For some time now, I had thought I would go into comparative theology, a subfield of Christian systematic theology devoted to diving into other religious traditions and taking insights from specific strands of those tradition. As someone who has done a good deal of interreligious dialogue, including some training with the Interfaith Youth Corps, this seemed like a natural path.
The only problem was that when I looked at all of the electives I had taken in university, almost none were in systematic theology. It seemed that I had a disdain for the subject.
The classes I had loved the most were actually grounded in history. Classes like Islamic Jesus, Postcolonial Readings of the Bible, and a reading course on the history of Buddhism’s relations with other religious traditions. All of these classes gave me tools to analyze apologetics, syncretism, alterity — all the ways religions claim to be unique while in fact being historically and theologically intertwined with one another.
So this quarter, while finishing up my thesis on Gandharan art, I realized there was a different story that needed to be told. I would much rather look at interreligious contact from a historical angle, though likely from within a religious studies department. Most of all, I’m more interested in exploring the consequences of what people believe and practice than in formulating new ways to believe and practice. This particular shift has been in the making for some time. I think this is why I moved from philosophy to religious studies when I came to SCU in 2012.
When writing a paper on constructions of religious Otherness in Deuteronomy this quarter, I realized that the Bible is a perfect place to begin this quest. Whether I knew it or not, I have done everything at university to become a biblical scholar: double majoring in Religious Studies and Classics, taking Greek and Hebrew, and working as a research assistant for my professor on textual criticism of the minor prophets in the Dead Sea Scrolls. I did none of this with the explicit goal of becoming a biblical scholar, but only following my interests with no predetermined goal in mind.
But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense for me to go into biblical studies with an interreligious lens. There are a fascinating cluster of issues at hand:
- How the Bible was shaped and written in relation to surrounding cultures. Of course, there has been much study of Biblical Israel and the early Church’s relations with other cultures and religions, but how much of this has seeped into contemporary interreligious understandings of scipture?
- Uses of scripture in interreligious polemic and apologetic. For example, sections from the Deuteronomistic writings about “false idols” have been used against other religions by many missionaries. There is some interesting overlap here with postcolonial critics such as Sugirtharajah.
- How Scriptures portray religious others — and what we do with the various strands of biblical writings that do not always harmonize perfectly?
- And of course, Scriptural Reasoning. Given my background in Buddhism, it might be interesting to try to extend Scriptural Reasoning practices to Buddhists and other non-Abrahamic faiths.
From what I have seen, there are few scholars looking at these issues. There seems to be a gap between the antiquarians (biblical scholars) and the activists (of interreligious dialogue). I inhabit both of those worlds and could be a bridge.
Anyway, it feels good to have a sense of purpose. After I graduate in the spring, I’m going to pursue a biblical studies MA locally. The icing on the cake of this new plan? It feels really good to not have to worry about starting biblical languages in graduate school…