Kristin Swanson (department head)
Religion is a powerful force in our world. In religion courses we explore the internal diversity within religious traditions, with attention to how practitioners within religions come to different conclusions about how best to interpret and live out their traditions; learn to recognize how religions shape and have been shaped by the experiences and histories of individuals, communities, cultures, nations, and regions; and come to understand how practices or ideas in any given religious tradition shape and have been shaped by practices or ideas from other religious or philosophical traditions. The study of religion is interdisciplinary, drawing on subjects like sociology, anthropology, political science, philosophy, art, and science. A degree in religion opens the door to a multiplicity of exciting career paths.
The study of religion at Luther is not limited to the classroom. Study abroad courses and field trips provide a variety of experiences, such as meeting spiritual leaders all over the world, having tea with a Zen master in a mountain temple in China, joining Muslims for Friday prayer in Copenhagen, meeting a Holocaust survivor in Auschwitz, talking to liberation theologians in the Amazon valley, and participating in interreligious engagement in South Africa.
The requirements for the religion major and minor are listed below. Students planning to major or minor in religion should consult with faculty in the department; pre-ministry students should also consult with College Ministries and the Religion department’s pre-ministry resource person.
Required for a major: Nine 4-credit courses and one two-credit course, distributed as follows: one introductory course in biblical studies (REL 101, 111, 112); one introductory course in the academic study of religion (REL 120); one core course from each of the following four categories: Texts (courses numbered 200-214); Traditions (courses numbered 215-229); Issues (courses numbered 230-249, excluding 239); and Interactions (courses numbered 250-265); one course numbered 300 or higher (excluding 380 and 381); one seminar (REL 485); and two electives from departmental offerings in religion (excluding REL 185). One of the electives may be chosen from scriptural languages (Chinese, Greek, Hebrew) and one may consist of a 4-credit REL 395.
Core: The core of the religion major is divided into the following four categories:
Texts: Courses in the category explore the nature, development and ongoing interpretation of foundational religious texts. Attention is given to how such texts continue to shape, while also being shaped by, the religious communities that use them.
Traditions: Courses in this category explore the history and formation of particular religious traditions or sub-traditions. Attention is given to the communal, political, and legal structures of these traditions, as well as the contemporary challenges and controversies within them.
Issues: Courses in this category explore the engagement of religious communities and worldviews with contemporary issues of public concern. Attention is given to ethics and to the intersections between the study of religion and other fields of knowledge.
Interactions: Courses in this category explore cross-cultural or interfaith issues. Attention is given to how religious communities, worldviews, and practices are impacted by encounters with other communities, worldviews, and practices.
Ethical perspective: Because ethics is an important sub-discipline in the study of religion, religion majors will engage in the study of ethical perspectives in most of their courses. Religion majors, therefore, will fulfill this general education requirement by completing the major.
Writing: Because critical thinking and communication depend on this skill, most religion courses require writing. Departmental offerings in religion numbered 300 and higher (excluding REL 380 and 381) involve intensive writing, and REL 485 fulfills the Writing requirement. Religion majors, therefore, will fulfill this general requirement by completing the major.
Required for a minor: Five 4-credit courses and one two-credit course, distributed as follows: one introductory course in biblical studies (REL 101, 111, 112); one introductory course in the academic study of religion (REL 120); one core course from either the category Texts or the category Traditions (courses numbered 200-229); one core course from either the category Issues or the category Interactions (courses numbered 230-265, excluding 239); one course numbered 300 or higher (excluding 380 and 381); and one seminar (REL 485).
Note: Each student must take one introductory course (REL 101, 111, or 112) as a prerequisite to all other religion courses (excluding REL 120) and as partial fulfillment of the general graduation requirements. These courses focus on the academic study of biblical literature and may be taken during the first or second year.
View program learning goals for an explanation of learning outcomes in Religion.
An introduction to the academic study of biblical literature with an emphasis on selected writings, themes, and methods of interpretation. Students will also become familiar with extra-biblical sources (textual and archaeological) which contribute to understanding the Bible in its historical, socio-economic, theological, and literary contexts. Students who earn credit for REL 101 may not earn credit for REL 111 or REL 112.
An introduction to the academic study of the literature of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha/Deutero-canon with an emphasis on selected writings, themes, and methods of interpretation. Students will also become familiar with extra-biblical sources (textual and archaeological) which contribute to understanding the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha/Deutero-canon in their historical, socio-economic, theological, and literary contexts. Students who earn credit for REL 111 may earn credit for REL 112 but not for REL 101.
