This course introduces major features that define and give structure to human religious life. Our inquiry will explore the nature of religion as manifested in a variety of experiences and expressions, encounter with the Holy, scared symbols, myths, rituals, belief systems and institutional structures. By the end of the course, students should be capable of thinking cogently about and understanding religious images, ideas, experiences and movements that are both powerful and pervasive in human society.
The course presents Islam from its Middle Eastern origins through its expansion into Asia, Africa, and the West. The course is not primarily designed to evaluate accommodation or adaptation to Western ideas; rather the intent of the course is to examine the founder, the sacred texts, the historical context of the tradition and its origins and evolution. Basic teachings will be compared with different approaches to their interpretations, the majority of which spring from a non-Western milieu. While the Arabic-speaking Middle East has always been at the center of the Islamic world, four of the countries with the largest Muslim populations are further East in Asia: Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. This course examines the organic process of religious and/or philosophical change that brings Islamic ideas westward, but the origins are clearly non-Western.
The course begins in the ancient Near East and moves eastward through the Indian subcontinent and finally through China and Japan, engaging these major religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, and Japanese religious traditions. While these traditions, the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic ones in particular, have impacted European civilization, they emerged out of fundamentally different cultural and historic milieus. Furthermore, to study a religion and its origins is to study its environment's culture, for religion and culture are always linked in the lives of its participants. And the differences in culture across the traditions' civilizations played influential roles in the shape that the religious traditions have taken. For example, that Confucianism emerged out of and focused primarily on aristocratic distinctions and social relationships sets it apart in many ways from Islam that emerged out of a primarily nomadic and tribal society based on rules concerning tribal interactions and ritual practice. Every religious tradition emerged from real societies and out of tangible social, religious, and economic concerns--often including clear connections with other major religious traditions--and the diversity of these environments has wide-ranging and important impacts on the shape of their emergent religions. Therefore, a careful analysis of these Middle Eastern and Eastern societies will form the bedrock of this course's tradition units.
An examination of the variety of answers given to the question: "What happens after death?" Particular attention is given to the views of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists and the ways their views relate to life in this world. The course will also examine phenomena related to near-death experiences. The professor and guest lecturers will make presentations from time to time. Most of the course will be conducted in a seminar format with students assuming major responsibility for presentations and discussions, students will also explore ways the afterlife is presented in various popular movies.