Religion

Religious traditions identify themselves with, and draw sustenance from, the texts that they hold sacred. In Sarah Lawrence College religion courses, these 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.

2017-2018 Courses

Religion

First-Year Studies: The Hebrew Bible

Open , FYS—Year

The Hebrew Bible stands at the foundation of Western culture. Its stories permeate our literature, our art...indeed, our sense of identity. The Hebrew Bible's ideas inform our laws, have given birth to our revolutions and social movements, and have thereby made most of our social institutions possible (as well as the movements to remove them). What is this book? How was it written? Who wrote it? Who preserved it for us? Why has all or part of this body of literature been considered holy to the practitioners of Judaism and Christianity? Four thousand years ago, various groups from small tribe-wandering nomads would get together and tell stories. These stories were not preserved on stone tombs but in the hearts and memories of the people to whom they belonged. We will read the collection of traditions in a book called Genesis and compare these stories with other texts (written in mud and stone) such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Babylonian Creation Epic, which were contemporary with biblical traditions. We will read the biblical epic of liberation, Exodus; the historical books that weave theology into a history of a nation; and the oracles of the great Hebrew prophets of Israel, those reformers, judges, priests, mystics, and poets to whom modern culture owes its grasp of justice. We will trace the social, intellectual, and political history of the people formed by these traditions from the Late Bronze until the Roman age.

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First-Year Studies: Islam

Open , FYS—Year

This course will provide a comprehensive introduction to the foundational texts of Islam, the historical development of different Muslim cultures, and the contemporary issues that animate Islam’s ever-evolving manifestations. We will begin with the Qur’an, a book whose juxtaposition of narrative fragments, apocalyptic imagery, divine voice, and sociopolitical themes conveyed in rhymed Arabic prose has both entranced and confounded readers. We will look at the historical roots of the “isms” used today to describe the orientations of Sunnism, Shi‘ism, Sufism, and Salafism. Looking beyond the Middle East, where only about 20% of the current global population of Muslims reside, we will examine how migrating people, concepts, texts, and practices both transform and are transformed by existing traditions in different geographical locations. Contemporary preoccupations such as the status of women in Islam and the relationship between Islam and violence will be examined from a variety of perspectives, illustrating the intricacies of Muslim and non-Muslim acts of interpretation and their relationship to power and authority.

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The Buddhist Tradition in India, Tibet, and Southeast Asia

Open , Lecture—Fall

This intoductory course treats the evolution of Buddhism in India from the origins of the religion as a group of "world-renouncing" ascetics through the development of large, state-supported monastic communities and the emergence of the major reform movements known as Mahāyāna and Tantra. The course also focuses on the Buddhism of two regions of the world—Southeast Asia and the Tibetan plateau—where the respective traditions have been most self-consciously concerned with maintaining precedents inherited from India. Equal attention is paid to (1) matters of philosophy and doctrine, (2) religious rites and practices, and (3) social and institutional arrangements. The lectures are accompanied by copious audiovisual materials. Readings include An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices, 2nd ed., Peter Harvey, Cambridge University Press, 2013. For students who wish to continue studying the development of the Buddhist tradition in other parts of the world, a companion lecture course, The Buddhist Tradition in East Asia, is offered in the spring semester.

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The Buddhist Tradition in East Asia

Open , Lecture—Spring

This introductory course focuses on the Buddhism of East Asia: China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Buddhism first began to take root in China in the early centuries of the Common Era, having been transmitted from India via Central Asia and the maritime states of Southeast Asia. Buddhism initially met with much resistance, being branded an "alien" cult that was at odds with native Chinese (especially Confucian) values. Eventually, however, the Indian religion adapted to Chinese culture and came to have a profound influence on it, spawning new schools of Buddhism such as Tiantai, Huayan, Pure Land, and Chan (called Zen in Japan). The smaller neighboring countries that fell under the sway of Chinese civilization—Korea, Japan, and Vietnam—first imported forms of Buddhism that had taken shape in China, not India; but each, in turn, further changed the religion in ways that accorded with their own indigenous cultures. Equal attention is paid in this course to (1) matters of philosophy and doctrine, (2) religious rites and practices, and (3) social and institutional arrangements. The lectures are accompanied by copious audiovisual materials. The course has no prerequisite but is suitable for students who have already taken the companion lecture, The Buddhist Tradition in India, Tibet, and Southeast Asia, which is offered in the fall.

