The Committee on Constructive Studies in Religion brings together faculty and students whose work aims to articulate, interpret, and assess the claims of religious traditions and communities, and, based on such work, make normative claims about how religious convictions can orient human thought, belief, and practice. In the Divinity school, constructive work draws on resources of the modern university to develop critical interpretations of religious traditions’ self-understandings of their meaning, truth, and value; conceptual inquiries into philosophical issues arising from religious beliefs and practices; ethical inquiries into matters of religion, value, and human well-being; and political inquiries into religion’s relationship to social life, justice, and public culture. Potential topics of investigation include cosmology and metaphysics, law and virtue, religion and science, dualism and non-dualism, freedom and finitude, power and authority, religion and material culture, and time and eternity, along with contemporary concerns surrounding race, sex and gender, disability, environmental welfare, and religion and secularism, for example. Such scholarly investigations can address challenges that arise in various contexts, in the academy and beyond.
Students working in Constructive Studies in Religion, regardless of their specialization, are expected to develop a deeply historical and interdisciplinary understanding of the questions and problems they seek to address. Work in Constructive Studies in Religion thus aims to engage and expand upon religious traditions’ own normative accounts of meaning, truth, and value by situating them within a broad matrix of scholarly inquiry and creative, critical reflection. That matrix brings together resources in theology, philosophy, ethics, and political theory, as well as related intellectual practices—viewing these not as isolable specializations but as having the potential to mutually and to dynamically inform each other for constructive work in the field. In these ways, scholarship in Constructive Studies in Religion aims to engage and enlarge religious traditions’ own normative accounts of meaning, truth, and value, considering them as historical materials requiring interpretation and as potentially relevant to human flourishing. The Committee on Constructive Studies in Religion embodies the recognition that normative, critical engagement with these tools and archives is significant not only for the particular scholarly fields the Committee comprises, but more generally for understanding the place of religious traditions in relation to the human good and public life.
The Historical Studies Committee comprises faculty from different areas who study religious communities, traditions, beliefs, practices, texts, and material artifacts from the past. The historical studies committee is grounded in its study of the past, but its diverse faculty draw upon multiple disciplines in order to understand and make sense of religions in their varied and situated cultural, social, political, economic, and material histories. Though no singular methodological approach prevails, historians engage other fields of study to attempt to reconstruct and explain the patterns, practices, rituals, and beliefs of religious traditions from past societies, peoples, and geographies.
Historical inquiry investigates questions about continuity and discontinuity in the past, the creation, dissemination, and meaning of religious texts, and philological and literary investigations. This inquiry may also extend to inter-religious encounters, the formation and changing fortunes of religious institutions, identities, and communities across space and time. These topics intersect in complex ways with religion and class, race, gender, and sexuality. Historians engaged in the study of religion acknowledge the distinctness of the past, although their work of reconstruction and representation may also provide critical tools for its constructive retrieval for current projects.
Faculty in historical studies help students to understand how the present and its methodological controversies, its approaches to the past, and its contemporary concerns inform our study of religions in their divergent and particular histories. A principal aim of the Historical Studies Committee is to train students in the identification and use of primary sources (e.g., texts, oral histories, and material artifacts), the relative merit of different theoretical models of historical interpretation of religious traditions, and the requisite philological and language skills to study and interpret specific religious traditions.
Literary, Media, and Cultural Studies: This committee convenes faculty members whose research illuminates the mutual relationship between meaning and form in the creation and transformation of religious worlds. Our research explores the performative and expressive arts and their religious impact on social and political spheres. We attend to the complexities of production, reception, and interpretation within particular historical contexts and traditions. We see the role of rhetoric and representation as a central aspect of literary and cultural production.
Topics of study range widely, including the history of translation, the role of media in the making of cultural systems, the relationship between technology, communication, and material practice, the fictive arts as a site of religious thought, and the dynamics and problems of canonization and the canon. Insights from theories of poetics and aesthetics inform our methods of inquiry. We interrogate the effect of literature and media on and within social hierarchies like race, gender, and class.
The Committee on Social and Cultural Sciences of Religion (SCSR) brings together scholars from several disciplines engaged in empirical research on religious discourses and practices embedded in the broader fabric of human life. SCSR faculty and students situate their studies in specific historical periods, regional contexts, or transregional formations connected by movements of ideas, objects, and people. They ask questions like: How is religious authority produced and sustained? How do believers negotiate their faith commitments in relation to ethnic, sexual, and other kinds of identity? What role do rituals play in the formation of community? How do practitioners navigate tensions between ethics and politics? What role has colonialism and the modern state played in remaking religious knowledge and practice? In pursuing these and other questions, faculty and students produce detailed descriptions as the basis for analysis and comparison. While their work is situated within a diverse range of disciplinary frameworks (anthropology, history, political thought, sociology, ethical theory), methods (ethnography, philology, archival research), and modes of inquiry (semiotics, genealogical analysis, social thought and history, cultural interpretation), they are unified by a commitment to forming and refining concepts that transcend local particularities. As such, some studies may give rise to generalizations about religion across societies, cultures, and historical periods, while others will sharpen how religion is understood as a second-order category of interpretation and analysis.