Introduction to the Department

Message from the Chairperson

Rev. Jeff B. Pool, Ph.D.
Eli Lilly Chair in Religion and Culture
Professor of Religion

The Department for Studies of Religions and Spirituality explores and examines the religious and spiritual phenomena of human life, experience, culture, and history.  The Department investigates how religious and spiritual communities and traditions have emerged as vital aspects of human cultures and also have shaped those cultures.  Rather than advocating religions or any particular religious or spiritual perspective, academic studies of religions and spiritualities at Berea College describe and analyze the diversity of religious experience, traditions, communities, and issues.  Academic studies of religions and spiritualities explore forms in and through which humans have both articulated and responded to their most profound and persistent questions about the universe, human nature, the human condition, personal and social morality, human community, ultimate or sacred reality, and religious ways of knowing.  The Department investigates ways in which humans have expressed or exercised the spiritual dimension of human life institutionally, socially, politically, psychologically, economically, ritually, morally, rhetorically, textually, intellectually, aesthetically, and personally.

Acknowledging both the multi-disciplinary and the interdisciplinary requirements for this vast field of study, those who teach in the Department both employ and rely upon a wide variety of disciplinary approaches in their studies of and teaching about religious and spiritual phenomena. The Faculty of the Department for Studies of Religions and Spirituality examines a wide variety of religious and spiritual phenomena, including the major religious traditions and communities of the world, with historiographical, linguistic and literary, social-scientific, anthropological, philosophical, and theological methods of analysis and interpretation.  As a result of the multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary character of such studies, the Department for Studies of Religions and Spirituality cross-lists selected courses from its curriculum in the curricula of several other academic areas of study as well.

Academic studies of religions and spiritualities enable students to explore many different human perspectives on the world, human life, and ultimate human concerns that appear within diverse cultures, across all historical periods, and through multiple traditions.  The Department for Studies of Religions and Spirituality provides several interrelated opportunities for students to pursue:

  1. Cultivating understanding of religions or religious experience as one category of primary and enduring human responses to and expressions of the human condition;
  2. Encountering many of the intellectual, practical, and theoretical issues and questions that attend the appearance of religions and spiritualities in human life and communities;
  3. Acquiring knowledge of diverse historical and contemporary religious and spiritual communities, traditions, ideas, and phenomena, as well as knowledge of academic methods for studies of religions and spiritualities;
  4. Examining some of the classic texts in both human religious history and academic studies of religions and spiritualities;
  5. Developing descriptive, analytical, hermeneutical, critical, and constructive skills for the study of religious and spiritual phenomena;
  6. Sharpening abilities to communicate critically, yet constructively, through engagement with the religious and/or spiritual practices and ideas of other people and their communities; and
  7. Enhancing appreciation for the complexities and possibilities in academic studies of religions and spiritualities.

The Faculty of the Department for Studies of Religions and Spirituality has designed the curriculum for students with interests in interdisciplinary (historiographical, philosophical, theological, sociological, psychological, anthropological, aesthetic, literary-critical, cultural) approaches to studies of religions and spiritualities.  Students who focus their studies in other fields and disciplines (e.g., Art and Art History, Asian Studies, Child and Family Studies, Economics and Business, Education Studies, English, History, Nursing, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Peace and Social Justice Studies, Sociology, Sustainability and Environmental Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, among several other potential areas of study) may profitably study the religious and spiritual dimensions of those other bodies of human knowledge either through individual courses that contribute to their academic majors or minors, or by taking an additional academic major or minor in studies of religions and spirituality.

As a result, courses in studies of religions and spirituality serve as occasions for students to discover, to examine, and to understand the major dimensions of various religious and spiritual communities and traditions of the world: institutions; social organization and polity; forms and styles of leadership; moral codes, behavior, and systems; rituals; sacred texts; and beliefs, doctrines, or teachings.  Through its curriculum, the Department for Studies of Religions and Spirituality offers both an academic major and an academic minor as basic foundations or backgrounds for graduate studies in several other or related fields for students who have interests in a variety of careers or vocations: such as, religious ministry of various kinds, teaching, journalism, politics, law, social work, business, and medicine.  The Department also offers introductory courses to students who pursue other academic majors to encourage the exploration of religions and spiritualities in all their diversity as a support for studies in many other fields as well.

The Faculty in the Department for Studies of Religions and Spirituality understands academic studies of religious, spiritual, and related phenomena at Berea College as neither religious (or advocative) nor anti-religious (or antagonistic) approaches to religious and spiritual phenomena, but rather as the neutral or non-religious academic exploration and examination of religions and spirituality.  Thus, the name of the Department intentionally, clearly, and accurately signals four essential features of the Department’s historic and contemporary commitments to teaching and research in this vast cultural field of study: (a) pursuit of descriptive rather than prescriptive goals in teaching about spirituality and religions; (b) maintenance of a contextual and cross-cultural scope; (c) demonstration of genuine multi-disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity through employment of methods that encompass frameworks in both the social sciences and the human sciences or humanities for identifying, analyzing, and understanding religious and spiritual phenomena; and (d) insistence, however, that the multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary studies of religious and spiritual phenomena do not reduce those phenomena to the respective “non-religious forms of behavior” to which the multiple academic methods and disciplines refer in various ways. [1]

Enthusiastically and Expectantly,

Rev. Jeff B. Pool, Ph.D.
Chairperson, Department for Studies of Religions and Spirituality
Eli Lilly Chair in Religion and Culture
Professor of Religion

[1] Here, the Faculty in the Department of Religion shares the conviction of the late Mircea Eliade, the preeminent historian of religion.  According to Eliade, “[e]very religious experience is expressed and transmitted in a particular historical context.  But admitting the historicity of religious experiences does not imply that they are reducible to non-religious forms of behavior.  Stating that a religious datum is always a historical datum does not mean that it is reducible to a non-religious history—for example, to an economic, social, or political history.  We must never lose sight of one of the fundamental principles of modern science: the scale creates the phenomenon” (Mircea Eliade, “History of Religions and a New Humanism,” History of Religions, vol. 1 [Summer 1961], 6).