An introduction to the academic study of the literture of the New Testament with an emphasis on selected, writings, themes, and methods of interpretation. Students will also become familiar with extra-biblical sources (textual and archaeological) which contribute to understanding the New Testament in its historical, socio-economic, theological, and literary contexts. Students who earn credit for REL 112 may earn credit for REL 111 but not for REL 101.
This course explores the role and purpose of religions throughout history, across cultures, and in today's society. It will examine how religions have shaped and were shaped by politics, sciences, moral values, and our understanding of what it means to be human. It will deal with questions such as What is religion? Does religion do any good? Do we need religion? What are the benefits and perils of religion?
Why do communities identify certain people as heroes? Why are there so many similarities in the narratives communities living in different times and places have told about their heroes? What role do hero narratives play in the social construction of "religions"? This course will explore questions such as these by focusing on ancient Mediterranean hero narratives. Students will engage theories of heroes and hero narratives produced from the nineteenth century to the present. They will then utilize these theories in the analysis of hero narratives from ancient Ugarit, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and Israel/Judah.
This course closely examines the life and thought of Martin Luther, provides an overview of the development of Lutheran Churches from the Reformation to the present, and explores some of the issues debated in Lutheran Churches today.
This course examines religious themes in and the religious function of various narrative forms in Japan. The course will examine primary scriptures and commentaries from the Buddhist tradition as well as ghost stories, poems, plays (No and Kabuki), novels, manga, and anime. These literary forms are a product of various interactions among the Japanese, Chinese, and American cultures. Analyzing these kinds of cultural and religious expressions, the course examines the role of religious ritual and sacred texts in pre-modern as well as contemporary Japan. The course deepens the skills in textual and literary criticism introduced in the courses fulfilling the Bible requirement. It will also introduce students to critical theory (including gender and queer studies), and intercultural analysis. This course exposes students equally to the study of Japanese culture and various methods of textual interpretation. (Same as IDS 202)
Is the text of the Bible fixed and static or has it undergone change and modification over time? In this course, we will consider the widely-recognized phenomenon of the re-written Bible by analyzing evidence that demonstrates textual change. Examples will include the way the book of Chronicles rewrites the history of the Israelite monarchy found in Samuel and Kings, the reworkings of biblical materials in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other early Jewish literature, the textual fluidity of early New Testament manuscripts, and the reworking of biblical materials in the Qur'an. Attention will be given to how the changing circumstances of religious communities influence the transmission of the texts they deem authoritative. (Same as IDS 203)
Using archaeological, literary, and artistic sources together with the Bible, this course examines the environments within which the biblical books were written.
This course will explore constructions of gender and sexuality in the Bible and the Qur'an. Students will be introduced to contemporary theories of gender and sexuality that they will use to analyze primary texts in relation to their cultural contexts. Specific topics may include competing representations of men and women, different constructions of marriage, the use of marriage as a metaphor, and representations of homoeroticism. (Same as IDS 212)
This course will explore the role archaeology has played in biblical studies and studies of the history of ancient Israel from the nineteenth century to the present. Students will critically analyze the ways that biblical narratives and material evidence have been used to reconstruct the history of Israel and Judah; the use of biblical texts and archaeological evidence in broader religious and political discourse; and ethical issues related to archaeology and historical reconstruction of ancient Israel and Judah.
The Bible, commonly called the "Word of God," has always been more than "a book" for Christians. Contemporary forms of biblical criticism, however, have posed challenges for many Christians who look to the Bible as a resource for Christian faith and practice. In general, this course will wrestle with two fundamental questions: 1) What is the Bible? and 2) What is faith? In particular, it will examine possible relationships between the Bible and Christian faith. Attention will be given to the "battle for the Bible" between so-called "conservatives" and "liberals." The issues considered in this course will be analyzed within the context of examining the ways in which the relationship between the Bible and one's faith influences how one thinks about and lives in the world and with others.
An introduction to the biblical and theological sources of Christian ethics, types of moral theories, and methods of moral deliberation. Students develop a moral framework for a response to a variety of issues related to human sexuality, business, ecology, business, medicine, and war.
A study of teachings basic to the Christian faith using classical and contemporary sources from both the Protestant and Catholic traditions, such as those about God, relations among religions, Jesus, the Church, and creation and its interpretations for today in light of their biblical and historical foundations.
