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 texts of a particular religion—whether studying Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, or 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.

Religion 2024-2025 Courses

First-Year Studies: The Hebrew Bible

FYS—Year | 10 credits

RLGN 1024

The Hebrew Bible stands at the foundation of Western culture. Its stories permeate our literature, our art...indeed, our sense of identity. Its 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, rather, 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 Age until the Roman Age. The conferences for this course will meet weekly until October Study Days and then biweekly for the rest of the school year.

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The Buddhist Tradition in India, Tibet, and Southeast Asia

Open, Lecture—Fall | 5 credits

RLGN 2024

This introductory 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 Mahayana and Tantra. The course also focuses on the Buddhism of two regions of the world—the Tibetan plateau and Southeast Asia—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.

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Jewish History I: The People of the Book

Open, Lecture—Fall | 5 credits

RLGN 2302

This course will provide a survey of the history of the Jewish people, beginning with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and ending with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 CE—an event which some scholars have argued represented the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern world. The class will be focused on two central questions: Firstly, what does it mean when a community that was once oriented around the Temple and the Holy Land went into exile and had to reconstitute itself as a community grounded in the text and the book? Secondly, what does it mean for the Jews to be a people; and how does the idea of peoplehood relate to emergent concepts of nationhood, religion, race, and ethnicity? The class will focus heavily on the emergence of the form of rabbinic literary interpretation known as midrash and the diverse modes of reading Jewish texts that emerged after the destruction of the Temple; the place of Jews under both Christian and Muslim rule; and the forms of Jewish philosophy, literature, and mystical thought that flourished in these differing cultural contexts. We will discuss the historical development of Jewish law (halakhah), how it emerged through contested interpretations of Jewish texts, and how legal concepts had to evolve to respond to the changing sociopolitical conditions under which Jews lived. Though the class will discuss anti-Jewish persecution and violence across the centuries, we will also focus on moments of cultural interchange and cooperation. Students will read both primary sources, including rabbinic texts and Jewish philosophical and mystical treatises, as well as selected secondary source materials. This course is designed to be taken as part of a two-semester sequence with Jewish History II in the spring semester, but students are permitted to enroll in only one semester or the other, based on interest.

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The Buddhist Tradition in East Asia

Open, Lecture—Spring | 5 credits

RLGN 2025

This introductory course focuses on the Buddhism of East Asia: China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. 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. It 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, Vietnam, and Japan—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 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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Jewish History II: What Does it Mean to be Modern?

Open, Lecture—Spring | 5 credits

RLGN 2802

This course will provide a survey of the modern history of the Jewish people, beginning with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and continuing until the present day. In so doing, we will focus heavily on the question of what modernity itself means and how modern concepts—such as nationalism and the nation-state, race and ethnicity, religious liberty, and individualism and collectivism—were, in many senses, defined in relation to the Jewish people, with Jewish minority communities serving as test cases for questions of what it means to be a modern human. The class will focus extensively on the process of Jewish emancipation and citizenship and on the philosophical and cultural changes underpinning this process. Yet, we will not focus merely on Jews as passive observers of these historical processes but, rather, as active agents shaping their own histories and their own struggles for rights. We will examine ways in which Jewish law had to be adapted to fit into emergent concepts of civil law and how Jews responded to and contested some of those changes. The class will delve into the relationship of Jews to Enlightenment philosophy, the emergence of distinctively Jewish political ideologies such as Zionism and Bundism, and the relationship of Jews to both European and Middle Eastern nationalisms. We will discuss the Holocaust, but we will situate it in relation to broader historical processes of nationalism and violence; and we will discuss the relationship of Jews in Europe to Jews in the Middle East and North Africa. Though not primarily a class on contemporary Israeli politics, we will discuss the formation of the modern state of Israel and the way in which the founding of the Jewish state shapes the identity of Jews who have chosen in remain in diaspora. Throughout the semester, we will continually ask these central questions: What does it mean to be a modern human, and how does the concept of modernity necessarily construct itself in relation to the Jewish people? This course is designed to be taken as part of a two-semester sequence with Jewish History I in the fall semester, but students are permitted to enroll in only one semester or the other, based on interest.