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Chan and Zen Buddhism

Open , Seminar—Year

This course is an in-depth, historical examination of the philosophy, mythology, literature, institutional arrangements, religious practices, art, and architecture associated with this most famous and widely misunderstood branch of East Asian Buddhism. The Chan (Zen) school of Buddhism arose in China as the result of a cross-cultural exchange of epic proportions: the gradual intrusion of an alien set of religious ideas, values, and practices—those belonging to Indian Buddhism—into China between the first and the eighth centuries of the Common Era and the subsequent efforts of some 20 generations of Chinese Buddhists to defend, adapt, domesticate, and finally make the foreign religion entirely their own. Chan became the most "Chinese" school of Buddhism by defining itself in terms of indigenous concepts of clan genealogy, by exalting members of its spiritual lineage as native-born buddhas, and by allowing those buddhas to speak in the vernacular, using a mode of rhetoric that was heavily influenced by the Confucian and Daoist traditions. The course begins by outlining the Indian Buddhist doctrines and practices that were imported into China and by summarizing the indigenous cultural milieu that was initially quite hostile to the alien religion. It then explores the various compromises and adaptations of Indian Buddhist teachings, practices, and institutions that took shape within the Chan tradition and enabled it to emerge in the Song dynasty (960-1278) as the predominant school of Chinese Buddhism. The main theme of the second semester is the transmission of the Chan school of Buddhism to Japan, where it became known as Zen, and the subsequent development of the tradition in that country from the 13th century to the present. Books and readings include Encyclopedia of Buddhism and Zen Masters of Meditation in Images and Writings, Brinker, both PDF files; Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra, Conze, Edward, trans., Vintage, 2001; ; and The Vimalakirti Sutra, Watson, Burton, trans., Columbia University Press, 2000. A background knowledge of East Asian history, languages, or religions is desirable but not required.

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American Muslims: History, Politics, and Culture

Open , Seminar—Year

The United States has a long and complicated history with its very diverse body of Muslim citizens. Muslim slaves were brought involuntarily to this country and forcibly kept from practicing their religion. Many of their descendants began to rediscover Islam in the early 20th century and were joined by an increasing number of Muslim immigrants after the Immigration and Nationality Act ended racial quotas on immigration in 1965. White converts joined them throughout the years. Although Muslims currently comprise only 1% of the American population, their significance goes well beyond their numbers. Beginning with Malcolm X in the 1950s and early 1960s and continuing to the post-9/11 era in the 21st century, perceptions about Muslims have functioned as barometers of deep social and political anxieties. To carefully examine these anxieties is to expose major fault lines in the domestic and foreign policies of the United States. The rise of fearmongering discourse from self-proclaimed “experts” on radical Islam after 9/11 is very much connected to the religious, political, and economic objectives of different groups, which are important to investigate. This course will look behind, but also beyond, the hot-button issues that dominate current headlines, exploring the variety of ways in which Muslim Americans have flourished in America and contributed to its intellectual and creative heritage in substantial ways. Material studied throughout the year will include many examples from the rich body of American Muslim memoirs, social and political critique, theology, literature, poetry, and art.

