Why major in Religious Studies?
In attempting to proffer a compelling answer to this question, I shall find myself resorting to autobiographical reflection. In doing so, I shall also be reminded of a wry and astute quip made by my doctoral advisor at Duke University, Robert Clark Gregg. "Judging from the frequency with which you and I emerge as the heroes of our own tales," he noted, "it is evident that no life-story is ever quite as enthralling as our own." And yet, Bob observed, we academics are trained to blush at the task of composing an autobiographical sketch. When called upon to "do openly and baldly what we've invested years learning to do with ingenious subtlety," Bob says our modus operandi is to hide behind the professional parameters and the prosaic details (schools, degrees, jobs, etc.) of the curriculum vitae, even when we think our lives have "seen some poetry." My Doktorvater inspires me to throw caution to the wind...
I entered Indiana University as music major, much to the dismay of my parents. "What will you ever do with a degree in music? Surely you don't think you've got what it takes for the concert stage?" With parents like this, who needed reality TV or a Simon? No American Idol me; no spotlight on America's Got Talent.
My instrument was piano. It had been my intention from sixth grade on to do a performance degree as an undergraduate and then to go on to earn a PhD is musicology. I had wanted to be a college professor all along, but I wanted to be a music historian, not an historian of early Christianity. Toward that end, I began studying piano with a professor at the university when I was in tenth grade. Throughout high school, I took private lessons in music theory and composition. I began the study of German and Latin at that time as well. I knew – or at least I thought I knew – where I was going and laid the ground work accordingly. So how did I wind up a professor of religious studies? And how might I convince you to entertain the possibility of majoring in Religious Studies yourself?
Initially, a girl was involved. In pouring over the course schedule prior to the second semester of my sophomore year, my girlfriend and I discovered that we could both fulfill a humanities requirement (and spend some time together) by enrolling in a course offered in the religion department entitled, "The Church in New Testament Times." I had no idea what a religion course, taught in a huge, state-supported, secular university would be about. Frankly, I didn't much care. I needed the credit; it fit into my schedule; the building in which it was taught was close to the School of Music; I got to be with Rachel. I signed on.
The course turned out to be an introduction to the history and literature of the New Testament, a subject I knew even less about than I thought – a lot less. The professor was mesmerizing. As far as I could tell, he knew everything about the New Testament. As far as I could tell, he could have written the New Testament! He knew history and made it come alive. He knew languages – Greek and Hebrew – and would linger over the subtleties of meaning. He had a keen literary sense. He read the prose of the New Testament as one would any masterpiece, savoring its structure, symbolism, irony, humor and worldview. He raised questions I felt I had never been allowed to ask, for fear I'd be struck dead by a lightning bolt. In this course I was struck by lightning, and the spark that was ignited was soon fanned into a flame.
That initial experience was followed up by other courses in religious studies. None disappointed; each was enlightening beyond belief (pun intended). Before long, I was pursuing a triple degree in music, German and religion. My piano teacher was mystified. My parents were likewise bewildered. To their way of thinking, my academic career was becoming more and more impractical, even irrelevant. Now they asked, "What career do you envision for yourself? What course will your life take?"
To me, my change in goals now seems inherently practical. To major in religious studies is to engage liberal education at its best. Liberal education frees a learner from the tyranny of his or her own experiences and necessarily limited perspectives. Religion is a key ingredient in many of the puzzles we must solve if we are to understand our contemporary world. College students trying to negotiate the world in which we live could do no better than to broaden their knowledge of the world's religious traditions. If we are willing to grapple with them on the basis of a generous, disciplined study, we come away with a depth of historical, political and social understanding few are able to match.
Most importantly (and here's the poetic part), the study of religion invites us into a lifelong conversation with the great minds of the past and present. Together we spend our time, that most precious of commodities, pondering questions of what it means to be human, of what constitutes human flourishing. Figuratively, we ring the changes on what the third-century Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria (as I would also learn from Robert Gregg) called the queries of the true gnostic: "Who we were, what we have become, where we were, where we were placed, whither we hasten, from what we are set free, what birth is, what rebirth?"
People who major in religious studies manage to find all sorts of jobs to support themselves – as our graduates certainly attest. A job notwithstanding, most find as well a vocation, a calling, as noble and ennobling as any one might pursue. Won't you join us?
Gregory Allen Robbins,
Associate Professor of Religious Studies (History of Christianity and its scriptures) and Chair of the Department