Part V: Zones of Inquiry

In addition to working in an area of specialization, all graduate students and faculty in the department also participate in the exploration of one or more focus areas. These focus areas identify problems, chart trajectories cutting across different field specialties and set the parameters for theoretical and methodological questions. Graduate students select one primary focus area as a subject of one of their comprehensive examinations. Work in the focus area consists of courses, which are integrated in the departmental curriculum and independent reading. At the programmatic level, the Department, in cooperation with the Institute for Religion, Culture, & Public Life sponsors seminars, courses, visiting lectures, and other events on issues related to the focus areas.

Time (History, Modernity)

With the emergence of modernity, the problem of time is recast. The very notions of modernity, modernization, and modernism are inconceivable apart from a new interpretation of time that is shaped by religious ideas and practices as well as social, political, and technological changes. The genealogy of modernity assumes different contours in different cultures and historical eras. This focus area explores the genesis and consequences of alternative modernities. When and why do people in different societies begin to consider themselves modern? What cultural, social, political, and economic factors account for this development. What is the relation between religion and modernity? What is the relation among modernity, modernization, and modernism in different religious traditions and cultures? What are the implications of the understanding of modernity for the interpretation of history and vice versa? What is the relation between modernity and secularism, as well as modernity and science? What comes after modernity?

John McGuckin, Mark Taylor

Transmission (Tradition, Memory, Institutions)

Religion and tradition are inseparable, but religions interpret tradition differently. This focus area examines how various religious traditions are defined, reformed, and transmitted. Special attention is given to the problem of authority within the context of religious and political institutions. The interplay between transmission and resistance can be traced in the dynamics of individual and social memory and counter-memory as they define the parameters of orthodoxy and orthopraxis on the one hand and, on the other, heterodoxy and heresy. Transmission can occur thorough textual and ritual practices, art and archeology, and archival technologies. By studying the intersection of religion, politics, and economics it becomes possible to identify contrasting efforts to negotiate the tension between continuity and change.

Beth Berkowitz, Elizabeth Castelli, Jack Hawley, Katharina Ivanyi, Rachel McDermott, Robert Somerville, Zhaohua Yang

Space (Place, Geography, Virtual Space)

Space is no more fixed than time. Religious symbols, myths, and rituals map real and imaginary space in ways that provide orientation and constitute both individual and social identity. Territories are formed and reformed through border struggles whose significance ranges from the religious to the political, the local to the global, and the material to the virtual. This focus area draws together questions related to many themes: geographies, nation, nationalism, transnationalism, cosmopolitanism, empire, environment, homeland, diaspora, migration, urbanism, virtuality, cyberspace, and globalization.

Courtney Bender, Michael Como, Katherine Pratt Ewing, Jack Hawley, Rachel McDermott

Body (Materiality, Mind, Bio-ethics)

The body and embodiment play crucial roles in religious belief and practice. In some cases the body serves as a vehicle for expressing religious identity and in others a burden that must be shed. Somatics, practice, and habit are closely related to discourses on gender, race, and ethnicity. Regimes of disciplinary practice involving meditative/mystical techniques create an interplay between body, text, tradition, memory, and institution. On the other hand, recent advances in physical, biological, and neurological sciences pose important theoretical and ethical issues. This focus area will draw on multiple disciplines to analyze the changing contours of bodily being.

Courtney Bender, Beth Berkowitz, Elizabeth Castelli, Michael Como, Katherine Pratt Ewing, Katharina Ivanyi

Media (Transportation, Information, Communication)

Experience is always mediated by technologies that are constantly changing. This focus area examines how religious experience, thought, action, and institutions are related to different technologies of production and reproduction. “Media” is understood in the broadest possible sense: visual (painting, sculpture, mosaics, architecture), auditory (music, ritual, spirits), physical (bodily disciplines and practices, material factors – food, drugs, etc.), transportation (land, sea, air), information and communication (writing, mechanical, electronic, digital), and networks (social, political, economic, technological). The primary concern of inquiry in this area is to determine the ways in which religious beliefs and practices shape media and, correlatively, the impact of different media on religious ideas and life.

Mark Taylor, Zhaohua Yang