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Readings in Christian Mysticism: Late Antiquity

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Year | 10 credits

RLGN 3855

Texts commonly seen to contain “mystical elements” have to do with the desire on the part of the reader to “know,” experience, or “be with” God, along 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; it concerns the aspect of theology that involves the desire for God. Recognizing this, we must also be acknowledged 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 the desire. Early Christian theologians 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 rhetoric with respect to the expression of a desire for the ultimate good, truth, or beauty. The mystery is informed, on the one hand, by the anthropology of desire set forth by Plato in, for example, 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. As such, we will begin our study by applying ourselves to this general background, including the phenomenon of Gnostic Christianity. We will then move on to encounter the great early Christian writers—such as Origen and Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Psuedo-Dionysius, 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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Religion in Contemporary Japan

Open, Seminar—Fall | 5 credits

RLGN 3217

As an examination of religious beliefs, practices, and institutions in Japanese society today, the course covers all of the major religious traditions and movements in contemporary Japan: Shinto, the various schools of Buddhism, Shugendo, Christianity, and the so-called New Religions that have flourished in the postwar period. Issues of historical development are touched on 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. Prior study or experience of things Japanese (language, literature, history, etc.) is desirable but not required.

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Perspectives on 9/11: Religion, Politics, and Culture

Open, Seminar—Fall | 5 credits

RLGN 3410

It has now been more than 20 years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. How have perceptions changed about the events that occurred that day? Shortly after the attacks, then-President George W. Bush insisted that Islam was not to blame and, instead, framed the battle ahead as “the war on terror.” But what about those who insisted that what had happened was an almost inevitable result of the “clash of civilizations”? How did Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda frame the narrative and their part in it? What kinds of arguments were presented to justify the attack and the US military interventions that followed? In the wake of the attacks on 9/11, what has been called the “Islamophobia industry” developed and flourished, taking full advantage of new forms of media. What role have both mainstream and alternative media played in how Muslims have been portrayed and the discrimination that they have faced in the years since 9/11? Ten years after the attacks, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum opened in New York City. How have this site and other memorials shaped the collective memory of the events, as well as the curriculum being taught to a generation born after 2001? In addition to the architects of these memorials, artists, writers, and filmmakers have explored the many religious, political, and social dimensions of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. How have these works of imagination expanded the ways in which people have made sense of, and found meaning in, painful events? While this seminar is being offered as a religion course, the approach is an interdisciplinary one—drawing upon readings and other materials from a variety of academic, artistic, and literary fields.

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The Qur’an and Its Interpretation

Open, Seminar—Fall | 5 credits

RLGN 3455

To watch a Muslim kiss the Qur’an is to recognize that this is not a “book” in the ordinary sense of the word. There is an art to reciting its verses and an art to its calligraphy. The uncovering of its meanings has been variously understood by Muslims to be a matter of common sense, diligent scholarship, or profound inspiration. In this seminar, we will begin by studying the style and content of the Qur’an. Some of the themes that may be discussed are the nature and function of humans and supernatural beings, free will and determinism, the structure of this and other worlds, God’s attributes of mercy and wrath, gender and family relations, other religions, and the legitimate use of violence. We will also look at the types of literature that developed in response to the Qur’an in texts ranging from the entertaining stories of the prophets, to scholastic theological and philosophical analysis, to poetic mystical insights. Contemporary writings written by Muslims will be included that mine the riches of the classical heritage of Qur’anic exegesis while grappling with the difficulties of dealing with a text that originated in seventh-century Arabia.

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Gender, Sexuality, and the Body in Judaism

Open, Seminar—Fall | 5 credits

RLGN 3144

In recent years, scholarship in Jewish studies has recognized that much of recorded Jewish history and writing has centered the male, heterosexual, cisgender Jew as the normative Jewish figure and has failed to reckon sufficiently with the perspectives of Jewish women, queer Jews, trans Jews, and other Jews holding marginalized gender and sexual identities. At the same time, scholars have noted that Jewish literature and rabbinic sources contain fascinating resources to interrogate gender norms and, in particular, to explore how the ambiguity of gender roles contained within rabbinic sources does or does not map onto contemporary gender binaries. Building from this perspective, this class aims to explore the evolution of debates about gender and sexuality in Judaism, focusing both on textual sources and on the lived experiences of Jewish people. Topics to be covered include: the status of women under halakhah (Jewish law); gender in the Talmud and Jewish religious texts; constructions of masculinity and femininity; debates over the proper role of the body and the gendered nature of religious practice and religious authority; the role of women in Jewish emancipation and the changing nature of Jewish gender norms in the modern era; the relationship of women and queer Jews to nationalisms and citizenship; Zionist discourses on the relationship between land, rootedness, and gender; and the gendered politics of Jewish identity in both Europe and the Middle East. Throughout the course, we will read both primary and secondary sources; the primary sources will include Jewish religious texts, as well as fiction and autobiography produced by Jewish women and queer Jews. We will ask the questions: Who claims the right to speak for a tradition, and what does it mean to say that certain Jewish bodies are and are not normative? In so doing, we will also review some of the key debates surrounding gender studies and queer studies in the field of religious studies more broadly, and students will gain a basic understanding of some of the key methodological and theoretical debates in contemporary queer theory.

