Message From the Directors, 2019

Miranda Schonbrun

May 2019

Dear Friends of BCSR,

2018-2019 has been an exceptional year for the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion. We’d like to bring you up to date on our current and planned activities, and thank you for helping to make this year such a success.

Our biggest efforts and events revolved around the third year of programming from the $1 million grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. The Luce grant has supported our long-term Religion in the World initiative and served as an anchor for the Berkeley Public Theology Program. We have just completed the third full year of the grant and successfully executed many of its objectives in education, research, and public outreach. BCSR also took advantage of many unique opportunities this year, which provided new audiences, speakers, and collaborations.

The Berkeley Lectures in Public Theology Series welcomed three scholars this year, offering the opportunity to hear from several international faculty. In March, Konrad Schmid’s talk “Critical Public Theology: How to Use and Not Use the Bible in Contemporary Public Issues” sparked a lively discussion about the literalities of the Bible. Eugenio Menegon, Boston University, gave us a unique view of Catholic missionaries in eighteenth-century China with his talk, “What’s Theology Got to do with it? An Eighteenth Century Chinese Emperor Debating Religions and Christianity.” Finally, Ruth Marshall, University of Toronto, delivered “Doing Politics and Theology today: Promises and Pitfalls” where she discussed the resurgence of religion across the globe, suggesting a reappraisal of the relationship between the religious and the political.

We held the culminating conference for the Public Theology Program, “Theology and the Public University” on February 21-23. Sixteen participants from the US, Canada, and Europe gathered to explore three major areas of inquiry: Theology and the History of Learning; Theology and Modern Secular Disciplines; and The Limits and Possibilities of Theology in a Pluralist World. We were particularly delighted with the expertise and experience of the faculty in attendance, and how each contributed to making the presentations and discussions both rich and robust. The conference highlighted the benefit of a multi-disciplinary approach to the study of theology, with the “public university” offering an ideal scaffold for the faculty to frame the multi-thematic sessions.

Professors from History, Anthropology, and East Asian Languages and Cultures continued bi-weekly meetings with eight “New Directions in Theology” students across the humanities and social sciences to share ideas across the disciplines and introduce them to the wider world of religious studies at Berkeley. We began the year with a gathering of both current as well as alumni of the New Directions program, where over twenty students highlighted the breadth and intensity of the participants. The 2018-2019 cohort was the third group of New Directions students, and we will confirm the fourth set of students soon.

In addition to the Public Theology Program, BCSR continued its diverse programming on religion. In early fall, BCSR co-sponsored, “Devotion and Relativity, Text and Context: New Frontiers of Jewish Literacy.” This two-day program was led by Ethan Katz (History and BCSR advisory board) and two other religious scholars, Sergey Dolgopolski (SUNY at Buffalo) and Elisha Ancselovits (Emory University and Liverpool Hope University). Twenty-five participants, including BCSR co-director Jonathan Sheehan, gathered in New York City to probe a major tension at the heart of Jewish Studies – scholars who emphasize wider social and cultural contexts in which the Jewish experience has unfolded, and those whose work focuses more on the internal logic of Jewish texts and traditions

BCSR and the Townsend Center in Humanities established a new partnership to address the broad topic of “Public University/Public Values.” The first of the two-part series took place in early February, where Arlie Hochschild and Thomas Laqueur discussed “The Politics of Truth: A Way Forward.” Later in the month, author Maggie Nelson (University of Southern California) and Nadia Ellis continued the Public University/Public Values conversation with a discussion of “Writing Freedom- and its Constraints.”

The Seminars in Art and Religion, a signature event for BCSR, was held in early April and featured London based artist Haroon Mirza. Mirza has earned international acclaim for installations that test the interplay and friction between sound and light waves and electric current. Both expressive and talented in multi-media, he devises kinetic sculptures, performances and immersive installations around the world.

Throughout the year, BCSR was delighted to co-sponsor events with the Departments of Rhetoric, History, English and the Graduate Theological Union. Our unit was also fortunate to host two returning visiting scholars this year, Andrea Vestrucci and Jason Sexton.

The 2018-2019 academic year is now over, but we’ve already begun to set next year’s events into motion. Along with our programming, BCSR only gets more dynamic as a campus center, and we are delighted to welcome new leadership for the upcoming year. After many years of building BCSR as a founder and co-director, Jonathan Sheehan will pass the baton to co-director David Marno and new co-director Karen Barkey. David is associate professor of English and his work concentrates on the intersection between literature and religious practice, in particular on the relationship between prayer, meditation, spiritual exercises, and poetry. Karen is faculty in Sociology with expertise in Comparative Historical Sociology, Political Sociology, and Religion. Her main area of interest is in issues of coexistence and diversity in imperial settings as models for contemporary discussions. We look forward to having David and Karen as our co-directors of BCSR as we enter our seventh year on the Berkeley campus.

None of these accomplishments would have been possible without tremendous support from others. This year’s faculty advisory board—Karen Barkey (Sociology), Charles Hirschkind (Anthropology), Asma Kazmi (Art Practice), Niklaus Largier (German) and Joanna Picciotto (English) were generous with their time, creativity, and guidance. The Consortium for Interdisciplinary Research (CIR) continues to serve as an administrative home for BCSR. Under the leadership of associate director Khai Thu Nguyen, its staff provided wonderful support and assistance. Staff members Brandon Schneider (now Manager of Project Affairs at University Partnership Program), Rebecca Dizon, Patty Dunlap, and student assistant Grace Mosher collaborated on every event that we organized this year.

Thanks to the support of the deans of Humanities and Social Sciences, and to the immense generosity of our donors, rigorous, creative, and trans-disciplinary scholarship on religion is flourishing at Berkeley. We hope you will continue joining us next year, and consider a contribution to BCSR through Give to Berkeley now or in the future.


Jonathan and David