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DIY Syllabi: Comparative Religion

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When Nietzsche announced God’s death from the voice of a “madman” in 1882, he knew he wasn’t the first to deliver the news. In fact, in the context of the parable, it wasn’t even news: the madman is speaking to a group of atheists. What Nietzsche meant has been debated ever since (long story short, it’s a long story). The point is that people have been questioning religion for as long as they’ve been practicing it – and yet it remains. Consider the Black Plague, the Lisbon Earthquake, consecutive World Wars, the falls of Jerusalem and Rome and Medina and Byzantium-Constantinople-Istanbul — all had major impacts on peoples’ relationship with religion, but none extinguished it altogether. (The better part of the Old Testament is about people who disobey, disassemble, or outright deny the laws of the Old Testament.) Nor is it necessarily possible to reduce religion or religious experience into a single definition: Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance, permit (and in some sects promote) atheism.

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The purpose of this syllabus is to offer a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary study of world religions, searching for similarities and differences alike, but always aimed toward a greater, nuanced appreciation of religion as a fundamentally human activity. The core will follow a comprehensive HarvardX MOOC designed by Dr. Diane Moore, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions, whose premise “is that lack of understanding about religion — or…religious illiteracy — is both widespread and dangerous.” Following these close scriptural studies of the major religions, we’ll expand our perspective to history, politics, philosophy, and more. In sum, the spirit here is neither to dismantle or propagate any religion in particular, but to recognize it as essential to our strange situation. Thus, Nietzsche: “After Buddha was dead, his shadow still shown for centuries in
a cave.”

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Religious ideas and practices are multiform, multivalent, localized, and deeply seeded – and, therefore, hard to grasp for outsiders. This is especially relevant in today’s globalized world, but it is not an exclusively modern dilemma: European Christians of the Middle Ages were baffled by the Upanishads they encountered along the Silk Road, but, if they were to look back to the early history of their own continent, Hinduism would’ve paled in comparison to the primeval religions of their Celtic ancestors in Germany, France, Spain, and the British Isles. Parochialism has been a bother from the start.

The opening course of our syllabus, the first in HardvardX’s series, aims to address that issue. In “Religious Literacy,” we examine how religions are internally diverse; how they evolve and change according to historical, cultural, and political shifts; the pros and cons of learning through scripture; and how religions are embedded in human culture. Most important, the course will give us the methodological tools we’ll need to interpret the roles religions play both today and historically, which we’ll return to throughout our study. Taught by Dr. Diane Moore, the course is a groundwork for our studies in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
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Christianity began as a small, suspect Jewish off-shoot, which had evidently gained traction in Jerusalem and the surrounding suburbs of Judea. That such a sect existed is not remarkable in itself; Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes were among the various contemporary Jewish groups, each of which had major differences. Nor was Jesus, to Roman eyes, an exceptional figure: they had seen and managed outspoken Jewish teachers before. And yet, soon after Jesus’ crucifixion, the sect initially known as the Nazarenes spread at a surprisingly rapid pace; in fact, so surprising and unnerving that they suffered brutal persecution. It is one of the many strange mysteries of Christianity that one of its most vigorous persecutors would become its most influential proselytizer.

Taught by Dr. Karen L. King, this course provides an overview of Christian theology and interpretation, and explores a range of Christian themes: the meaning of suffering and violence; the nature of justice and peace; liturgical time and pilgrimage; attitudes toward non-Christian traditions; and gender and sexuality, among others. Students will also consider the range of Biblical translations (and the consequences of their proliferation), in addition to Christianity’s response to historic changes in culture, politics, and science. Described by Newsweek as “an authority on women’s roles in the early church,” Dr. King is the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard.
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Buddhism Through Its Scriptures

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Sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, Siddhārtha Gautama, or Gautama Buddha, or the Buddha, was born near the southern border of present-day Nepal and died in the Magadha region of ancient India, below the Ganges. Beyond this, little is known of the founder of the world’s fourth-largest religion, frustrating hyper-scrupulous scholars for hundreds of years, who have perhaps missed the point. What matters is his enlightenment: overwhelmed by the apparent innate nature of human suffering, the Buddha sat in deep meditation, during which he discovered the madhyamā-pratipad, or “Middle Way,” opening a spiritual path to overcome suffering. Though many traditions have developed since, this is the core tenet of Buddhism.