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Buddhist Meditation

Open, Seminar—Spring | 5 credits

RLGN 3210

Most branches of the Buddhist tradition throughout history have embraced the idea that a deluded apprehension of one’s “self” and the “things” that make up one’s world is the root cause of all suffering experienced by humans and other living beings in the round of rebirth (sa?sara). On a more mundane level, Buddhists have generally held that regulating the “mind”—the deep-seated nexus of habitual responses, proclivities, and beliefs that filters our perceptions and directs our actions—is the key to achieving individual satisfaction and social harmony and justice. Thus, whether the aim is ultimate salvation, happiness in this life, or simply the attainment of material benefits, Buddhists have often prescribed some program of sustained mental discipline—some kind of “meditation” practice—as the best means of working toward the goal. But “Buddhist meditation” is only a loose rubric that covers a wide range of different practices as, for example, techniques for calming the mind and entering into trance; procedures for the systematic philosophical analysis of ultimate reality; mental exercises meant to suppress negative emotions (e.g., anger) and foster postive ones (e.g., loving kindness); the cultivation of “mindfulness,” in which one strives to maintain a constant, detached awareness of one’s own physical and mental states without trying to change them; mental exercises for recalling and repenting bad deeds done in the past; the visualization of deities, performed in conjunction with devotional prayer; the “investigation of words” attributed to Zen masters, also known as koan practice; and so on. In this course, we examine a selection of texts deriving from the Indian, Southeast Asian, East Asian, and Tibetan Buddhist traditions that treat these different types of meditation. Readings are in English translation.

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Sufi Sciences of the Soul

Open, Seminar—Spring | 5 credits

RLGN 3408

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. The 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 only be accomplished 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 both the past and the present, this course will explore their systematic exposition of the “sciences of the soul.”

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Contemporary Muslim Novels and Creative Nonfiction

Open, Seminar—Spring | 5 credits

RLGN 3474

In current global circumstances, Islam is all too frequently represented solely in terms of political and militant ideologies. For those who wish to dig deeper, there are the rich and varied traditions of classical religious scholarship and jurisprudence. But to look at Islam through these lenses alone is to miss alternate sensibilities that are just as important in providing the material from which many Muslims construct their identities. In 1988, the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz became the first Muslim writer to win the Nobel prize in literature. Although Mahfouz was one of the first to adopt the format of the novel, in recent years many new writers emerging from Muslim majority and minority areas around the world have found broad audiences. Their works embrace, resist, reject, transmute, and/or show nostalgia for the beliefs and practices with which the authors grew up or have adopted. As natives, immigrants, third culture, or converts, some of the writers to be explored here have actively promoted themselves as Muslim writers, while others question this label or view it as only one signifier of many. The writings that have been selected will be ones that deal substantially with issues of Muslim identity. All of them were either written in English or have been translated into English. No prior knowledge of Islam is necessary to take this course.

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The Holocaust in Cultural Memory

Open, Seminar—Spring | 5 credits

RLGN 3722

The Holocaust is one of the most widely discussed and studied events of the 20th century, raising vital and challenging political and philosophical questions about nationalism, the nature of the modern nation-state, the human propensity for mass violence, and the possibility of minority integration. As a result, the Holocaust has become a sort of canvas upon which a huge array of postwar and contemporary political, philosophical, and cultural figures and voices have projected their own thoughts and messages. This course will examine the way in which the Holocaust has become a symbol of human evil and destruction in contemporary cultural memory and will ask difficult questions about the use of the Holocaust as a political symbol by both Jewish and non-Jewish voices. Questions to be examined in the course include: How has the construction of World War II as the “good war” shaped contemporary American cultural identity? How do American Jews relate to the destruction of European Jewry? How has Germany reckoned with its own historical guilt through the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“coping with the past”)? How have Central and Eastern European nations confronted or denied their own collaboration and complicity with the extermination of their Jewish populations? How are countries such as Poland attempting to criminalize discussions of their potential historical complicity in the Holocaust? We will discuss Zionist and anti-Zionist mobilizations of Holocaust memory in political debates, the spread of Holocaust denial, and why political movements such as protestors against COVID restrictions have compared themselves to Jews under Nazism. We will also think about how Holocaust memory has shaped contemporary Jewish identity, as well as the fraught question of what it means to live as a Jewish person after more than one-third of the Jews on Earth were exterminated. The class will include both philosophical and literary sources, as well as select films. Students will also gain a basic introduction to some key texts in memory studies and trauma studies. We will inevitably confront moral questions about guilt, culpability, and the obligation to remember; but we will only pass moral judgment after attempting to understand the diverse perspectives animating the Holocaust as a symbol of cultural memory. Though the class will begin with a brief overview of the history of the Holocaust itself, it is not primarily a course about Holocaust history but, rather, about postwar cultural constructions of Holocaust memory. As a result, some familiarity with Holocaust history will be helpful for the course, though it is not required.