This course introduces students to Mahayana Buddhism. It explores the development of Mahayana Buddhism, its relationship with other religious traditions, and its influence on culture. The primary teaching method is experiential. Students will visit temples in selected areas of East Asia, have instructions by an abbot, participate in the monastic life, will meet scholars of Buddhism, visit holy sites, and participate in Buddhist worship. The students will spend three days in a temple, joining the monks in meditation and religious practice. In addition to this experiential dimension, the course will familiarize students with the history, scriptures, and beliefs of Mahayana Buddhism through readings from primary texts, lectures, videos, and class discussions. It will further analyze the Buddhist response to general topics and problems, such as the absolute, the notion of self, the problem of human existence, as well as soteriological and ethical issues. (Same as IDS 220)
A survey of central events, ideas, and figures in the history of Christianity from the early church to the present. The course will focus on primary texts, and attention will be given to the ways that Christian theology has developed over the centuries within a variety of cultures.
The nature of the early development of Islam has been much contested and somewhat shrouded in mystery. Who was Muhammad? What were the goals and motivations of the early Islamic movement? New historical research is beginning to shed light on these questions in ways that could have real implications for how we understand the nature of Islamic identity in the contemporary world. In this course, we will explore the growing evidence for Islamic origins and analyze its implications for understanding the contemporary realities of various Muslim movements and traditions.
The course will provide a basic introduction to the development of Judaism as a religious culture from its beginnings to the present day. By reading primary texts from the bibical, rabbinic, medieval, and modern periods, students will examine religious experiences, worldviews, beliefs, behaviors, and symbols of the Jewish tradition, and the historical forces - cultural, political, social and economic - that have shaped Judaism. Throughout the course we will address issues raised by the history of Judaism that are particularly relevant today - imperialism, genocide, post-Holocaust theology, the State of Israel, gender, and so on.
Is the "religion" called Christianity fading into irrelevance? Has religion as routine and custom replaced faith and discipleship? Could a religionless Christianity restore the vitality and mission of the church? This course explores these questions through the life and thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian executed for his participation in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. These questions along with other aspects of his theological ethics are examined in their historical context through three primary texts: The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics, and Letters and Papers from Prison. Attention is given to the significance of Bonhoeffer's work for today.
This course examines the religious and philosophical traditions of China, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, to understand their influence on Chinese and East Asian culture. It will trace these traditions from their beginnings and formative periods to today and explore their influence on the current worldviews, rituals, festivals, literature, practices, ethics, and politics in China. Special consideration will be given to the notion of "religion," the construction of gender, as well as moral and political visions found in the foundational texts of these traditions. (Same as IDS 228)
This course will introduce the religious and philosophical traditions of South Asia. Particularly, it will focus on historical, textual, and doctrinal foundations of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. It will analyze excerpts of their sacred scriptures, survey their beliefs, study their practices, and explore their ethical systems. Additional consideration will be given to contemporary issues facing these traditions.
This course provides an introduction to contemplative studies. It explores a variety of contemplative practices and meditation theories across cultures and traditions as well as phenomenology and neuroscience as methods to study contemplative experiences. Drawing on various disciplines including philosophy of mind, cognitive science, phenomenology, and neuroscience, this course will analyze conceptions of consciousness advanced in meditation manuals as well as scientific studies of meditative states. The course examines the relationship between neurological processes and the phenomenal self.
This course introduces students to philosophy of religion. It attempts to bring rational justification and clarification to religious beliefs and practice. This course will explore the traditional approaches as developed in the Christian and Islamic traditions as well as the global critical approaches suggested by current scholarship. Topics may include: the existence and nature of ultimate reality, the existence and attributes of God, faith and reason, death and immortality, miracles and revelation, religious experience, the problem of evil, the purpose of religious practice and rituals, the difficulties of defining religion, the question of religious morality, and religious pluralism. (Same as PHIL 232)
An investigation of how our understanding and experience of gender are connected to our views of God, human beings, and the natural world. The course explores the works of a variety of thinkers and pays special attention to issues raised by feminist theologians who stand both inside and outside the Christian tradition. Possible topics include: language about God, human sexuality, views of women in the Bible, the nature of biblical authority, the feminist movement, the men's movement, images of nature in Western religious thought, and the ordination of women. (Same as IDS 233)
A demand for change is inherent in Christian scriptures. This course will be an exploration into the concept of "change." What exactly is change? When demanding change, who are the ones who need to change and why? How is change best accomplished? Since change implies power, what is the relationship between change and power? In exploring these and other questions, the course will consider what (if any) role and/or contribution Christianity might have in effecting change, both individual and social. The course will engage in a critique of the "world-changing" political theologies of both the Christian Right and the Christian Left. In examining these modern theologies, the course will (re)examine the New Testament concept of metanoia, "repentance," considering it as a way of thinking about change, juxtaposing the traditional Christian understanding of repentance as individual remorse and personal transformation against an understanding of repentance as a radical and fundamental change in thinking and living that results in both individual and societal change.
