This course will take a phenomenological approach to understand how symbols and rituals, along with verbal language, communicate belief and prescribe behavior—and also open doors to challenge, revision, conversion, and de-conversion. We will study even as we ourselves are enacting encounters (mostly by Americans) with religion around the world, calibrated to the Fall 2017 itinerary of the Semester at Sea. We will begin with Ali Eteraz’s travels back and forth across the Atlantic in search of the proper meaning of Islam as recounted in his Children of Dust (2011). For West Africa we will read Olaudah Equiano’s account of his kidnapping into slavery and eventual conversion to Christian abolitionism as a narrative of loss and redemption. Crossing the Indian Ocean, we will read ritual studies literature to prepare for the sights, sounds, and felt experience to be encountered on visits to temples and shrines in south and southeast Asia. Toward the end of the voyage we will read of Lafcadio Hearn’s fascinated immersion in the religions of Japan in the late nineteenth century, and crossing the Pacific on the way back to the United States, we will discuss the deeply ambivalent response that Nathaniel Hawthorne, that sere son of New England, accorded the ritual world of Rome in The Marble Faun. Our goal will not be to come to a final definition of religious truth, much less a commitment to one version of it, but to consider how different people in different circumstances came to apprehend it, or changed their minds about it, and in any case plumbed its meanings for their lives and work.
Field WorkCountry: Myanmar (Burma)
Date: November 5, 2017
We will take guided tours of a Buddhist monastery, pagoda, and meditation center to observe, discuss, and participate in some of their religious practices and daily routine.
1. To become more closely acquainted with the nature, details, and meanings of Buddhist ritual.
2. To better understand how these reflect, sustain, and affect the elements of Buddhism’s more formal belief structure. 3. To hear this unfamiliar (to most students) religion explained by knowledgeable practitioners in their own terms.
4. To undergo a detailed and concrete exercise in the course’s principal concern, which is how religious meaning is formulated, received, understood, and changed.