A faith in religious difference

Kenyon faculty members believe in a global approach to teaching and research

F or millions of people around the world, religion--no matter its derivation or theology--provides purpose and direction in life. Like breathing, it defines life itself: To live is to be religious. The two are synonymous.

At Kenyon, however, religion and a person's religious or spiritual life are entirely different subjects. No exceptions. Period. The distinction has evolved over time and, although now a clear-cut and guiding principle, some people find it difficult to understand.

Professor of Religion Donald L. Rogan explains it succinctly: "As a professor in the classroom, I couldn't care less about religious life on campus," he says, "just as a political scientist couldn't care less about how many Republicans or Democrats are on campus and what they're doing; just as an economist couldn't care less about which students are capitalists or Communists." The global study of a discipline and what one personally believes and practices in his or her own community are distinctly different, he proclaims. The goal of Kenyon's Department of Religion is not to oversee religious life on campus. Neither is it to purport Christianity nor, because of the College's history, espouse Episcopalian views. Rather, the goal is to be "fair and objective in the study of religions of the world," says Rogan.

Joseph A. Adler, chair of the department, explains it this way: "At Kenyon, the study of religion is an academic field, different from a divinity school or theology program. We seek to explore human endeavor without presuppositions drawn from private beliefs. We study all religions from a neutral perspective," says the associate professor of religion. Adler concedes that students may take courses because of their personal quest for meaning and spirituality, but in papers and discussions they must take a neutral position. "The classroom is not the place for argumentative discussions of their beliefs," he says.

Nonetheless, the classroom remains the starting point, the central location from which participants explore the world of religion. Specifically, the study of religion centers itself in a building that, considering the celestial nature of the discussions within, could not be more appropriately named: Ascension Hall. Completed in 1860, the massive stone structure was designed by William Tinsley, an Irish architect, and named after the Church of the Ascension in New York City, whose parishioners provided much of the funding for construction. Here, in a four-story landmark that houses two great rooms--Philomathesian Hall and Nu Pi Kappa--in which the College's nineteenth-century literary and debating societies considered the questions of the day, resides Kenyon's Department of Religion, whose faculty members and students consider questions of perhaps a nobler purpose. With keen insight, they examine the histories, tenets, and myriad complexities of not only religions and religious peoples but also of entire cultures, civilizations, and--as one profesor describes it--"what it means to be an earthly being."

No doubt a daunting task. Yet faculty members rise to the occasion admirably well. So say Kenyonites and non-Kenyonites alike. A 1972-73 review of the religion department by a scholar from Princeton University found the College to have "one of the more innovative and effective departments anywhere." Twenty years later, in a 1994 review by examiners from two other institutions, the faculty and curriculum again received high marks: "We found the department's faculty to be an excellent group of well-trained and committed teacher-scholars who work well together," wrote the reviewers. In addition, they commented, "Kenyon's department is refreshingly innovative in approach and expansive in its scope, displaying an institutional commitment to the study of religion as a global phenomenon."

So what's behind this academic credibility? Full-time faculty members whose expertise spans the globe:

Associate Professor Adler specializes in religions of East Asia, specifically Chinese, Japanese, and some Korean.

Associate Professor Miriam Dean-Otting teaches Jewish studies, with a secondary interest in Hinduism.

Professor Royal W. Rhodes is a scholar in the history of Christianity and American Christianity.

Associate Professor Vernon J. Schubel's forte is Islam and the religions of South Asia, particularly Hinduism.

Professor Rogan, the most senior member of the department, specializes in biblical and American religion as well as philosophy of religion. "I'm a generalist," says Rogan, who smiles as he leans back in his chair. "And if you've been here as long as I have, you can teach about anything you want to teach." His colleagues gladly grant him that privilege.

Rogan, who came to Kenyon in 1965 as half-time chaplain and half-time assistant professor of religion, has become a living legend. Not only has he taught a wide variety of courses during his thirty-two-year tenure, he has also created several that remain cornerstones in the religion curriculum, including the popular "Introduction to Religion" and "Religion in America." Rogan also served as College chaplain from 1967 to 1972 (during the era of drugs and the draft, "The Great Years" as he calls them), twice served as chair of the faculty, held the chairmanship of numerous academic committees and, on several occasions, of the religion department. In 1993, "by virtue of previous experience," he says, he became chair of the newly created Board of College Ministries. Last year, Rogan received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Kenyon's Board of Trustees. In bestowing the honor, Trustee William Stroud said Rogan was "legendary for his teaching of diversity, tolerance, understanding, and civility."

