Message from the Directors

Miranda Schonbrun

Dear Friends of BCSR,

We hope that this letter finds you and your loved ones healthy and well as we return to a fall semester unlike any in recent history. Facing unparallelled challenges from the pandemic, the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion endeavors to grow our scholarship and community. We want to thank all of you who continue to support us, and to give you an update on the Center’s new programs and exciting initiatives.

We are honored to share that BCSR has received a generous $500,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation for our initiative, the Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program. The Program will entail integrated research, curricular programs, and outreach beyond the university to the public at large. We​ will respond both to recent developments in the humanities and the social sciences and to challenges currently faced by democratic societies around the globe. Our programming will focus on specific themes chosen both for relevance and faculty expertise, including: the theological contexts and motives of voting; the role of religious institutions and accomodations in American healthcare; and the relationship between theology and republican politics in the past and in the present. Addressing religion and the pandemic, we will also host online interviews, conversations, and reflections with scholars on what it means to live, write, and think in our current moment. 

The Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program builds upon the Luce Foundation supported Berkeley Public Theology Program (2016-2020) to integrate academic research, student engagement, and a new outreach effort to the public. The Program drew inspiration from  BCSR’s New Directions in Public Theology graduate seminar, one of our most successful initiatives in the previous grant. We want to thank all those who were involved with our application to the Henry Luce Foundation, and look forward to the work we will share with the BCSR community and beyond. For more information on the Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program, and on the Berkeley Public Theology Program upon which it is built, please visit our Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program webpage, and see the full press release here

Our Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program will also develop curriculum in religious studies coordinating with the new Designated Emphasis in Religious Studies, another exciting development at BCSR headed by Mark Csikszentmihalyi and the new Graduate Group in the Study of Religion. The Designated Emphasis in the Study of Religion (DESR) will support graduate training in Religious Studies and in the Theory of the Study of Religion, promote graduate research on topics related to religion, and bring together a cross-disciplinary faculty Group in the Study of Religion. Since Berkeley currently has no department of Religious Studies, the DESR also integrates professional approaches derived from Theology and Religious Studies, alongside those derived from other cultural traditions and critical approaches to religion. Be sure to check back on our Designated Emphasis webpage for forthcoming news about this new program beginning in 2021. 

Looking back at all we were able to accomplish in our 2019-2020 academic year cut short, we’d like to bring you up to date on our recent and planned activities.

Professors from across the disciplines continued to meet with the Luce supported “New Directions in Public Theology” students. The 2019-2020 cohort was the fourth group of New Directions students. We were also fortunate to host two visiting scholars this year, Anna Hennessey (President of the American Academy of Religion, Western Region), and Udi Greenberg (Dartmouth College).

Together with the Othering & Belonging Institute and UCSF/ANSIRH, we kicked off the year with “Religion and Reproductive Health Care in 2019” which brought panelists Amy Littlefield (Rewire News), Arthurine Zakama (UCSF), Karen Scott (UCSF), Lisa Ikemoto (UC Davis) and Olga Smith (UCSF), and moderators Lori Freedman (UCSF) and Ronit Stahl (History), in conversation about the impact of religious doctrine and religiously informed policy on religious hospitals and on reproductive health care. 

The fall included an event from the Chancellor’s Committee on Jewish Life and Campus Climate which brought BCSR affiliates Robert Braun (Sociology), John Efron (History), Ethan Katz (History), and Ronit Stahl (History), together with moderator Paula Fass (Esther and Jacques Reutlinger Director of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita) to discuss “Hatred Old and New: The Roots and Resurgence of Antisemitism.” 

Together with the Berkeley Center for Jewish Studies and the Department of Near Eastern Studies, BCSR welcomed Jan Joosten (University of Oxford) to campus for a discussion of “The Invention of Religion: Jews in Babylon and the Evidence of Language and Literature” (a recording of which can be found on the event webpage).

We were also pleased to co-sponsor events with the Center for Studies in Higher Education and others who brought Ilana Horowitz for “From Bat-Mitzvah to the Bar: How Religion Shapes Women’s Educational Aspirations and Attainment;” with the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies and others for a “Sanskrit Reading Workshop” with Alexis Sanderson; and on a collaborative workshop on the art of Kader Attia “Tarrying with the Irreparable: Trauma and Kader Attia’s Arts of Repair.”

The spring semster saw an event with BCSR’s visiting scholar, Udi Greenberg (Dartmouth College), who spoke about “The Anti-Catholic Origins of Anti-Communism” (a recording of which can be found on the event webpage).

Fortunately, we were able to co-sponsor multiple events before the semester on campus was disrupted. The Robbins Collection, together with the  Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, the Berkeley Center for Jewish Studies, and the Center for African Studies, brought Rabbi Sharon Shalom (Ono Academic College and Bar-Ilan University) for the 2020 Robbins Collection Annual Lecture in Jewish Law, Thought, and Identity. The Department of Italian Studies, together with the Program for the Study of Italy, the Berkeley Center for Jewish Studies, and the Department of History brought David Kertzer (Brown University) to the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life for “In the Name of the Cross: Christianity and Anti-Semitic Propaganda in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.” We were also proud to be a co-sponsor (among other organizations and departments) for the conference “Transformation & Modernity around 1300: Medium, Spirituality, Experience in Giotto’s Arena Chapel.” 

We’d like to thank all of the departments and collaborators across campus for the continued opportunity to co-sponsor events this past year. For more information about our collaborators, please see our About webpage

Other plans had to be adjusted by the campus response to the risk of COVID-19. We look forward to resuming our calendar of events when it’s safe to continue, so please watch for future announcements about rescheduled events, including a virtual event with Anna Bigelow (Stanford University) in the fall, and forthcoming events with Seth Koven (Rutgers University), Denis Lacorne (SciencesPo, Centre De Recherches Internationales), and Illaria Ramelli (Durham University; Sacred Heart University, Angelicum; Erfurt MWK; Oxford). 

In addition, be sure to check out our newly upgraded BCSR website, our Facebook page, and our Twitter profile. Please feel free to send us any news, announcements, social media posts, and inquiries any time at

None of these accomplishments would have been possible without tremendous support from others. This year’s faculty advisory board—Robert Braun (Sociology), Charles Hirschkind (Anthropology), Niklaus Largier (German and Comparative Literature), Stefania Pandolfo (Anthropology), Joanna Picciotto (English), Jonathan Sheehan (History), and Ronit Stahl (History), 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 Patty Dunlap, Miranda Schonbrun, graduate student researcher Grace Goudiss, and student assistant Grace Mosher collaborated on the programming and communications that we organized this year.

Thanks to the support of the Deans of Humanities and Social Sciences, and to the immense generosity of The Henry Luce Foundation, rigorous, creative, and interdisciplinary scholarship on religion continues to advance at BCSR. We hope you will continue to join us this year, and we appreciate the commitment, engagement, and community of everyone involved. Our goal has been all along to transform the way we study and talk about religion not only on the Berkeley campus, but beyond the walls of the university as well, and we look forward to continuing to pursue this goal with you.


David and Karen