Current Issue

Religious studies revisited

With fundamentalism and the culture wars playing out against the vast expanse of American religious experience, the United States is a combustive laboratory for the study of human religiosity. Given this yeasty environment, it’s not surprising that the University’s Department of Religious Studies feels compelled to offer students a deeper sense of what it means to be religious in the 21st century.

Equipped with a grant of $54,120 from the Marsico Initiative (a $10-million gift from alumni Tom and Cydney Marsico to help DU revitalize its undergraduate education), the religious studies curriculum is undergoing a wholesale reformation. “We are re-imagining the major from the beginning,” explains religious studies Assoc. Prof. Ginni Ishimatsu. “The new major, of course, will give students a broad understanding of the specific traditions. Students also will gain experience of how religion works on the ground, relate that experience to what they learn in the classroom and hone their writing skills.”

The process to birth a new curriculum began last fall with the study of religious studies departments across the country. The process unearthed a surprising lack of creativity among departments nationwide. Unable to find a model program, DU faculty realized it was incumbent upon them to initiate their own pedagogical revolution.

The department has developed a draft of a new curriculum that will ask students to write more as well as integrate additional real-world experiences — in the form of field trips, community service and international study — into their classroom studies.

Certain elements of the new curriculum will look familiar: Students will still take four classes in the world’s major religions — choosing from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism — as well as two theory courses. But the department will add a host of new writing-intensive classes, a service-learning course and courses more richly endowed with experiential components such as field trips. On top of this, the department is strengthening its study-abroad offerings, its Honors program and the co-curricular events it sponsors, adding symposia and at least two more topical lectures a year. A new faculty position — an expert in East Asian Buddhism — is in the offing as well.

Although the new curriculum won’t launch fully until fall 2006, in spring quarter three new Marsico-funded classes will be deployed: Fundamentalism, Religion and Morality in the American Public Square, and American Religious Experience. They will not only infuse writing and experiential learning into the mix, but also will expose students to the cultural firmament that is part and parcel of the current American and global religious climate. The idea is to produce graduates who can write critically and well, Ishimatsu says, and who intrinsically understand religion “as a lived experience rather than as a mere theoretical construct.”

Prior to 9/11, DU’s Department of Religious Studies — like many nationwide — had only a handful of undergraduate student majors. Unlike the 1960s and 70s, when students swelled religion class rosters in search of life’s meaning and deeper levels of consciousness, the 80s and 90s produced more career-focused students. However, with the attack on the World Trade Center, the start of the second Gulf War and the influence of the Christian right on the 2004 presidential election, interest in religious issues has skyrocketed. Reflecting that renewed interest, DU now has 20 undergraduate religious studies majors.

These trends are not lost on DU’s religious studies faculty, who know it is an auspicious time to make the walls between the world and the academic religious studies departments more porous. Department Chair Carl Raschke puts it like this: “Globalization is really unintelligible without understanding religious forces.”

Comments are closed.