Soon, however, Rogan will step down from his classroom duties. He intends to retire in the year 2000. Ironically, the sage will go out teaching a new course he's developing, which--if not humorous in its timing and prophetic nature--is indicative of the range of subject matter with which he is familiar: "Apocalyptic Beliefs: The Bible to Modern Literature."

His planned retirement is already causing concern. Don Rogan has one of the "broadest cross-cultural bases of knowledge" and is "very well read in all the religious traditions," says Adler. Finding his replacement will be extremely difficult if not impossible. The outside examiners agreed: "No single person will be able to teach the range of courses that he has developed," they wrote.

But Rogan remains confident his colleagues will continue to excel. "We have succeeded in gathering an impressive group of people with diverse interests who are capable of representing the world's religions," he says. "I suspect the teaching of religion is better now than it has ever been at Kenyon."

Royal Rhodes agrees wholeheartedly: "This department is fantastic. It's the best religion department in the country. And I know the other departments. I've taught some of the people running them."

Rhodes, after earning degres from Yale Divinity School and Harvard University, joined the faculty in 1979. "I thought I would stay three or four years," he recalls. Nineteen years later, the teacher-scholar has amassed an impressive list of accomplishments. He has written or cowritten three books (with a fourth nearly complete) and served as a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School. In 1993, he was honored by Kenyon's graduating class with the Senior Cup, and he won the College's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1994.

For Rhodes and his departmental colleagues, scholarly research and innovative teaching go hand in hand. "We educate ourselves and pull our students along," he notes. "We ask students to research and write, whether they want to or not. It's important for them to see faculty members doing the same thing. Classroom teaching and research and writing are intimately linked together."

Miriam Dean-Otting, for instance, says she "used to shape courses around lectures." Now, she plans a teaching agenda through a series of questions and assigns a lot of writing projects. The result: "Students come prepared to speak," she says. "We have a dialogue--no, it's more than that: it's a trialogue. Everybody's learning." She may be an expert on Judaism, but Dean-Otting says she's often amazed because "students come up with a new take on a subject that I hadn't considered." That's part of the challenge--and the reward--of teaching.

Dean-Otting was herself a Kenyon student. A 1974 graduate who combined religion and classics into a synoptic major, she went on to receive her doctorate from Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Since returning to Kenyon in 1984, she has refined her own style of teaching. "We try to think about a well-known tradition in unique ways, to look at old things with new eyes. That's how we begin to sort out the gray areas of a subject," she says. "I think there is always an element of surprise, whether the student is enrolled in a course focused on a religion she or he knows or in a course focused on another tradition. The student soon discovers that the familiar is not as well understood as one might assume and, conversely, the unfamiliar resonates with something the student has experienced. In both cases, the excitement of discovery often compels the student to do more research, more study of the subject."

Her research has carried Dean-Otting to India, Israel, New York City, and other locales. In recent years, she has explored "issues of identity in Central Europe during the religious reformation." Of particular interest is how someone in a minority could be assimilated into the larger society and still be Jewish, she says. To this end, she translated a memoir by Else Fanta Bergman, "a traditional Jewish woman assimilated into an upper-class, nonreligious culture" in the 1800s. Dean-Otting is currently annotating the manuscript for publication as a book.

Adler recently spent time in Japan and China. For a year, he was a teacher and resident director of the Great Lakes Colleges Association/Associated Colleges of the Midwest Japan Study Program at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. The last two weeks of his sojourn were spent "visiting temples and researching the state of religious practice in China," explains Adler. "Mainland China was culturally repressed for years, but it is slowly opening up." The artifacts and extensive collection of slides he gathered have become tools for teaching and added immediacy to his courses at Kenyon. Similarly, his research infuses his writing. Adler will contribute to an upcoming volume of World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest, and he is coauthor of Sung Dynasty Uses of the I-Ching, published in 1990. Adler, who received his doctorate from the University of California at Santa Barbara, came to Gambier in 1987.

Vernon Schubel, who joined the faculty a year later, holds a doctorate from the University of Virginia. Recipient of a 1989 Fulbright Fellowship, he has conducted research in several Asian countries, including Pakistan, Tukey, and Uzebekistan. His interest in Uzebekistan was "to study the reemergence of Islam in that part of the world." His book Religious Performance in Contemporary Islam: Shii Devotional Rituals in South Asia was published in 1993. "I'm interested in the popular aspects of Islam," he explains, which include "pilgrimages to tombs of the Sufi saints, processions of mourning, and hagiography, the study of the lives of saints."

