Religion is a profoundly important subject of study that matters on many levels. First, one cannot understand the world without understanding religion. People throughout the world make sense of their lives, find meaning, and acquire values through religious traditions. Religion is one of the strongest motivators of human behavior, so one needs to have a background in religion to understand the forces that shape our world. A background in religion is necessary for an understanding of human behavior not just in the world today, but throughout history, for people have always been shaped and guided by understandings and traditions that we can call “religious.” The power of religious ideas is such that they have produced some of the most extreme examples of good and evil in human history. Any force with this kind of power demands careful study and reflection.
Second, in order to understand the United States, one of the most religiously diverse nations on earth, one must understand religion. Religion has always played a vitally important role in the history of the United States, and numerous issues in contemporary politics, law and culture have a religious dimension. In or near Hamline’s home city of St. Paul, MN, there are numerous mosques, Buddhist meditation centers, one of the largest Hindu temples in America, a Sikh gurdwara, widely diverse Jewish congregations, and Christian churches from a broad range of denominations. We need to understand other religious traditions (and our own) so that we can understand our nation and our neighbors.
The third reason to study religion is so that one can attain greater self-understanding. Religious traditions are the contexts in which the most important, fundamental questions of human existence are examined and struggled over. Religious traditions explore questions like, “What is ultimate reality?” “What is a self?” “How do we understand death?” They all lead to questions that every one of us must think about if we are to live the examined life that is distinctly human – “How should I live? What gives life meaning?” The study of religion gives us the opportunity to think through these profoundly important questions in the company of some of the greatest thinkers and texts from many different cultures and historical periods. The encounter with religious traditions should never simply be an armchair academic exercise. It should be an existential encounter, where we try to gain an imaginative insider’s perspective of the religious traditions of the people with whom we share the world.
Who We Are and What We Stand For
Hamline’s Department of Religion is made up of scholar-practitioners who seek to model the positive relation we see between the academic study of religion and the practice of it. We believe in bringing together an engaged, appreciative perspective and rigorous, critical inquiry to the study of our own and others’ traditions. As members of a church-related university, we strongly affirm the United Methodist emphasis on ecumenical openness to other faiths, and we embrace the global scope of the Hamline mission to prepare compassionate citizens of the world. We interpret our church affiliation as a charter of hospitality. The department welcomes students of different religions and students of no religion, inviting all to deepen their understanding of their own values and commitments and to investigate other faiths with respect for their particular wisdom and intrinsic worth.
Religion is a fundamentally multidisciplinary field. In order to deeply understand any religious tradition or phenomenon, one must bring in many disciplinary perspectives. Most religion courses include perspectives from multiple disciplines within the liberal arts, at times drawing on philosophy, theology, history, anthropology, literature, sociology, politics, psychology, art history, music, and even subjects like economics and biology. Religion courses, therefore, are opportunities to reflect on the connections among various disciplines. For this reason, the department supports students who want to double major, which enables students to bring the perspectives and methods of each major to bear on the issues and questions of the other.
At the same time as we take a multidisciplinary approach, our department is located in the tradition of the Humanities, which means that our courses promote a deep engagement with texts (from ancient scriptures to contemporary literature). We aim to cultivate in our students skills in textual interpretation, critical thinking, and written and oral communication across a range of genres. While drawing heavily on the social sciences, our department ultimately emphasizes the humanistic approach of 1) focusing on the way religious individuals and communities have understood themselves, their traditions, and their world; 2) using interpretive methods, imagination, and empathy to gain, as far as possible, an insider’s perspective of religious traditions; and 3) reflecting deeply on issues of meaning and value.
Mark A. Berkson, professor. BA 1987, Princeton University; MA 1992, PhD 2000, Stanford University.