Community Outreach Program

Is religious freedom for everyone? What does outer space have to do with religion? When did history replace God? What is a cult? These are just a few of the many pressing questions being posed by UC Berkeley graduate students. If any of these questions interest you, continue reading to learn how you can participate in a discussion on these topics.

BCSR is offering free free interactive presentations and workshops by experts about the place of religion in our world today and the history of religion since antiquity. A vital part of the BCSR’s mission is to connect research on religion that happens inside UC Berkeley to our broader and more diverse community beyond the walls of campus, in the East Bay and beyond. Through this program, aimed at general and young audiences, we hope to promote religious literacy, cultural knowledge and an insight into the latest academic work.

UC Berkeley graduate students, future professors and thought-leaders, will come to your school or group and will adapt their presentations to the needs of your group or class. The sessions are carefully designed to be non-sectarian and to engage audiences in big questions about religion and society. They are suitable for History, Social Studies, Ethics, and Philosophy classes and for diverse groups.

This program is being supported by the Democracy and Public Theology Program, generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

Spring 2023 Program

“The Bible Clearly Says…”: The Problems of Making Meaning of an Ancient Sacred Text
Joshua Rumbaoa Garcia, History

The Christian Bible looms so large in Western culture as an authority on morality and ethics that political figures and public commentators appeal to it to bolster their credibility. Without wrestling with vast semantic ranges of words written in ancient languages or debating varieties of available recensions, people claim that “the Bible clearly says” their own political or social value is the only correct one. This lecture will firstly problematize the notion that any ancient sacred text is obviously univocal and secondly demonstrate how to evaluate interpretations critically. Focusing on the Christian Bible, we will briefly survey the significant problems of translation, collation, and production of its various kinds of literature identified by scholars working in the field of textual-criticism. Having challenged the idea that the Bible can say anything clearly at all, we will interrogate the act of interpretation as a process of making meaning of literature, namely hermeneutics. The result will be a healthy skepticism of political and religious leaders’ claims of objective interpretation informed by an appreciation for the complexity of making meaning of literature.

This talk is available online or in-person in the East Bay Area.

What can an Abandoned Village in Cyprus Tell us about Religion and Coexistence?
Aliosha Bielenberg, Rhetoric

This talk focuses on Agios Sozomenos, a village near Nicosia, the capital of the Mediterranean island Cyprus, which has a many-layered past and complexly present. Agios Sozomenos was abandoned by its Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot inhabitants after intercommunal violence on 6 February 1964. Independence from the British Empire in 1960 had not secured lasting peace and stability, as was made clear by the Turkish invasion of 1974, which divided the island until today. But Agios Sozomenos represents much more than this history of conflict. It has always been a place of plurality and coexistence, from the settlements of 1200 BCE to the many visitors — locals, foreign tourists, farmers — that frequent the area today. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the religious history of the site. The village is named after a little cave where Saint Sozomenos had established a hermitage in the 9th century CE. The healing cult of the saint drew royals and commoners alike as pilgrims and settlers of the village that sprung up around the site. After Cyprus was conquered by the Ottomans in 1571, the village became home to Muslim Turkish-Cypriots in addition to the Greek Christian Orthodox and Latin Catholic Christians who already lived there. A mosque and a Gothic church were added to the Byzantine cave chapel and village church. The cult of the saint continues to this day. Turkish-Cypriots I interviewed spoke fondly of “Yusuf Dede,” who healed just like Saint Sozomenos’. Throughout the village, I’ve found ancient Arabic inscriptions, and graffiti from medieval Greek pilgrims, twentieth-century nationalists, and contemporary football fans. Today, many come to get married at Agios Sozomenos, for breakdancing and raves, all posted on Instagram. In this presentation, I guide us through this village, and invite us to think about what this tiny place in the Mediterranean offers about coexistence and plurality in societies fractured along ethnic, religious, and class lines.

This talk is available online or in-person in the East Bay Area.

Tibetan Book of the Dead: Dying, Death and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism
Weiyu Lin, Buddhist Studies

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is undoubtedly the most famous Tibetan text in the West. After its first translation into English in the 1920s, it profoundly influenced the Western cultural scene. Carl Jung, a founder of psychoanalysis, said ‘To Tibetan Book of the Dead … I owe many of my fundamental insights’. Likewise, the Beatles’ famous line ‘turn off your mind, relax and float downstream’ drew its inspiration from that text. What is it about the Tibetan Book of the Dead that made it so influential? In this talk, we will read together some excerpts of this Buddhist text to get a sense of how Tibetan Buddhists envision the process of dying, death, and rebirth. For Tibetan Buddhists, death represents the most fertile moment for spiritual practices, the ultimate test of a lifelong spiritual cultivation. In particular, this is expressed by the Tibetan concept of bardo, which denotes the state between death and rebirth. The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes this state in great detail, including visions one may experience in this state such as the vision of the ‘clear light,’ a doorway to salvation. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is also a doorway to Tibetan and Buddhist cultures in general. For instance, we will discuss concepts such as tantra, reincarnation, the energetic body, or ‘hidden treasure’. The talk also offers a chance to reflect on death and life after death. In doing so, I will make a particular reference to research on reincarnation and near-death experience conducted at the University of Virginia.

This talk is available online or in-person in the East Bay Area.

Empire and Religion: A Global History of Power and Devotion
Sourav Ghosh, History

The recent demise of Queen Elizabeth II and the commemoration and celebration of her life have generated varied responses worldwide. For one, it has rekindled the public debates around the controversial legacy of the British colonial empire in shaping the modern world. My talk uses this premise to provide a historical narrative of the legacies of the empires in shaping Religion and vice versa. I design my talk along the following questions a) How does empire shape the everyday religious experiences of ordinary people? b) Historically, what role did religion play in the formation of empires? And finally, c) How do we make sense of our current religious experiences through the lens of the legacies of the colonial empires across the world? I address these questions by drawing on examples from Taoism and Buddhism in ancient East and South Asia, Hinduism and Islam in medieval South Asia and the Middle East, Christianity in early modern Europe, and modern colonial empires in the Americas and elsewhere

This talk is available online or in-person in the East Bay Area.

Ruminating with Rumi: The Life and Thought of the Poet
Ahmad Rashid Salim, Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures

The best-selling poet in America died long before the founding of the country. Mawlānā Jalal al-Din Balkhi, popularly known as  Rumi in the Western world, died in 1273. Who was Rumi and what were his philosophical and poetic manifestations? Since the 13th century there have been competing and often contradictory views regarding the figure and philosophical features of Rumi. This talk begins and broaches the milieu, life, literary thought, reception, and reframing of Rumi from the time of his birth in Balkh (presently, Afghanistan) to modern engagements with his quotes on such popular sites as Pinterest and Instagram. We will hear representative pieces from his poetry and prose in the original language and offer translation and brief explanatory notes, engage with themes and topics related to his worldview, interrogate his portrayal in the Western imagination, as well as his reception in the music and popular culture of the East. Concurrently, we’ll strive to integrate with and interrogate the ways that his words and worldview invite us to a more tender and transformative experience of the ecstatic moments of life, centering the experience of life as momentous and not momentary. These readings and engagements will also ask us to consider not simply the poetic but also the personal and political—past and present.

This talk is available online or in-person in the East Bay Area.