RELIGIOUS STUDIES 125W

GOALS OF THE COURSE

 

Through this course, we will understand major themes in the historical development of Christianity, including:

 

1. The repeated conflict between the individual religious impulse, and the demands of the larger entity, in the church, or in the religious-based state.

 

2. The dilemmas of trying to operate and preserve a religious state, with all that demands in terms of defining and defending Christian orthodoxy. How Christianity broke free of the state connection.

 

3. How Christian societies came to accept the notion of religious pluralism, in which more than one group might claim to speak as “the church”; the birth of the idea of “denominations”. Compare Voltaire’s remark on England: “If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another’s throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.” Or H. L. Mencken’s view that “We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the same sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”

 

4. How the Bible and its interpretation have reshaped secular politics. The relationship between the individual interpretation of the Bible and the rise of concepts like individualism, economic progress, social welfare, and political democracy.

 

5. How changing attitudes towards Christianity have reshaped secular societies, especially in the American experience; the central role of Christianity in shaping the United States. I offer Alexis de Tocqueville’s saying from 1835: “Here and there in the midst of American society you meet with men full of a fanatical and almost wild spiritualism, which hardly exists in Europe. From time to time strange sects arise which endeavor to strike out extraordinary paths to eternal happiness. Religious insanity is very common in the United States.”

 

6. How different Christian denominations have given voice to hitherto excluded groups, including women and the poor. Is Christianity a message of conservatism, of social radicalism, of liberal reformism, or all at once?

 

7. How Christianity has responded to changes in the wider society, over matters like economic standards, psychological theories, and sexual morality. How interpretations of Christianity (and readings of the Bible) have been affected by changing social, economic and political conditions in the wider society.

 

8. How Christianity has responded to scholarly criticism of its origins and core message, especially through reinterpretations of the Bible. Is there necessarily a conflict between religion and science? Think of Einstein’s saying: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

 

9. How different societies have coped with the highly individualistic, mystical and even anarchistic spirit of Christianity. Can Christianity really be the basis of any state?

 

10. How Christianity has constantly reinterpreted and rediscovered its apocalyptic and millenarian message.

 

11. How a religion that in 1500 was predominantly European was transformed by globalization, and how the religion has become even more global in character. How Christianity became a primary religious attribute of the African Diaspora.

 

12. How different interpretations of Christianity have been expressed through art, literature and music.