Overview of Course
It is sometimes said that the function of religion is to provide humans with answers to universally felt questions—where did we come from?; where are we going?; and what is the meaning of life itself? But, historically speaking, few (if any) religious traditions address these questions in a straightforward manner. Instead of thinking of religions as providing answers to a set of common questions, this class will invite students to consider religions as offering frameworks of intelligibility within which concrete questions about human existence can be meaningfully posed. So, for instance, a sixteenth-century Christian might ask, as Luther did, whether salvation is a matter of good works or a matter of grace. A Confucian living in the third-century BCE, such as Xunzi, might ponder the relative importance of “institutional rules” (fa) as compared with “people” (ren) in establishing good governance. And a third-century Buddhist, like Nagarjuna, might wonder if there is a genuine difference between samsara and nirvana?
In our quest to understand religious traditions, we will try to develop an appreciation for the distinctive intellectual contexts and vocabularies within which these religious questions are voiced. This will involve an intensive study of theological, philosophical and mythological texts, supplemented by an occasional film and works of short fiction. Emphasis will be placed upon traditions we are most likely to encounter during our voyage—Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.