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Understanding Experience: Phenomenological Approaches

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Year

How does a chronic illness affect a person’s orientation to the everyday? What are the social and political forces that underpin life in a homeless shelter? What is the experiential world of a blind person, a musician, a refugee, or a child at play? In an effort to answer these and like-minded questions, anthropologists have become increasingly interested in developing phenomenological accounts of particular lived realities in order to understand—and convey to others—the nuances and underpinnings of such realities in terms that more general social or symbolic analyses cannot achieve. In this context, phenomenology offers an analytic method that works to understand and describe in words phenomena as they appear to the consciousnesses of certain peoples. The phenomena most often in question for anthropologists include the workings of time, perception, selfhood, language, bodies, suffering, and morality as they take form in particular lives within the context of any number of social, linguistic, and political forces. In this course, we will explore phenomenological approaches in anthropology by reading and discussing some of the most significant efforts along these lines. Each student will also try their hand at developing a phenomenological account of a specific social or subjective reality through a combination of ethnographic research, participant observation, and ethnographic writing.

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Art and Society in the Lands of Islam

Open, Lecture—Spring

This course will explore the architecture and visual arts of societies in which Islam is a strong political, cultural, or social presence. We will follow the history of some of these societies through the development of their arts and architecture, using case studies to explore their diverse artistic languages from the advent of Islam through the contemporary world. We will begin with an introduction to the history surrounding the advent of Islam and the birth of arts and architecture that respond to the needs of the new Islamic community. We will proceed to follow the developments of diverse artistic and architectural languages of expression as Islam spreads to the Mediterranean and to Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America—exploring the ways in which arts can help define and express identities for people living in multiconfessional societies. We will then draw this exploration into the present day, in which global economics, immigration, and politics draw the architecture and artistic attitudes of Islam into the global contemporary discourse. Our work will include introductions to some of the theoretical discourses that have emerged concerning cultural representation and exchange and appropriation in art and architecture. One of our allied goals will be to learn to read works of art and to understand how an artistic expression that resists representation can connect with its audience. And throughout this course, we will ask: Can there be an Islamic art?

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Early Christian and Byzantine Art and Architecture

Open, Seminar—Year

Fall: Early Christian Art and Architecture
In the fall, this course will examine the emergence and development of Christian art in the Mediterranean and Europe during the later ancient and early medieval periods. Here, this development will be considered directly in connection with the emergence and eventual dominance of Christianity itself within the Roman Empire, with appropriate attention to Christian religious belief and theology as a significant factor in the artistic development. The course will consider all artistic media but primarily painting, sculpture, and architecture. We will begin by assessing how art and architecture were used to project the power and ideology of the Roman Empire, both in the public and in the private sphere. We will then examine how existing traditions of Roman art were gradually adapted to create a specifically Christian artistic production, first in the private sphere and then in a public, more monumental setting as the Roman state began officially to embrace and promulgate Christianity. In the fall, the course will focus largely on the western regions of the Roman Empire up to and just beyond its collapse in the course of the fifth century.

