Religious Studies Program Brings the Sacred to Class
by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted Mar. 4, 1998
Jon R. Stone looks so young, its hard to believe hes 38 and
Berkeleys resident expert in religious studies in fact, Berkeleys
only full-time faculty member in religious studies.
Stone came to Berkeley this fall on a one-year lectureship that
has been extended a year. He has already created three new courses:
Popular American Religions, American Religious Pluralism,
and World Religions in America. The latter two satisfy the American
For the first time this year, Religious Studies has been able
to hire graduate student instructors as discussion leaders for
its two core courses and offer a resident adviser for its 45 majorsStone.
In his second year as part-time interim director of the Religious
Studies Program is Birger Pearson, an emeritus professor of religious
studies at UC Santa Barbara. His specialty is early Christianity
and Hellenistic religions, especially the origins of Gnosticism
and the Coptic Church.
Stone received his PhD at UC Santa Barbara in 1990, where Pearson
was one of his advisers. When asked his religion, Stone replies,
When Im teaching Buddhism, Im a Buddhist; when Im teaching
Islam, Im a Muslim; when Im teaching Christianity, Im a Christian.
I give every religion its due.
At the beginning of each semester, I tell my students that I
take very seriously that in studying religion, I am handling sacred
things, says Stone. I also tell them that the role of religious
studies in the public university is neither to promote nor discredit
religion or religious belief. Personally, Im not in the business
of destroying peoples faith. At the same time, Im not here to
look at religion and its impact on human civilization uncritically.
Upon arriving in Berkeley, Stone even lost an apartment he wanted
to rent when he pointed out to his potential landlady that Buddha
did not believe in God.
Im uncomfortable with people saying their way is the only way,
says Stone. I study religions not from a spiritual point of view,
but from an historical, sociological perspective. Im interested
in the world of religions. Being one religion doesnt make sense
for me anymore.
Says Pearson, I always challenge my students to challenge me
if they find a religious bias in my teaching. They never have
on the contrary. Not that Im trying to hide the fact that Im
Pearson received an MA in Greek from Berkeley in 1959 and his
PhD from Harvard in 1968. He joined the UC Santa Barbara religious
studies department in 1969, chaired it from 1976 to 1979, and
retired in 1994. He was a visiting professor here in fall 1994
and again in fall 1995. Since 1981 he has directed research on
the roots of Egyptian Christianity at the Institute for Antiquity
and Christianity in Claremont, California.
You cant understand human culture without understanding religion,
says Stone. Sometimes people misunderstand what religious studies
is its not theology, but a way of understanding human civilization.
So many national and international events can only be fully understood
by knowing the religious beliefs underlying and motivating them,
says Stone, commenting on recent news of the Popes visit to Cuba,
overtures to the United States from Iran, and the influence of
the Baptist church on the U.S. civil rights movement.
Before Berkeley, Stone taught at the University of Northern Iowa
for three years, followed by four years at UC Santa Barbaras
Center for the Study of Religion, where he produced five books,
including Latin for the Illiterati, now in its third printing
and named the 1997 outstanding reference source by the American
Library Association, and The Craft of Religious Studies, a collection
of autobiographical essays by senior scholars on interdisciplinary
approaches to the study of religion.
Stones other books include his dissertation, On the Boundaries
of American Evangelicalism: The Postwar Evangelical Coalition
(see American Evangelicalism, right), Prime-Time Religion: An
Encyclopedia of Religious Broadcasting (1997), and A Guide to
the End of the World: Popular Eschatology in America (1993).
He is currently writing a book on American ethnic religious communities
and researching a book on new religions in California.
I think of myself as a public scholar, says Stone. I write
for the reading public as well as for my colleagues. I take seriously
the role of a public university and I believe Berkeley should
be in the forefront of educating the public about the worlds
religions. I study something thats so important to the world,
and I want people to understand it. I dont want to write books
that no one will read.
Berkeleys Religious Studies major, first offered in 1970, resides
in the Division of Undergraduate and Interdisciplinary Studies
(UGIS). The programs advisory board consists of 12 faculty from
seven departments and it currently lists 20 affiliated faculty
from 13 departments.
Despite attempts by faculty from several disciplines to establish
a department of religious studies here, the program has never
had full-time, ladder-rank faculty. Most of its courses are taught
by visiting lecturers. Many are cross-listed in other departments,
such as anthropology, South and Southeast Asian studies, history,
English, Near Eastern studies, Scandinavian studies, comparative
literature, philosophy, geography, Celtic studies, African-American
studies, political science and sociology.
One faculty member, Professor of History Susanna Elm, teaches
half-time in religious studies. The two courses required of all
majors overviews of Asian and Western religions have never
been taught by ladder-rank Berkeley faculty.
When Birger asked me to come to Berkeley, I thought, This is
great! Its virgin territory. says Stone. Its such a rare
opportunity to come to a world renowned university and get to
develop a program.
Many religious studies departments were founded in the 1960s,
according to Pearson. In 1962, UC President Clark Kerr asked the
Berkeley, Davis, Los Angeles, Riverside and Santa Barbara campuses
about the status of the teaching of comparative religion. Only
Santa Barbara established a department. In 1995 it was ranked
one of the 10 best in the country by the National Research Council.
In North America, the BA major in religion or religious studies
is now offered at more than 1,500 colleges and universities.
Carolyn Porter, dean of UGIS, points out that religious studies
courses fulfill five of the seven Letters and Science breadth
requirements at Berkeley. Its a remarkably rich and critical
field, she says. Theres enormous demand for religious studies
courses, especially the introductory ones; were having to turn
Stone is so intensely devoted to religious studies, it was surprising
to discover that he has another passion: water polo and swimming.
He has coached high school teams for years, most recently at Santa
Barbara High School; two of his former players are now on Cals
water polo team.
Meanwhile, Pearson enjoys semi-retirement in Escalon, where he
grows walnuts, helps raise his sixth child (an adopted 11-year-old
boy), and continues his research and writing. His latest book
is The Emergence of the Christian Religion (1997).
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