Religious studyhas room to grow

Sarah Hallonquist

Last year, two students graduated from the University with a bachelor’s degree in religious studies. That is less than .02 percent of the total number of degrees the University granted.
William Malandra, chairman of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, said the program in religious studies is growing. He estimates 15 to 20 students are currently seeking undergraduate degrees in religious studies. But if $2 million can be raised in the next two years, the program could expand and attract more students and research scholars from across the nation.
The process has already begun. Last November, the University received a $2 million gift to endow a chair in Jewish and Hebrew Bible studies. Although the formal hiring process is not complete, Malandra said the department has found a professor to hold the position, which is the 21st endowed chair in the College of Liberal Arts.
Another $2 million, however, is needed to endow a chair in New Testament and Christian studies.
Malandra said two complimentary chairs in Western religions would expand and give a unique area of specialty to the religious studies program, which is part of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies.
About 22 courses are offered in religions in antiquity, which include Christianity, Judaism, Roman and Greek religions, ancient Hinduism and Zoroastrianism — a religion of ancient Persia.
The program does not have the resources or faculty to teach Islam, American Indian philosophy or East Asian religions, but other CLA departments do offer courses in those areas of study.
In comparison to other Big Ten schools, the University’s religious studies program is small and limited. Indiana University’s Department of Religious Studies was ranked number one in the 1996 Gourman Report of more than 1,000 colleges and universities. Twenty-four faculty members comprise the department and teach courses in more than 16 fields. Indiana offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees as well as undergraduate minor programs.
Offering the same degrees as Indiana, the University of Iowa also has a strong program. Northwestern University in Illinois offers more than 40 courses in religious studies.
In Minnesota, however, the University offers only a bachelor’s degree and minor program. The master’s degree program in religious studies was eliminated two years ago, and there is not a doctoral program. A graduate student could earn a minor in religious studies.
“We’re not broad enough,” Malandra said. “We don’t have a social science component … or courses in contemporary religious thought.” The professor said a person can’t claim to be really educated without an understanding of religious traditions and history because all human societies are shaped by them.
The Rev. Galen Hora works at the Lutheran Campus Ministry on the St. Paul Campus and serves as the assistant director for Campus Ministry Advancement for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He is currently on the advisory committee trying to establish a Christian studies chair, and has been trying to bring such a position to the University for several years. Beside being a part of a person’s spirituality and faith, Hora said religion can be studied like any other cultural movement, such as art, music or sociology.
“The purpose of this particular chair is not to be evangelistic in terms of one religion’s right to truth over another,” Hora said. “It’s simply to put religion on the table with all the other academic disciplines and look how it jigsaws in with everything else that’s happened in world culture.”
“Particularly, we’re interested in how it’s happened in American culture and the contributions that it’s made to American culture in the last two, three hundred years,” Hora added.
Hora said he and others on the committee are also interested in how religions affect war and peace, medical ethics and technology, and how religions differ in their views about these subjects.
Also serving on the campaign for the New Testament and Christian studies chair are the Rev. Herbert W. Chilstrom and the Rev. John Roach. Roach is former archbishop of the Twin Cities Roman Catholics, and Chilstrom is former bishop of the ELCA and ran for a spot on the University’s Board of Regents last fall.
Both Malandra and Hora said the University has done a good job of separating church and state. Certain religious faiths or spiritualities are not supposed to be promoted through academic study of religion at public institutions.
Rabbi Sharon Stiefel, who works at the Hillel Jewish Student Center, said when students take religious studies classes at the University, there are certain parameters of study that are different than what would exist at a private religious school.
“There isn’t a practicing component, and the student shouldn’t get it (in a religious studies class),” Stiefel said. If Jewish students take a Jewish studies class at the University to learn more about their faith, “what they may be yearning for may only be partially fulfilled,” she said.
Stiefel said a campus ministry can serve to provide the practical religious element. She said she also hopes Hillel can work in conjunction with the new Jewish studies and Hebrew Bible chair. Hillel often hosts a faculty and staff brunch series to discuss issues in Judaism, and works collaboratively with the Jewish studies department and the program in Hebrew language.
Although religious studies at the University do not advocate a belief in any particular faith, there is the possibility that students could become interested in certain faiths through the academic study of religious traditions.
“Maybe through the academic study of their faith, they might become enlightened in a way they weren’t reached otherwise,” Bruce Forstein said, who is the major gifts development officer for CLA. His job is to find donors for projects such as the endowed chair of New Testament and Christian studies. Although the chair is not an evangelical project, Forstein said religious leaders are hopeful students who have turned away from a religion might be re-engaged by the academic study of religion.
“I would hope that the classes offered by this chair would allow for people to ask significant, open questions, and that they would receive some answers,” Hora said. “It would have that kind of integrity to it.”
Hora also said the number of undergraduates from public institutions who are applying to seminaries is increasing. In the past, students preparing for seminary usually attended private religious colleges. At Luther Northwestern Seminary in St. Paul, University of Minnesota graduates topped the list in 1996 with 44 students registered for classes. St. Olaf, in Northfield, Minn., is ranked second, with 40 students who hold undergraduate degrees from the private Lutheran college.
At the University, Hora said there must be a strong religious studies program so that future church leaders have the opportunity to study religion. “You can get out of this university without ever taking a religion class,” he said.
However, “most seminaries want students who are broad-minded and liberally educated,” Malandra said. He added that a liberal arts education is something most seminaries cannot offer, and the schools usually do not require applicants to have taken previous course work in religious studies.
Malandra said CLA Dean Steven Rosenstone has been very receptive to the idea of an endowed chair in New Testament and Christian studies.
Plans for courses funded by the chair in Jewish studies have not been made and will be dependent on the chair’s professor, who will probably begin in the fall of 1998. As for the New Testament and Christian studies chair, no plans can be made until a donor is found, which according to Forstein, could be two weeks or two years from now.