Spring: Byzantine Art and Architecture From Theodosius to the Fall of Constantinople
In spring, we will focus on the further development of Christian art and architecture in the surviving East Roman or “Byzantine” Empire, beginning at the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries and focusing extensively on the apogee of Byzantine art in the so-called “Age of Justinian.” Here, we will consider not only the art of the imperial center of Constantinople but also the regional variations in the early Byzantine development across the Balkans, Anatolia or Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, North Africa, and Egypt. As the semester progresses, we will then consider the impact of an emerging and expanding Islamic Empire on a gradually shrinking Byzantine world. We will study the effect of these changes on the nature and output of artistic production in the regions that Byzantium struggled to retain while also considering the repeated impact of Byzantine art on the medieval art of western Europe. The course will culminate with the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

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History of South Asia

Open, Lecture—Fall

South Asia, a region at the geographic center of the world’s most important cultural, religious, and commercial encounters for millennia, has a rich history of cultural exchanges. Its central location on the Indian Ocean provided it with transnational maritime connections to Africa and Southeast Asia, while its land routes facilitated constant contact with the Eurasian continent. The region has witnessed numerous foreign rules, from the early Central Asian Turkic dynasties to the Mughals and, finally, the British. After gaining independence from British colonial rule, the region was eventually partitioned into three different nations—India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—each with its distinctive form of government. South Asia has produced a significant diaspora worldwide, preserving its cultural heritage and creating further cultural exchanges with the adopted nations, thereby influencing global culture. Despite facing development challenges and political instability, South Asia is rapidly developing within the capitalistic world economy and becoming an important player on the global scene, both politically and culturally. This course will provide students with a survey of South Asia from the era of the early Indus Civilization to the present. Lectures and sources will trace major political events and the region’s cultural, ecological, and economic developments that have significantly shaped South Asian history. Students will analyze both primary and secondary sources, enhancing their understanding of this diverse society. They are expected to engage in lectures, reading, class discussions, group work, and writing to examine the major themes and debates in South Asian history and develop sound arguments.

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Spiritual Autobiography

Open, Seminar—Fall

Around 398, Christian bishop and theologian Augustine of Hippo produced one of the most influential books of all time—The 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, 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. Students will also be invited to examine a number of comparable works by writers who stood at the periphery of the Christian tradition or outside of it altogether, including William Wordsworth’s Prelude, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and M. K. Gandhi’s The 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 problem of religious language. 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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History of the Indian Ocean

Open, Seminar—Spring

The Indian Ocean is the third-largest ocean in the world and contributes almost 30 percent to the total oceanic realm of our planet. Current scholars have defined the Indian Ocean to include the oceanic and littoral spaces in the southwest from the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, to the Red Sea in the north, then horizontally through to the South China Sea in the east, and down to Australia in the southeast. Commerce around the Indian Ocean continued as a web of production and trade that spanned across the ports of India, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Europe. Indian Ocean ports were the fulcrum of maritime trade that precipitated spontaneous transcultural interactions between traders and inhabitants of different geographic regions who mingled there to exchange commodities. Ships followed monsoons or seasonal wind patterns, and sailors were obliged to wait at length for return departures from ports, which was a significant cause of cultural transfer. Various religions, including Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, were mobile across the Indian Ocean networks; and extant beliefs, practices, and material cultures are evidence. The study of the Indian Ocean World (IOW), as some historians have termed it, is a newly emerging field in world history. New evidence from historical research of the last 30 years has recovered the lost significance of this region, which was the center of a robust and complex trade and cultural network for a millennium and that continues today. This course is designed to provide students with a survey of Indian Ocean world history from the medieval to the colonial era. Lectures and sources will help students deepen their knowledge of peoples and cultures around the Indian Ocean and gain a wider appreciation for the transnational trade and cultural and religious networks that existed there. Students will learn to examine that globalization is not a modern phenomenon but, rather, an ongoing aspect of the Indian Ocean. Each week, students will evaluate sources that explore the discrete regions of the Indian Ocean, their people, and the religious networks, commercial exchanges, migrations, and political events that they engender to make a complex and dynamic connected history. Students are expected to engage in lectures, reading, class discussions, group work, and writing to examine the major themes and debates in Indian Ocean history and develop sound arguments.

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“Friendship of the Peoples”: The Soviet Empire From Indigenization to “Russkii mir”

Open, Seminar—Spring

This seminar looks at the history of the Soviet Union through the lens of ethnonational diversity. To be a Soviet person, one had to be identified by “nationality” (closer to our understanding of ethnicity), a category that outlasted class. Soviet policy toward different nationalities varied widely from 1917 to 1991, ranging from the aggressive promotion of indigenous cadres and cultures to the deportation of whole nationalities. The USSR was the largest country in modern history and the first attempt to build a communist state, yet it ended up as a union of federal republics organized along national lines. The nation was supposed to be the vehicle that ushered people through Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist phases of historical development, yet the nations that constituted the Soviet Union outlasted it. We will look at the ways in which Soviet conceptions of nationalities shaped the Soviet project and how being a member of one or another nationality impacted people’s fates. Our readings begin with a brief overview of the diversity of the Russian Empire on the eve of revolution and continue to address the major events of Soviet history through to the continued relevance of the history of Soviet nationalities policies today.

