yearlong school of poetry and the Earth—we will consider the great organism Gaia, of which we are a part. We will read the long and rich tradition of poetry addressing itself to this subject, from the early indigenous peoples through the Zen monks and Wordsworth and right up through Gary Snyder and to utterly contemporary poets such as Brenda Hillman and Chase Twitchell. We will also read books and articles that teach us about the physical world. We will wonder how eco-poetry is different from nature poetry. We will practice one and then the other. Each student will research an aspect of the natural world and incorporate that knowledge into documentary poems. Each student will present his/her knowledge and poems to the class community as a conference project each semester. We will read books of poems but also watch films, take field trips, and meet with each other outside of class. By the end of the class, my hope is that each of us will have a greater understanding of the great organism that we call Earth and will create a collection of poems that engage the questions that our class raises: What is time? What is death? What is Eden? Where is the garden now? Who are the other organisms? How have we, as a species, affected the other organisms? How have we affected the oceans, the earth, the air? How can poetry address the ecological crisis? Required for this class: intellectual curiosity, empathy, and a willingness to observe the world—to pay attention and to write poetry that matters—beyond the individual self. This is a class for experienced writers, as well as for those who want to give writing poetry a try. All are welcome.

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Our World, Other Worlds

Open , Seminar—Year

This course explores prose writing, with an emphasis on the creation of a world. The writing can be fiction or nonfiction and can take place in this world, another, or several. We will explore ideas about this world and writing about this world and others and work on our writing to make it livelier and more real no matter how imaginary our world is. This course runs in two parts, one semester each. You can take one or both parts. One part will involve writing episodes to build a world that, revised, will become a conference project; the other part will work on craft and content exercises of all kinds, with the conference project distinct from the exercises. Readings include folk tales, religious writing, philosophy, fiction, and newspaper items.

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What’s the Story? A Radio Journalism Class

Open , Seminar—Fall

Almost two years into a politically divisive presidency that has fractured the country—and with the proliferation of fake news—journalism is more important than ever. And so are the skills required to do the job. The landscape of radio is exploding, and new podcasts are being launched almost faster than listeners can decide which episode to download next. These outlets, shows, and storymaking machines are hungry—both for stories and for the producers with the skills to know how to tell stories. In this class, we’ll learn the fundamentals of making radio news—both writing and production, for short stories and long. We’ll cover editing, software, interviewing skills, and, of course, how to hold your microphone. We’ll learn what makes a story, how to get good tape, and how to write for the ear (very different than for the eye—just try comparing an article from The New York Times with a transcript from NPR). We’ll also cover the skills critical for all nonfiction narrative storytelling, print or audio, from “Morning Edition” to “This American Life.” We’ll talk research, ethics, fact checking, how to find sources, and how to get them to talk. Finally, we’ll cover the art of the pitch. That’s industry lingo for selling your story. It’s no good getting the scoop if you don’t know how to sell your stuff. News is new. Come and learn something new.

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