The third module in Harvard’s World Religions series, this course covers the wide range and diversity of Buddhist scriptures; the fundamental religious and philosophical insights of Buddhist texts; how the circumstances of history influence scriptural interpretation; and introductory Buddhist practices, such as meditation, art, devotional acts, and literature. The goal, therefore, is “not only learning about Buddhism, but also learning from Buddhism”: what might Buddhism have to say about our day-to-day lives? How do its core practices address our most pressing concerns? Our instructor, Dr. Charles Hallisey, is Yehan Numata Senior Lecturer on Buddhist Literatures at Harvard University and editor of Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women.
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As a historical development, Islam begins with Muhammad (c. 570-632); as a religious tradition, it reaches back to creation, seeing itself as the culmination of the faith revealed to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. In the Islamic tradition, Muhammad is the “Seal of the Prophets,” or the Khātim an-Nabīyīn. Like Christianity before it, the spread of Islam was rapid and, again, disruptive to the established political and religious order, beginning in The Holy City of Mecca and gaining footholds throughout the Levant, Northern Africa, Asia Minor, and beyond during the period sometimes called the “Islamic Golden Age,” which saw the establishment of the first degree-granting university, public hospitals, and the major Islamic philosophers, like Avicenna and Averroes. Today, a quarter of the world identifies as Muslim.

Professor Ali Asani’s course surveys the major themes of the Quran (including monotheism, the five pillars of Islam, the role of the prophets, and eschatology); discusses the diverse roles of the Quran in Muslim cultures and the text’s historical and cultural background; develops students’ interpretive skills toward more nuanced scriptural readings; and examines diverse approaches Muslims have adopted to interpreting the Quran as both an oral and written tradition. In addition to authoring a dozen books, Dr. Asani has worked with the Islamic Cultural Studies Initiative, the American Academy of Religion’s Task Force, and the National Endowment for the Humanities Bridging Cultures Muslim Journeys Bookshelf Project.

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Widely seen as the oldest living religion, Hindu’s origins nevertheless remain shrouded. Its Vedic lineage dates as early as 1900 BCE, but their religion was significantly different than modern Hinduism. (For that matter, prehistoric religions of India were practiced early as 30,000 BCE.) Hinduism’s second great period, a thousand years later, developed alongside and in some cases with Buddhism and Jainism in present-day Nepal and India – though still without a single founder or text (among the numerous Hindu scriptures include the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Agamas). All this has prompted scholars to view Hinduism as a synthesis of Indian cultures, traditions, and rituals (albeit heterogeneous), from asceticism and the Dharma, to vegetarianism, meditation, yoga, and non-violence.

Taught by Professor Neelima Shukla-Bhatt, Associate Professor and Director of South Asia Studies at Wellesley, “Hinduism Through Its Scriptures” provides a primer on both written and oral Hindu texts, including select readings of the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. Further, as so much of Hinduism draws on extra-textual traditions, the course also provides video clips of rituals, chanting, performances, and television series to demonstrate the varieties of worship and interpretation, whether it be for spiritual, moral, social, and/or political purposes. Dr. Shukla-Bhatt received her Ph.D. in the Study of Religion from Harvard University in 2003.

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Who were the Biblical Jews? It’s a point of contention. We know that a group of people called the Habiru lived throughout the Middle East in the early second millennia BCE, but we don’t know if they were related to the later Hebrew tribes. (Habiru is Babylonian for vagrant or nomad; they were desert people who set up camps according to the availability of fresh water and pasture for livestock.) We also know that Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest city, was occupied as early as 5,000 BCE, probably because of the Gihon Spring. Still, the early history of the Jewish people remains obscured by history; a small collection of peoples living among the gigantic Hittite, Mycenaean, and Egyptian empires, who for years would struggle for autonomy and eventually would found their scriptures on that struggle.

The final module in HarvardX’s World Religions series, taught by Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen, focuses on the ever-expanding Jewish canon; its diversity of interpretation; how both ancient and modern Jews drew guidance from traditional texts while re-purposing those texts to accommodate historical circumstances; and how two-thousand-plus-year-old scriptures might remain relevant in the 21st century. In addition, the course aims to correct common misunderstandings about the Jewish tradition, including the idea that its sole religious text is the Christian “Old Testament”; instead, students will be introduced to additional canonical works that have influenced and shaped Jewish belief. With a special interest in the historical intersection of Jewish and Gentile civilizations, Dr. Cohen is the author of numerous books, most recently The Significance of Yavneh and Other Essays in Jewish Hellenism.