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Freedom of Mind: Ancient Philosophy

Open, Small Lecture—Fall

Philosophy began with the Greeks as the pursuit of freedom of mind—as a rebellion against bondage to conventional belief. But is freedom of mind possible? And to what does it amount? This course, the first half of a yearlong sequence, focuses on the different ways the Greek philosophers and their Roman heirs understood freedom of mind. We will travel from the pre-Socratics through Plato, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Skeptics. Students will be expected to come to each class with a written question on the reading, which I may ask them to read aloud at the beginning of class in order to stimulate discussion. They may also be asked to participate in brief group presentations of the reading. The writing requirements for the class will have two components. The first of these will be made up of a short paragraph on the reading for each class and each group conference and should include the written question on the reading; the rest of the paragraph should either develop this question further or pose a further question or questions about the reading. At the end of the semester, you will be expected to submit a log of these short paragraphs, with your three favorites at the beginning of the document. The second writing requirement will be for a paper, or papers, outlining a portion of the reading and posing questions along the way. Through discussion, we will decide on the focus of these papers.

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Freedom of Mind: Medieval and Modern Philosophy

Open, Small Lecture—Spring

This course will continue the investigation undertaken in the fall course. For a description, see Freedom of Mind: Ancient Philosophy, fall semester; theme and writing requirements will be the same as for that course. Our focus will shift, however, to medieval and modern philosophy, with attention to Averroes (Ibn Rush’d), Montaigne, Descartes, and Shaftesbury. Either course may be taken independently, but students are, of course, invited to take both.

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Nietzsche’s Critique of Hume and Hume’s Response

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Fall

Nietzsche, in the Preface to The Genealogy of Morals, begins by attacking “English moralists.” By “English moralists” he means, I propose, David Hume in his An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. After reading the Preface and Part One of the Genealogy, we shall turn to Hume’s Enquiry in order to understand Nietzsche’s criticism and to see whether we think it is justified. Students will be required to bring a written question to each class and to present short sections of the reading. Writing requirements will consist of a log of the written questions, two outlines of portions of the reading that they present in class with questions and objections, and a conference paper.

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Astronomy

Open, Lecture—Year

On the first night, we will look up and see the stars. By the last, we will know what makes them “shine,” how they came to be, and their ultimate fates. In between, we will survey the universe and humankind’s investigations of it—from ancient navigation to modern cosmology. In addition to the stars themselves, we will learn about solar-system objects such as planets, asteroids, moons, and comets; the comparative astronomy of different eras and cultures; the properties, lifetimes, and deaths of galaxies, quasars, and black holes; and theories and evidence concerning the origin, evolution, and fate of the universe. In addition to readings and examination of multimedia material, students will be members of teams conducting astronomical observation and experiments—at first with an astrolabe, then a simple telescope, and finally with the most powerful telescopes on and around the Earth. Emphasis will be placed on modes of scientific communication, so that each student will participate in debates, present posters, write papers, and participate in the peer-review process. In addition, students will experience famous astronomical debates through role-play. Since science is a collaborative process, group work—both small and large—will be a central feature of this course.

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Exploring Transnational Social Networks

Open, Seminar—Spring

This seminar offers a deep dive into the multifaceted world of social connections that span across national borders, challenging the traditional notions of space, identity, and community. The seminar’s core focus is on understanding how transnational networks operate within and influence various spheres of global society, including migration, economic practices, digital communication, and social movements. Through a critical examination of these networks, the course aims to shed light on the complexities of global interconnectedness, the role of technology in facilitating transnational ties, and the implications of these networks for social change and policy-making. In order to become equipped with a nuanced understanding of global social dynamics, students will engage with contemporary sociological theories and methodologies to analyze the formation, evolution, and impacts of transnational social networks in order. The seminar will incorporate a range of scholarly articles, book chapters, and case studies to explore topics such as the dynamics of diaspora communities and their influence on homeland politics; the economic ramifications of transnational remittances; the role of social media in fostering transnational activism and solidarity; and the impacts of transnational networks on cultural identity and integration processes. Readings include works by Alejandro Portes and Min Zhou on the concept of “social capital” within immigrant communities, Arjun Appadurai's theories on the cultural dimensions of globalization, Faranak Miraftab's notion of “transnational relationality,“ and Manuel Castells’ insights into the network society.

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