Rhodes is also interested in saints--and in sacred places, monasticism, and other subjects. This summer, he hopes to travel to Israel, the third leg of a research project that has included Rome and Athens, where he will "explore the development of historic Christianity as linked to specific sites . . . and the place of Christianity in the period these became Roman imperial cities." Out of his research will come a new course: "Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome: Centers of Millennial Christianity." If all goes as planned, Rhodes will also stay in a monastic hospice in Jerusalem, Ein Kerem, the legendary birthplace of John the Baptist, from which he intends to explore about ten other monasteries in the region. In addition, he will research "the role of women as matriarchs, martyrs, and models for the church of Jerusalem." Of these, two groups in particular interest him: imperial foundresses, such as Helena, mother of Constantine, and earlier Roman aristocrats, and transvestite saints,' "women who dressed and lived as men in order to pursue the monastic life."

Other faculty members, too, including President Robert A. Oden Jr. and Visiting Assistant Professor Mary Suydam, have traveled the globe to conduct research. A widely published scholar in Ancient Near Eastern religions, Oden recently taught a first-year seminar on "The Religion of Ancient Israelites." Suydam, who is especially knowledgeable in the areas of medieval Christianity and mysticism, has researched and written extensively on Hadewijch of Antwerp.

All have crossed political and religious boundaries in their pilgrimages to understanding, each time returning with new knowledge to share with students.

F or Rogan, the internationality of the department and its hard-won reputation for quality teaching and scholarship are the result of years of work. While many credit him with leading the department to its current level of excellence, he humbly credits his predecessors and early colleagues for pointing the way.

Back in 1965, says Rogan, when he arrived from the General Theological Seminary in New York City, the department was synonymous with A. Denis Baly, then assistant professor of religion, who also taught in the political science department, and Richard F. Hettlinger, College chaplain, who was the first chaplain to hold a joint faculty position as associate professor of religion. These two gave credence to religion as a distinct discipline--a field to be studied objectively within its own academic department.

Rogan says it was Baly "who represented the dream of internationality as a desired characteristic of Kenyon." He unceasingly pushed to move the College beyond its Episcopal roots and to include non-Western material in the curriculum. In a 1966 Bulletin article, Baly wrote on the need to move beyond Christianity: "The department which does not give at least as much time to the study of these other religions is presenting so unbalanced a picture of the subject as to be failing seriously in its function. This is no longer a matter of mere curiosity, but one of urgent necessity. . . ."

The following year, Kenyon added Jewish studies to the curriculum, making the College "the first Episcopal-related school, if not the first with a Protestant religious background, to add an authority on Jewish studies to its religion department faculty," according to a 1967 news release concerning the appointment of Gershon Greenberg, who was followed a year later by Eugen Kullmann. Kenyon was definitely out in front. It was more than a dozen years, for example, before the Divinity School of the University of Chicago added Jewish studies to its curriculum and a decade after that before the Harvard Divinity Shool made the same curricular offering.

Meanwhile, the College intensified its push to be global. Hettlinger, for instance, forged what was to become the Integrated Program in Humane Studies. Rogan subsequently helped to lay the groundwork for programs in international studies and interdisciplinary studies. All the while, Baly, Hettlinger, Rogan, and others became increasingly convinced of the merits of studying abroad.

T oday, their accomplishments continue to reflect an unwavering commitment to the liberal arts, and their work remains integral to the department.

"The world is global, and we need to explore the full human heritage," says Schubel. "We need to understand the role religion has played in human history, in civilization, in the lives of individual thinkers." To do so means understanding, for example, the role of African, Chinese, and Islamic civilizations in the construction of the modern world.

It means taking a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary approach--"examining courses that have an impact on religion, such as the psychology of religion, the history of religion, the anthropological and sociological aspects of religion," says Adler. It means exploring different fields of study for diverse insights. That's why faculty members regularly teach or co-teach courses in other departments. Adler and Schubel, for example, teach this year in Asian studies, Schubel and Dean-Otting in environmental studies, and so on.

It also means moving beyond one's own reality into that of another. "We tend to see the world we live in as normal," says Schubel. "That view, that world of ours, becomes a backdrop when we go abroad. Then we come back and see our world in a more analytical way. But this doesn't happen until you step outside of your world, realize your reality is different than millions of other peoples' reality, and reflect on that difference. If the study of the liberal arts is to understand what it means to be a human being--to understand, for example, issues of death and friendship--then to see other cultures is amazingly fulfilling."

The same can be said for the study of religion--and religious difference--at Kenyon. Knowledge, indeed, is amazingly fulfilling.


Tom Bigelow is publications director in Kenyon's Office of Public Affairs and managing editor of the Bulletin.

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