Ever since the rise of modern science in the 17th-century, a lively debate has ensued in the West centered on supposed conflicts between the methods and content of science and those of the religion. Can the universe be explained by appeal to natural processes alone or is it necessary to posit the reality of a non-material (or spiritual) dimension? Where can traditional religious understandings fit into a world dominated by scientific truth? This course will explore these questions through an exploration of the creation/evolution debate, theories of emergence and mind, and modern cosmological theories, considering in each case the implications of how we answer these questions for the building of a sustainable future.
This course explores traditional and new forms of pilgrimages in East Asia. In particular, it examines two kinds of pilgrimages: traditional ones to sacred mountains, sanctuaries, and other religious pilgrimage sites, on the one side, and pilgrimages to memorials that commemorate immense natural and human catastrophes such as Hiroshima (dropping of the atomic bomb) and Nanjing (1937/8 massacre), on the other. What connects these two kinds of pilgrimages is the importance attributed to memory, the desire for healing, and the need for reflection. The goal of this course is to investigate the religious and political dimensions of memory, self-cultivation, and contemplation. The course accomplishes this goal by examining questions such as: what is the social dimension of religious pilgrimages, what is the moral dimension of memory, and what is the spiritual dimension of healing and reconciliation? Offered only during January term. (Same as IDS 236)
Islamophobia is a contested concept that is often employed to capture the fears of and prejudices toward Muslims and Islam in the West. This course will explore this controversy and Western perceptions of Muslims and Islam by critically engaging the following questions: What is Islamophobia, and how does it relate to other prejudices such as racism and anti-Semitism? What are the theological, historical, political, and cultural forces that have given rise to perceptions of Islam as inherently violent, intolerant, misogynist, and backwards? How does Islamophobia differ from legitimate disagreements with specific Islamic beliefs and practices? What impact have negative perceptions of Islam had on the free exercise of religion for Muslims in the West? What do these perceptions of Muslims and Islam reveal about Western assumptions concerning religion and the religious Other? (Same as IDS 238)
This course will explore ways in which one or more religious tradition(s) have, can, and/or might be able to engage with and/or respond to the demands of one or more specific contemporary social justice issues (e.g. "#BlackLivesMatter").
A critical examination of issues in environmental ethics from diverse Christian perspectives. The course examines root causes of environmental problems, philosophical and theological assumptions about nature, and resources for response in Christian traditions. Particular attention is given to demographic and economic factors at the global level as well as personal consumption decisions at the local level. Case studies ground reflection in concrete situation. Typically offered during alternate years at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state. Offered alternate years.
Can sports be considered a religion? Is there a spiritual aspect to sport participation? How have religions incorporated sports into their practices and institutions, and vice versa? When have religion and sports come into conflict? In this course students will explore such questions as they critically analyze interconnections between sports and religion.
This course explores the ways religion constitutes a vital force in the 21st century. It explores questions such as: what is religion, how can we study religion, why does religion appeal to people in an age of science, and how does religion facilitate personal and social transformation? The course integrates field trips, critical analysis, literature and films, the study of religious art, and theoretical reflection in order to examine the role religion plays in today's world. Particular emphasis will be given to religious worldviews, practices, art, and ethics. While the course focuses on the phenomenon of religion in general rather than individual religious traditions, the course addresses religious diversity worldwide as well as in the Midwest.
This course introduces students to the emerging field of interfaith studies, a discipline that analyzes how people who orient around religion differently think about and interact with one another, along with the implications of these interactions for civil society, global politics, and the common good. Particular focus will be given to the following themes: religious and interfaith literacy, theologies and philosophies of religious pluralism, multi-religious belonging and practice, interfaith families, interfaith leadership, interfaith peacemaking, and secular and non-religious contributions to interfaith engagement.
A historical survey of the role of religion in American life, focusing on the interaction between religion and culture in the United States. The course will examine the development of religious pluralism in the U.S. and explore selected issues that have arisen and continue to affect American culture, such as religious liberty, revivalism, utopianism, immigration and ethnicity, slavery, fundamentalism, and the contributions of women and minorities.