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The Holocaust

Open , Seminar—Spring

The Holocaust raises fundamental questions about the nature of our civilization. How could a policy of genocide be carried out by one of the most advanced and sophisticated countries of Europe? In this course, we will examine how these appalling events took place, beginning with anti-Semitic ideology and policy. At the same time, we will confront a surprisingly neglected perspective of the victims, whose perspective—how they chose to respond to the impending catastrophe (through art, diary-writing, mysticism, violence, hiding, etc.)—has not been integrated into an overall history of the Holocaust. Finally, we will attempt to come to grips with the crucial but neglected phenomenon of bystanders—non-Jews who stood by while their neighbors were methodically annihilated, rescued Jews, or became perpetrators themselves. We shall inevitably be compelled to make moral judgments. But these will be of value if they are informed and based on a fuller understanding of the perspectives of the various actors in this dark chapter of European history.

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Jewish Mysticism From Antiquity to the Present

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Spring

This course examines a vibrant countertrend within Judaism known as mysticism. We begin with the biblical and ancient “Chariot” mysticism, proceed to ascetic medieval German pietism, and dwell at length on the erotically-charged “Kabbalah” that emerged in medieval Spain and Southern France—observing its unique conceptions of God, evil, demonology, sin, death, sexuality, and magic. We then follow the emergence of circles of mystics in 16th-century Safed (Land of Israel) that eventually sparked a mass messianic movement around the figure of Shabbetai Tzvi. In the second semester, we delve into the most popular and enduring Jewish mystical movement, Hasidism. Founded on the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov (The Besht) in 18th-century Eastern Europe, Hasidism was forged into a mass movement by charismatic miracle-workers called “tzaddikim” and spread by means of oral and written tales. We follow the emergence of Hasidic dynasties, gauge Hasidic responses to modern phenomena like Zionism and the Holocaust, and follow the movement’s continued flourishing today in tight-knit communities from Brooklyn to Jerusalem. Finally, we will examine popular contemporary neo-Kabbalah. Throughout, we strive to appreciate different manifestations of Jewish mysticism within their changing historical contexts.

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Readings in Christian Mysticism: Late Antiquity

Intermediate/Advanced , Seminar—Year

Permission of the instructor is required.

This course will focus on the intersection of Jewish theology and Greco-Roman philosophy in the early Christian texts commonly seen to contain "mystical elements." We will define these elements as texts that have to do with the desire on the part of the reader to "know," experience, or "be with" God and with the author's attempt to properly demarcate the boundaries within which these desires can be fulfilled. Christian mysticism is perhaps best thought of as erotic theology—theology that involves the desire for God. Recognizing this, we must also acknowledge that inherent to this theology is a profound paradox. What is desired must be conceived. It must be held in the grasp of one's understanding in order to be attained. While this is fine for an orange, or even wealth and power, it is much more problematic when the object of desire is God, the creator of the universe. Theologians in the early church developed a language of desire and specific sets of practices involving one's lifestyle and prayer in order to resolve this paradox and fulfill their desire. They began to ponder this paradox with a synthesis of a biblical theology of divine revelation (i.e., the revelation of God as preserved in the biblical canon, symbolized in both the revelation of YHWH on Mt. Sinai and in the incarnation of the Divine Logos as Jesus of Nazareth) and Platonic expression of a desire for the ultimate good, truth, or beauty. In order to better grasp these ideas, we will read parts of the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels, and contemplate the anthropology of desire set forth by Plato in the Symposium and the Phaedrus. Educated in the Hellenistic world, the early church fathers took these ideas for granted and attempted to find common ground with their Christian inheritance. We will study the phenomenon of Gnostic Christianity, an early attempt at synthesis of biblical material and Greek philosophy. We will then move on to encounter the great early Christian writers—such as Origen and Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Psuedo-Dionysius, and Ambrose of Milan—and conclude our study with a lengthy look at what, for Western culture, is the seminal work of Augustine of Hippo.

