Diversity the Hallmark of Religious Studies Progam

It has been a long journey from fervour to understanding, originating in an Iranian jail, now continuing through religious studies courses at the University of Alberta.

01 February 2008

It has been a long journey from fervour to understanding, originating in an Iranian jail, now continuing through religious studies courses at the University of Alberta.

?I?m from the revolutionary generation,? says Mohammed, 51. ?I was imprisoned and tortured.? He asks that his last name not appear in print.

?Although my background is in science and technology. I am curious about what happened to me. I want to finish what was started a long time ago.?

How can good people, who believe they are serving God, do such terrible things?

It is the kind of weighty questions Mohammed and other students in religious studies courses are asked to ponder. The willingness to accept different points of view is considered a purpose in itself.

?People discover that studying religion is a very interesting gateway into the study of human culture.? Says Willi Braun, the director of the program at the U of A.

A few years ago, religious studies as an academic discipline seemed antiquated at best, perhaps even irrelevant. At the U of A, it was oddly bundled with comparative literature and film studies as one department within the Faculty of Arts. Then the hijacking of four airplanes and the cataclysmic events that followed changed perceptions. Understanding religion was suddenly a very modern concern.

Faculty at the U of A determined there was a need for a new approach to teaching students about the world?s faiths.

?The university allowed us to start again under a new institutional platform,? Braun recalls. ?In a sense we went from three religionists to about 30, bringing together people from various academic disciplines that focus on different aspects of religion.

?Without reservation, I would say we?re flourishing.?

Currently, Braun can offer students bachelor and master degrees. Pending ministerial approval, the U of A expects soon to add a doctorate in religious studies.

?It is a distinct program that doesn?t really match anything else offered in the country, bringing a strong interdisciplinary requirement,? he says. Credits for major, minor and honour students may be earned in history, anthropology, even political science. Instructors include experts in Arabic music, the art of Vincent Van Gogh and queer theory.

Students who register in the religious studies courses are just as diverse.

?It?s really interesting hearing from people with a very faith-based background,? says Tamara Gross, 21, before Braun?s weekly seminar on religious rituals. ?You hear a lot of thoughts you wouldn?t have thought for yourself.?

Some people register in courses because they are motivated by personal faith, Braun says, while others recognize that religion is an important force in the way communities and nations identify themselves.

?Students who come into religious studies with a view to seeking a profession soon come to realize that the program is not about training ministers, rabbis or any denominational leadership,? he adds.

Penny Nelson, 22, is the only one of about a dozen students in Braun?s class who volunteers that she is intent on pursuing a career in religion. She wants to become a minister in the United Church.

Nelson says she?s grateful that her courses provide perspectives outside of Christianity, laughing that through her sociology class she?s become qualified ?to start a cult and be a charismatic leader.?

There is a potential for religion to become ?dangerous?, Braun acknowledges. At the U of A, scholarship has prevailed. ?I know there are some campuses where religion based student groups sometimes end up in conflict. I haven?t seen that here. There is vigorous debate, but it is not antagonistic.?

Francis Landy, co-ordinator of graduate courses, agrees: ?most students who come from a strong faith background are very good at creating a balance between their beliefs and the demands of the program.?

To offer more diversity, Braun hopes soon to add an expert in East Asian religions to his staff and, jointly with the philosophy department, a specialist in South Asian belief systems. Also, local Muslims have raised $1 million to endow Canada?s first research chair in Islamic Studies.

That accomplishment is evidence of the tolerance that prevails at the U of A and in the city that surrounds it, Braun says.

?I think it?s very significant that Edmonton?s Muslim community, after 9/11, got together and formed an umbrella organization and that its purpose is to provide educational opportunities for everyone.?

Ibraheim Abu-Rabi, currently a professor at the Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut, will fill the Islamic studies chair, starting on July 1, 2008.