Emory Report
March 6, 2006
Volume 58, Number 22


Emory Report homepage  

March 6 , 2006
SP Seminar: Religion study vital

BY michael terrazas

At the Feb. 20 seminar devoted to Emory’s strategic initiative, “Religions and the Human Spirit,” recent headlines provided all the spark needed for two hours’ worth of impassioned discussion about why faith and spirituality are areas of human existence rich for Emory to explore.

Hosted by President Jim Wagner and Provost Earl Lewis, the strategic-planning seminars are meant to tease out possible avenues of study in the various initiatives through informed dialogue. A group of panelists are asked to read texts related to the academic area in question, then hold a public discussion that allows audience members to pose questions of their own.

For the 50 or so audience members in attendance Feb. 20 in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library, initiative co-leaders Laurie Patton and Carol Newsom first distributed a group of broad questions to help frame the conversation. Opening up the floor first to the 14 panelists seated next to her and Newsom, Patton asked what role religion plays in such ongoing controversies as the recent Muslim furor over political cartoons, the evolution/intelligent design conflict playing out in various U.S. school boards, and the question of gay marriage.

“[Sept. 11] necessitated a different set of criteria for the study of religion,” said Patton, Winship Professor and chair of religion. “People are more inclined now to think religion is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”

Several panelists expressed dismay at the “totalizing nature” of current religiously striped debates, in which participants feel they must defend their god—or, at least, their interpretation of their god—at any and all costs. The speakers said things were not always so. “What we now know as religion is in fact a product of modernity,” said religion’s John Dunne.

Edna Bay of the Institute for Liberal Arts drew a distinction between “religions of resistance,” “religions of revolution” and “religions of status quo.” Some panelists were quick to point out that problems often arise when religious practitioners cast themselves firmly in one of those roles—just not the right one—while others took issue with the taxonomy. Theology’s Carl Holladay said the “religion of status quo” model will be inappropriate for an increasingly pluralized world.

Two terms seemed to resonate among both panelists and audience members: “theography,” meaning the study of images and representations of god, and something religion’s Vernon Robbins said is vital to understanding many current religious conflicts; and “glocal,” a merging of “global” and “local” meant to imply that few modern phenomena are only one of those or the other.

Several people agreed that people of different faiths need to learn more about each other, but even that admirable prospect did not emerge unscathed from the discussion. Dunne called many such encounters “fatuous.” “We whisper polite nothings in each other’s ear and go home happy that we’ve had ‘dialogue,’” he said.

Meanwhile, Ted Brelsford of theology said some religious leaders do develop long-term, meaningful relationships with clergy of other faiths. “The possibility does exist,” he said.

Patton and Newsom (Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament) shared the four broad areas of study that have been identified in their work to date with the religion initiative. They propose focusing on religion’s relationship and interactions with (1) identity and conflict; (2) public health; (3) sexuality; and (4) science and the public sphere.

Each area, panelists and audience members agreed, is one in which Emory is poised to explore and help lead a local, national and international—indeed, a glocal—conversation.

“There has been a renewed understanding at the University and in the public that religion is inescapable,” said Liz Bounds of the Graduate Division of Religion. “You can’t not talk about it.”