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First-Year Studies: Pilgrimage and Initiation

Open , FYS—Year

1) Pilgrimage and initiation play a major role in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi Islamic traditions of South Asia. This seminar introduces students to the cultures of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka through a comparative study of religious practices. In homes, temples, and shrines throughout this region, devotees perform elaborate rituals of initiation. These often occur at moments of life-cycle transition. Calendar-based sacraments also occur on the major holidays of each religion. When devotees celebrate these ceremonies, they are "performing" important cultural values. 2) Globally, pilgrimage festivals can be seen as codes for interpreting cultures. Meaningful journeys reflect the structure of initiation rites in that one is transformed by the experience. 3) Pilgrim fairs and festivals serve multiple functions. They provide venues not only for religious expression but also for arts performance, social negotiation, and economic exchange. 4) This seminar explores questions such as: Are pilgrimage and tourism functionally indistinguishable? What role, if any, do travelers’ intentions play in such an analysis? Is a spiritually inscribed journey qualitatively different from tourism with recreational, cultural, or service agendas? How does the transitional process of a journey relate to the experience of arrival at a destination? What do pilgrimage and initiation sometimes have in common with the experience of immigration? 5) Using 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. 6) Sources: Within travel industries, we analyze the specialists who service many spectacles and attractions found along pilgrimage routes. Films and photographic sources are used extensively. Readings are drawn from cultural studies, history of religions, anthropology, and personal narratives.

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Images of India: Text/Photo/Film

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

1) This seminar addresses colonial and postcolonial representations of India. For centuries, India has been imagined and imaged through encoded idioms 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. 2) Colonial and orientalist discourses depicted peoples of the Indian subcontinent in terms of both degradation and 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. 3) Postcolonial writers and artists, therefore, continue to renegotiate identities. What does it mean to be seen as an Indian? What historical claims are implicit in allegories of language, ethnicity, and nation? How do such claims inform events taking place today, given the resurgence of religious fundamentalisms? This seminar on the semiotics and politics of culture is based on works by influential South Asian writers, photographers, and filmmakers.

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Hindu Iconography and Ritual 

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

This seminar focuses on the visual cultures of India and Nepal. Hindu traditions encompass a dramatically diverse range of beliefs and practices. Iconography provides a pathway toward decoding that diversity. How are the proverbial 330,000 gods and goddesses understood to be manifestations of a common unity? How does the Hindu pantheon encode gender with respect to status, functions, and roles? Where are caste hierarchies reflected among the emblems held by multi-armed deities? In what ways does iconography narrate the history of Aryan and Dravidian interactions? Through a study of painting, sculpture, popular lithographs, and multi-media sources, this seminar offers a window into the social histories, cultural practices, and spiritual values of Indian civilization.

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Spiritual Autobiography

Open , Seminar—Spring

Around 398, Christian bishop and theologian Augustine of Hippo produced one of the most influential books of all time: his Confessions—a lengthy meditation on events during the first 33 years of Augustine’s life, undertaken in an effort to comprehend how God acted through those events to transform an ambitious but confused young Roman, attracted by the exotic Asian cult of the Persian prophet Mani, into a dedicated Christian. Augustine’s book is arguably the first real autobiography ever written, and the author’s profound exploration of his own motivations and feelings led William James to term Augustine the “first modern man.” The Confessions also served as the model for hundreds of other spiritual autobiographies written over the course of the next 1,600 years, including masterworks such as The Life of St. Teresa of Ávila, William Wordsworth’s Prelude, John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua, Leo Tolstoy’s Confession, and Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. In this course, students will read and discuss these and other classics of Christian autobiography. They will also be invited to examine a number of comparable works by writers standing outside the Christian tradition, including the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and M. K. Gandhi’s Story of My Experiments With Truth. These readings are gripping, because they attempt a uniquely challenging feat: to capture the history of an individual soul’s relations with the Infinite through the language that we use to describe our everyday experience. We will combine detailed literary analysis of the autobiographies, with an examination of their content in the light of recent writing on the phenomenology of religion. Conference projects may address a wide range of topics in the general area of the history of religion and religious expression.

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First-Year Studies: From Homer to Plato

Open , FYS—Year

The habit of asking questions, which constitutes Western thought, has its primary origin in Greece. In this class, we will read Greek epics, tragedies, histories, comedies, and works of philosophy in order to think about how our thinking got started.

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