Ben Schonthal

AM'04, PhD'12 in the History of Religions

Mr. Schonthal wrote this when he was a student in the Divinity School.  After teaching at Victoria University Wellington, he is now Lecturer in Asian Religions at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

Why did you choose to attend the University of Chicago Divinity School?

I chose the University of Chicago Divinity School for a variety of different personal and academic reasons--it's setting in Chicago, its history, its famous faculty. Looking back, however, I think the most important factor was (and still is) the fact that Swift Hall is such an unusual place: no other building that I know of brings together so many different scholars and from so many disciplines all with a shared interest in the critical and historical study of religion.

What is your area of study andwhat is the focus of your current research?

Put broadly, I examine the intersections between religion, law and politics in South and Southeast Asia. My dissertation examines the legal regulation of religion in Sri Lanka from the 1930s to the present.

What are or have been the highlights of your academic work so far?

One thing you don't realize when you're at the University of Chicago is just how electric the life of the mind is there. Weekly, you can find an amazing variety of workshops, seminars and lectures given by intellectual giants. Having been away from the University for the last year or so, I really miss this. I remember being overwhelmed at all campus activities in the first year of my study and deciding that I had to refrain from attending public talks so that I could concentrate on my own coursework. But, in nostalgia from afar, this is certainly the thing I miss most.

What experience (if any) have you had in teaching?

I've been lucky to have opportunities to teach a variety of courses. I worked as a lector for the Writing Program, teaching academic and professional writing. I taught an adult education course on Theravada Buddhism. I designed and taught a course for the Human Rights Program on Secularism and Religious Freedom in America and South Asia and I recently taught a course at Victoria University in Wellington on Indian Religions.

What activities do you participate in outside of the classroom? (community service, work, hobbies, etc.)

This has changed a lot in recent years, especially since the arrival of my son Oliver, who has become my favorite activity outside of all.

How do you like living in Chicago?

Having been raised in Chicago, I am, of course, partial to my home-town. It's a great city, with all kinds of unexpected subcultures and activities. No doubt, the winters can be rough and Hyde Park can be isolating, but the wider city of Chicago has all the perks of a New York, without any of the hauteur: first-rate museums, great music, (sometimes) great sports and some pretty decent hiking/biking/camping options within driving range. You can even surf here.

What do you plan to do after you have completed your degree from the Divinity School?

I have a one-year teaching position in New Zealand, at Victoria University Wellington.