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Elective Options

Religious Studies, and Comparative Religion in particular, is a colossal, multitudinous field with no set curriculum (for hopefully obvious reasons). Below are possible suggestions for further study (driven largely by what’s available online), but are by no means exhaustive. Explore what interests you!

Religion and Secularism

Charles Taylor is arguably the most important present-day philosopher on the intersection of religion and secularism in the public, or political, sphere. (He’s also a leading philosopher of language, social science, and intellectual history, among others.) If you’d rather not watch all 146 videos in this Taylor-centric playlist, head over to The Immanent Frame, a roundtable discussion forum published by the Social Science Research Council, which includes contributions from Mark Lilla, Wendy Doniger, Vijay Prashad, Molly Worthen, Joan Wallach Scott, and others.

The Bible and English Literature

Northrop Frye’s twenty-five lectures on the Bible and English Literature are a stunning display of erudition, intellectual engagement, and plain fun – for those who consider such topics “fun” – from one of the preeminent literary critics of the last century. Thanks to the University of Toronto, each lecture is available with complete transcripts, summary guides, and outlines. Much of Frye’s argument would go on to be published as The Great Code.

Religion and Conflict

Unfortunately, religion has a long, complex association with violence. This course, from professors at the University of Groningen, examines why: are conflict and violence inherent to religion, or is religion used as an excuse for such acts? Focusing on the 20th and 21st centuries, studies springboard from the premise that “the first step to solving religiously framed conflicts is understanding the role of religion in them.” The final module examines religion’s part in peace building and reconciliation.

Science of Religion

“Based on the idea that religion is a naturalistic phenomenon,” this course discusses how human psychology affects (and perhaps produces) religion. Studies include evolutionary and cognitive science; the origin of religion; how religion relates to morality, spirituality, and atheism; and religion’s role in history, current events, and conflict hot-spots around the globe. Dr. Edward Slingerland is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, and Dr. Azim Shariff is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior at University of California, Irvine.

Ancient Israel

Daniel Fleming’s Open Ed course considers Ancient Israel from both a Biblical and historical perspective, touching on a range of themes along the way: political rule, women and power, love and marriage, scriptural rhetoric, Jewish identity, and more. The author of numerous books and articles, Fleming is an American Assyriologist and biblical scholar who specializes in ancient Near Eastern societies, as well as the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, a Senior Fulbright Fellowship, and a stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Luther and the West

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church 500 years ago, he didn’t intend to become the face of ecclesiastical revolution, but so it goes…. In “Luther and the West,” Professor Christine Helmer covers the significance Luther’s theological departures, including religious, political, and cultural consequences; Luther’s troubling anti-Semitism; and Luther’s concept of freedom, which had a tremendous impact on how modern thinkers conceived of the community.

Jesus in Scripture and Tradition

Delivered through the University of Notre Dame, this course demonstrates the “tight interrelationship between the people Israel, the person of Jesus Christ, and the Church” through readings of Genesis, the Gospels, and early Christian and Jewish writers, with special attention paid to how the figure of Jesus has evolved, expanded, and deepened since his crucifixion. Professors John C. Cavadini and Gary Anderson both teach at Notre Dame’s School of Theology.

Buddhism and Modern Psychology

Professor Robin Wright’s course asks, “Do early Buddhist descriptions of the mind, and of the human condition, make particular sense in light of evolutionary psychology?” Judging from recent advances in neuroscience, it’s possible. Studies cover the science of meditation, the dubious existence of the “self,” and reality as perception and illusion. Finally, students consider the consequences of such themes in everyday modern life. Wright is a prize-winning journalist and author of The Evolution of God, The Moral Animal, and Nonzero.

The Legacy of Islamic Civilization

Covering the Islamic world’s contributions to physics, biology, mathematics, astronomy, and art, this course aims to introduce students to the major figures who shaped Muslim and Arabic civilization, from physicians and philosophers to the great Islamic architects. Instructors Shereen El Kabbani and Sarah Nagaty, both researchers at the Library of Alexandria, also provide students with a helpful bibliography and extra readings list for further studies.

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