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Religious Studies Program Brings the Sacred to Class

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted Mar. 4, 1998

Jon R. Stone looks so young, it’s hard to believe he’s 38 and Berkeley’s resident expert in religious studies – in fact, Berkeley’s only full-time faculty member in religious studies.

Stone came to Berkeley this fall on a one-year lectureship that has been extended a year. He has already created three new courses: “Popular American Religions,” “American Religious Pluralism,” and “World Religions in America.” The latter two satisfy the American Cultures requirement.

For the first time this year, Religious Studies has been able to hire graduate student instructors as discussion leaders for its two core courses and offer a resident adviser for its 45 majors–Stone.

In his second year as part-time interim director of the Religious Studies Program is Birger Pearson, an emeritus professor of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara. His specialty is early Christianity and Hellenistic religions, especially the origins of Gnosticism and the Coptic Church.

Stone received his PhD at UC Santa Barbara in 1990, where Pearson was one of his advisers. When asked his religion, Stone replies, “When I’m teaching Buddhism, I’m a Buddhist; when I’m teaching Islam, I’m a Muslim; when I’m teaching Christianity, I’m a Christian. I give every religion its due.

“At the beginning of each semester, I tell my students that I take very seriously that in studying religion, I am handling sacred things,” says Stone. “I also tell them that the role of religious studies in the public university is neither to promote nor discredit religion or religious belief. Personally, I’m not in the business of destroying people’s faith. At the same time, I’m not here to look at religion and its impact on human civilization uncritically.”

Upon arriving in Berkeley, Stone even lost an apartment he wanted to rent when he pointed out to his potential landlady that Buddha did not believe in God.

“I’m uncomfortable with people saying their way is the only way,” says Stone. “I study religions not from a spiritual point of view, but from an historical, sociological perspective. I’m interested in the world of religions. Being one religion doesn’t make sense for me anymore.”

Says Pearson, “I always challenge my students to challenge me if they find a religious bias in my teaching. They never have – on the contrary. Not that I’m trying to hide the fact that I’m a Lutheran.”

Pearson received an MA in Greek from Berkeley in 1959 and his PhD from Harvard in 1968. He joined the UC Santa Barbara religious studies department in 1969, chaired it from 1976 to 1979, and retired in 1994. He was a visiting professor here in fall 1994 and again in fall 1995. Since 1981 he has directed research on the roots of Egyptian Christianity at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity in Claremont, California.

“You can’t understand human culture without understanding religion,” says Stone. “Sometimes people misunderstand what religious studies is – it’s not theology, but a way of understanding human civilization.”

“So many national and international events can only be fully understood by knowing the religious beliefs underlying and motivating them,” says Stone, commenting on recent news of the Pope’s visit to Cuba, overtures to the United States from Iran, and the influence of the Baptist church on the U.S. civil rights movement.

Before Berkeley, Stone taught at the University of Northern Iowa for three years, followed by four years at UC Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Religion, where he produced five books, including “Latin for the Illiterati,” now in its third printing and named the 1997 outstanding reference source by the American Library Association, and “The Craft of Religious Studies,” a collection of autobiographical essays by senior scholars on interdisciplinary approaches to the study of religion.

Stone’s other books include his dissertation, “On the Boundaries of American Evangelicalism: The Postwar Evangelical Coalition” (see American Evangelicalism, right), “Prime-Time Religion: An Encyclopedia of Religious Broadcasting” (1997), and “A Guide to the End of the World: Popular Eschatology in America” (1993). He is currently writing a book on American ethnic religious communities and researching a book on new religions in California.

“I think of myself as a public scholar,” says Stone. “I write for the reading public as well as for my colleagues. I take seriously the role of a public university and I believe Berkeley should be in the forefront of educating the public about the world’s religions. I study something that’s so important to the world, and I want people to understand it. I don’t want to write books that no one will read.”

Berkeley’s Religious Studies major, first offered in 1970, resides in the Division of Undergraduate and Interdisciplinary Studies (UGIS). The program’s advisory board consists of 12 faculty from seven departments and it currently lists 20 affiliated faculty from 13 departments.

Despite attempts by faculty from several disciplines to establish a department of religious studies here, the program has never had full-time, ladder-rank faculty. Most of its courses are taught by visiting lecturers. Many are cross-listed in other departments, such as anthropology, South and Southeast Asian studies, history, English, Near Eastern studies, Scandinavian studies, comparative literature, philosophy, geography, Celtic studies, African-American studies, political science and sociology.

One faculty member, Professor of History Susanna Elm, teaches half-time in religious studies. The two courses required of all majors – overviews of Asian and Western religions – have never been taught by ladder-rank Berkeley faculty.
“When Birger asked me to come to Berkeley, I thought, ‘This is great! It’s virgin territory.’” says Stone. “It’s such a rare opportunity to come to a world renowned university and get to develop a program.”

Many religious studies departments were founded in the 1960s, according to Pearson. In 1962, UC President Clark Kerr asked the Berkeley, Davis, Los Angeles, Riverside and Santa Barbara campuses about the status of the teaching of comparative religion. Only Santa Barbara established a department. In 1995 it was ranked one of the 10 best in the country by the National Research Council. In North America, the BA major in religion or religious studies is now offered at more than 1,500 colleges and universities.

Carolyn Porter, dean of UGIS, points out that religious studies courses fulfill five of the seven Letters and Science breadth requirements at Berkeley. “It’s a remarkably rich and critical field,” she says. “There’s enormous demand for religious studies courses, especially the introductory ones; we’re having to turn students away.”

Stone is so intensely devoted to religious studies, it was surprising to discover that he has another passion: water polo and swimming. He has coached high school teams for years, most recently at Santa Barbara High School; two of his former players are now on Cal’s water polo team.

Meanwhile, Pearson enjoys semi-retirement in Escalon, where he grows walnuts, helps raise his sixth child (an adopted 11-year-old boy), and continues his research and writing. His latest book is “The Emergence of the Christian Religion” (1997).

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