Religious Studies On The Rise At The U
As Salt Lake grows up, and out, its population is peppered with a diversity of religious and cultural practices. How that diversity will affect the community is an issue the University of Utah’s College of Humanities is addressing on many levels.
“We are told that in Utah, we live in a house divided by religion,” says Bob Goldberg, professor of history and current director of the Tanner Humanities Center at the U. Goldberg has recently been recognized as one of the premier defenders of religious tolerance at the University of Utah by the Mormon History Association which awarded him the Thomas L. Kane Award “for his unflinching devotion to and defense of Mormonism and Mormon history.”
The prestigious award is named after Thomas L. Kane, an influential reformer of the nineteenth-century who on several occasions defended the Mormons and who most significantly helped to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the Utah War. The award is presented annually to a person outside the Mormon community who has made a significant contribution to Mormon history and was presented to Goldberg by colleague W. Paul Reeve.
Reeve explains that his colleague has guided countless graduate students in pursuit of Mormon topics, shielded the faith against bias and established and secured funding for the Dean L. May Graduate Fellowship in the History of Utah and the American West.
“I think that the Thomas Kane Award symbolizes the ability of people to move beyond their own beliefs, traditions and experiences to understand another community,” reflects Goldberg, who has taught at the U since 1980. “In reaching out, we open the dialogue that finds common ground so necessary to the health of our society.”
Goldberg is the author of six books, most recently Barry Goldwater and Enemies Within. He has won seven teaching awards and was the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden in 2003.
Goldberg is not alone in his endeavors to broaden religious and cultural understanding in the community. A new religion and culture track has recently been created as part of the Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies (CLCS) major within the College of Humanities. Muriel Schmid, track representative and assistant professor/lecturer of languages and literature, says that the track began as a response to the growing demand for interdisciplinary cultural studies of religion.
“This is the first ever track of its kind at the U,” says Schmid, explaining that the degree requirements draw from a variety of academic disciplines such as history, philosophy, political science, art history, classical civilizations, English and Middle East studies. In addition, students in the program have access to specialists in a wide variety of world traditions such as Arabic, Chinese, French, German, ancient and modern Greek, Japanese, Latin, Persian, Russian, Spanish and Turkish.
“We hope to encourage critical thinking and provide students with the academic preparation necessary to make them competitive in their fields,” says Schmid. She explains that the study of religion aims to uncover the religious elements of culture in a broad sense and analyze them in a critical way. “The study of religion in an academic environment explores how religious beliefs have informed and shaped our knowledge, traditions and institutions.”
Schmid expects that the new religion and culture track will make the U more competitive as an institution as well. “As the premier university in the valley, it is our duty to offer this course of study; otherwise students will have no choice but to go elsewhere. It’s the hot topic of this generation.”
Religion is being explored by faculty as well. Vincent Pecora, chair of the English department and Gordon B. Hinckley Professor of British Literature and Culture, has focused his research on the other side of the coin—secularization. Published in 2006, his book Secularization and Cultural Criticism: Religion, Nation, and Modernity addresses the question of whether modern secular thought represents a complete departure from earlier religious beliefs, or stems from religious tradition.
“In a world where competing religious traditions, such as Islam, are routinely denounced for their hostility to secular culture, my book argues that secularism itself is no simple ’ism,’ but a complex process,” notes Pecora. “To say that ’rational enlightenment’ has taken the place of religion is hard to defend. There are far too many complexities to consider.”
In exploring these complexities, Pecora is one of an increasing group of scholars at the U whose concentration on religion is sure to contribute to the body of knowledge on the topic and to students’ academic experiences at the U.
“We’re seeing an overall trend, not just on the college level but within the university as a whole, towards the U offering more comprehensive options in religious studies,” says Heidi Camp, assistant dean of the College of Humanities. “It is a responsibility of the university to respond to the changing demographics of the valley and the community it serves. We hope through our efforts to encourage dialogue and understanding among students and the community.”
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