Message from the Directors

Miranda Schonbrun

Dear Friends of BCSR,

As we look forward to gathering in person in the fall, we also want to reflect on and acknowledge the extraordinary work of BCSR’s faculty, staff, students, and affiliates throughout an extraordinary year. We thank our community, guest speakers, and partner organizations for their engagement, dedication to remaining connected while physically apart, and commitment to the pursuit of the study of religion. 

In this first year of the Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program, generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, we launched the Public Forum on Religion and Pandemic, a series of publicly available interviews and conversations. This series brought together our affiliated faculty, graduate students, and staff to discuss relevant topics and their relation to religion including the pandemic, isolation, the 2020 general election, popular culture, faith, and capitalism. Thomas W. Laqueur (History, Emeritus) and John Handel (History) discussed “From Providentialism to Epidemiology: Understanding Pandemics through History.” Rachel Min Park (BCSR) spoke with Arlie Russell Hochschild (Sociology, Emerita) on “Crossing Divides in a Precarious Future: The White Working Class and the Upcoming General Election,” and with Carolyn Chen (Ethnic Studies) on “The Work of Salvation, the Salvation of Work: Searching for Belonging in an Age of Global Precarity.” Niklaus Largier (German, Comparative Literature) and Nir Feinberg (Group in Buddhist Studies) discussed “The Textures of the Soul: Isolation Throughout History and Religion.” Poulomi Saha (English) and Grace Goudiss (History) discussed “Enthralled Subjects: Cults, Conversion, and Quarantine Fixations.”

For the first event of the Public Forum on Religion and Pandemic, Sara Forsdyke (University of Michigan) and Josiah Ober (Stanford University) spoke with Emily Mackil (History, Ancient History and Mediterranean Archeology) and Duncan MacRae (Classics) on “Rationality, Ritual, and Democratic Decision-Making: Perspectives from Classical Athens.” The fall also brought Yael Tamir (Beit-Berl College, Blavatnik School of Government Oxford) into conversation with Daniel Sargent (History) for “Reimaging Nationalism.” In the spring, Terence Keel (UCLA) and Osagie K. Obasogie (Bioethics in the Joint Medical Program and School of Public Health) discussed “In the Shadows of Whiteness: Race, Religion, and Radicalization in the Time of Pandemics.” 

We welcomed Anna Bigelow (Stanford University) for a conversation with Karen Barkey on “Where the Nation Prays: Public Religion and Sacred Space in India and Turkey.” Michael Walzer presented our Berkeley Lecture on Religious Tolerance, generously sponsored by the Endowed Fund for the Study of Religious Tolerance, on the topic of “Toleration and Its Discontents.” 

BCSR continued to support our expert faculty who spoke at events ranging across the humanities and social sciences. Ron Hassner (Political Science) was joined in conversation with Nurit Stadler (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) on the topic of “Voices of the Ritual: Devotion to Female Saints and Shrines in the Holy Land.” Karen Barkey spoke with Dina Danon (SUNY-Binghamton University) on “Modernity in the Eastern Sephardi Diaspora: The Jews of Late Ottoman Izmir.” Carolyn Chen was joined in conversation by Chenxing Han (Bay Area–Based Writer) for “Centering Asian Voices in American Buddhism: Anger, Refuge, Solidarity.”

BCSR frequently collaborated with our partners across and outside Berkeley this past year. We thank all those who co-sponsored our events and appreciated the opportunities to support our collaborators, including but not limited to the Berkeley Center for Jewish Studies, Center for Asian American Research, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Center for Democracy, Tolerance and Religion (CDTR), Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities, Institute for South Asia Studies, and the Social Science Matrix. 

As part of the Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program, the fall 2021 semester’s New Directions in Public Theology group will concentrate on “Voting the Divine,” the religious cultures of western Eurasia in the first millennia BCE and CE and on significant questions of the relationship between religion and other forms of collective life (especially decision making and politics). There will also be opportunities to participate in a new public outreach program based at BCSR, that will aim to inform publics in the Bay Area about contemporary scholarly study of religion. We are thrilled to welcome the 2021–2022 New Directions cohort and look forward to working with them next year and beyond! 

The Democracy and Public Theology Program’s “Voting the Divine” lecture series will also welcome Clifford Ando (Chicago), Carolyn Humfress (St. Andrews, UK), Asad Ahmed (MELC), Abhishek Kaicker (History), Josine Blok (Amsterdam), and Robert Gleave (Exeter, UK) in 2021-2022 to give talks on democratic and religious communities in premodern societies. We look forward to welcoming Denis Lacorne who will give our Berkeley Lecture on Religious Tolerance this September, as well as to more events and collaborations upcoming this year.

Thanks to the efforts of Mark Csikszentmihalyi (BCSR Co-founder, DESR Director, East Asian Languages and Cultures), the Designated Emphasis in the Study of Religion (DESR) will welcome its first cohort and begin courses this fall 2021. The Graduate Group in the Study of Religion is thrilled to welcome to the program Syed Shiraz Ali (Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures), Courtney Bither (History), Yesenia Brambila (Classics), Bonnie Cherry (Jurisprudence and Social Policy, Berkeley Law), and Allyson Kohen (East Asian Languages and Cultures). The DESR supports graduate training and research on topics related to religion, and we thank all of the members of the Graduate Group in the Study of Religion for their collaboration and efforts in launching this new graduate program. 

Finally, David and the BCSR staff would like to offer our gratitude, appreciation, and admiration to Karen as she moves on to a new role at Bard College in the fall. As Co-director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, Karen has fostered an environment of intellectual openness and curiosity, grown our community, encouraged partnerships and connections, and shared her expertise and guidance in ways that strengthened, and will continue to strengthen, our program. As Co-PI of the Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program, Karen’s efforts were integral in the application process and in planning our grant-related programming and initiatives. In the last year alone, Karen moderated multiple BCSR events, co-organized the conference “Toleration in Comparative Perspective: Concepts, Practices, Documents” in her capacity as Director of the Center for Democracy, Toleration, and Religion, and presented the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) 2021 Surjit Singh Lecture, “Navigating Topographies of Belonging and Difference: Contemporary Shared Sacred Sites in the Mediterranean.” We will miss Karen’s leadership and ingenuity, and look forward to her updates from her new academic home. Thank you, Karen, from all of us in the BCSR community!

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 appreciate the commitment, engagement, and community of everyone involved in the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion.

David and Karen