A study of the ways in which religious identity is constructed and negotiated in China, Korea, and Japan. This course investigates concrete encounters between various Buddhist, Confucian, Daoist, and Shinto schools, institutions, thinkers, and practitioners as well as between political entities and cultural traditions alike; explores variations of the "three teachings in one" as they are expressed in religious myths, especially those involving martial art heroes, meditation manuals, and religious practice in East Asia; and analyzes the theoretical models developed to explain the diversity of beliefs, practices, and cultures in East Asia. This course will provide an in-depth understanding of East Asian religions and cultures and the interaction among them as well as engaging models of religious identity and diversity. (Same as IDS 255)
This course will explore contemporary religious diversity through the critical, comparative study of sacred texts from two or more religious traditions. Students will examine the relationship between diversity within and among sacred texts and diversity within and among historical and contemporary expressions of each religious tradition. They will also consider the role of sacred texts in interfaith engagement.
This seminar explores moral theories framed in the context of multiple religious traditions with a special emphasis on Christianity and Buddhism. In particular, it examines how selected primary and secondary texts develop religious moral theories in response to the fact of evil within a monotheistic, humanistic, or non-dualist framework. The seminar focuses on following questions: What is Evil? How do religious texts explain the existence of evil? What is the goal of moral theory? How does moral theory respond to evil? What makes a moral theory effective? Is moral theory necessary for the attainment of religious goals? Is religion necessary for a moral life? The students will engage a variety of religious and philosophical positions.
Exploring a theological account of race and racism, this course will seek to examine how the discourse of theology aided and abetted the process by which humans came to be viewed as modern, racial beings. The course will reflect critically and historically on contemporary forms of white supremacy and racism in order to understand Christianity's relation to the problems of white supremacist and racist phenomena, such that Christianity is seen complexly as both reinforcing the problems and resisting them. Finally, the course will reflect critically on different theological works that enable Christian faith to be antiracist in practice and to facilitate course member's creation of their own anti-racist strategies in belief and practice.
Human migration, colonialism, missionary endeavors, and globalization have significantly impacted the world's religious landscape, leaving us with a greater awareness not only of religious diversity, but also the power dynamics engendered by conflicting religious truth claims. In Latin America and the Caribbean, this encounter of different religions often led to violent clashes but also to the development of hybrid religious identities, combining elements of Christianity with religious expressions stemming from Indigenous and African matrices such as Santeria, Voodoo, Candomblé, Animism, and Spiritism, for example. Although drawing from theoretical and methodological reflections developed in a global context, this course will use case studies from Latin America and the Caribbean to study religious pluralism and multiple religious belongings.
In this course, students will apply interpretive methods to biblical texts in order to develop an understanding of the context and significance of these texts, then develop educational programs for use in a congregational setting that reflect this analysis. The entirety of the course will consist of collaborative work in groups. Class time will consist of four weekdays and Sunday mornings; a significant amount of the course will consist of group work outside of class. In groups of 4-5 people, students will choose a text appropriate for a specific age group, apply interpretive methods to that text, and develop a Sunday School lesson for that age group. Groups will rotate to different Sunday School classes each week. In addition, students will develop an outline for an adult education series, and assess existing curricular materials after the experience of developing their own programming.
This course explores the academic study of Jesus as both a literary and a historical figure. Students will engage in contextual and comparative analysis of the literary representations of Jesus in the four gospels of the New Testament and other gospels not included in the New Testament. Students will also engage in contextual and comparative analysis and critique of publications produced by scholars of the Historical Jesus.
Religious diversity is a reality that we can no longer avoid. It challenges us to take seriously the spiritual and religious commitments of others and to reflect more critically on our own questions about and commitments to religion. This course will introduce students to the larger theological issues involved in interreligious dialogue and learning, a field known as comparative theology. Incorporating thinkers from at least three religious traditions and putting them into conversation with one another, the course will explore the following questions from a theological perspective: How does globalism and the fact of religious diversity influence my beliefs? What are various ways of thinking about god, the world, and our place in it? What is the significance of my neighbor's faith for my own? How might an engagement with other religious traditions shape and transform my own religious identity?
A contemporary Muslim scholar, Amin Ahsan Islahi, has stated that Jesus urged his disciples on to wage jihad. Given the negative images often associated with a concept like jihad, this might seem like a heretical statement. Several new lines of research, however, suggest that connecting Jesus with jihad might provide an interesting way to rethink the fields of comparative religion studies and interfaith relations. This course will combine newer insights emerging in the study of the New Testament, early Islamic history, and theoretical approaches to the study of religion to consider whether the Jesus/jihad connection makes sense, though perhaps in a way different than Islahi intends. Could connecting Jesus with jihad provide a new way to conceive of the relationship between Christians and Muslims?