The James Kirk Lectureship is the product of an initiative taken by faculty members of the Department of Religious Studies in the mid-1990s, in response to the University's capital campaign efforts, to honor one of the founding members and former chairs of the department.
James A. Kirk began as a part-time faculty member in the department in 1956, while he was pursuing a ThD at the Iliff School of Theology, and was hired as a full-time faculty member in 1959. In the early years of his teaching, his focus was philosophy of religion, which had been his doctoral concentration.
In the course of time, his interest migrated to Asian religions, and that interest was nourished by a year spent in India and Japan (1967-68). In 1972 he published Stories of the Hindus (MacMillan), a textbook that was well-received and widely-adopted in colleges and universities around the country. After that time, he became a regular faculty member for the Semester at Sea Program, and was an invited observer at the centenary meeting of the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1993.
Due to Kirk's comparative interests and pioneering involvement in inter-religious dialogue, the goal in establishing the lectureship was to foster greater understanding of the important role religion plays in the world, and in American civic life and discourse. The inaugural lecture, April 30, 1998, was delivered by Gustav Niebuhr, a leading journalist and writer about religious pluralism and interfaith relations in America, who for many years occupied the religion desk at The New York Times and contributed regular commentaries to National Public Radio's daily news magazine, All Things Considered.
Professor Gregory Allen Robbins, chair of the Department of Religious Studies, notes:
"This lectureship is a truly distinguished series that continues to enhance the University's mission and its dedication to the public good. The Kirk Lectures, both by the prestige of the speakers invited and by the timeliness of their topics, serve also to raise the profile of our department and its faculty, whose research and publication, classroom teaching, and service to the community seek to enrich our thinking and conversations about religion in the public square."
The impressive roster of lecturers and topics have included:
- John C. Green (2001), senior research adviser at the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, who summarized the place of religion in American presidential politics during the 2000 election;
- Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina (2003) of the University of Virginia, who addressed the impact of 9/11 on the Muslim community in America;
- Professor Michael Ruse (2006) of University of Florida State University, who assayed the consequences for the debate about teaching Darwin and Intelligent Design Creationism in the public schools after the federal court's ruling on Kitzmiller v. Dover case in Pennsylvania;
- Marie Griffith (2007), director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University (2007), who reflected on Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity;
- Professor Yvonne Haddad (2009) of Georgetown University, who discoursed on women in Islam and Christians in the Arab world; and
- Professor Timothy Beal (2011) of Case Western Reserve University, who expanded upon the theme of his book, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: the fate of the concept of sacred text in an electronic and disposable age.
James A. Kirk Lecturers
2014-15: Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania
2013-14: Angela Zito, New York University
2012: Ramon Gutierrez, University of Chicago
2011: Timothy Beal, Case Western Reserve University
2010—Anthony Pinn, Rice University
2009—Yvonne Haddad, Georgetown University
2008—David Carrasco, Harvard Divinity School
2007—Marie Griffith, Washington University
2006—Michael Ruse, Florida State University
2005—Jodi Magness, University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill
2004—Charles H. Long, University of California—Santa Barbara, Emeritus
2003—Abdulaziz Sachedina, University of Virginia
2002—Peter Novick, University of Chicago, deceased
2001—John C. Green, University of Akron and Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
2000—Margaret Wertheim, PBS
1999—Colleen McDannell, University of Utah
1998—Gustav Niebuhr, Syracuse University and formerly New York Times, et al