The motto of Rice University is strikingly bold. "Unconventional Wisdom." It is a motto that we love to own because it describes the kind of intellectual community that we create and foster in the Department of Religion. To study here means to challenge the status quo, to investigate what is not obvious, to reimagine what was, is and can be when it comes to religion. To study here means to enter an intellectual community where critical thought, disciplined training, and innovation intersect with religion.
We are a bold international faculty with specialties that range across many fields and approaches. We are marvelously interdisciplinary and pluralistic, studying everything from the rich diversity of early Judaism and Christianity to superhero comics and the paranormal, from medieval and renaissance mysticism and magic to African witchcraft, from the origins of Islam to modern apocalypticism and cultural pessimism, from Buddhist models of the mind to Freudian psychology, from modern art and spirituality to hip hop, from the ancient New Age to the modern-day expansion of gnosticism.
Why study religion? Why do it differently from the churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and theological schools? Religion is a powerful force with many facets and layers. It is part of a bigger historical, social, cultural and political network that links us to the way we perceive our world and our place, as human beings, within it. Many people grow up in a particular religious tradition, which comes to define their view of themselves and their relationship to others and the world. The classes we offer, the conferences we sponsor, the books we write aim to create a space for stepping back and viewing religion from other angles and perspectives, for asking questions that may be considered "way-out" or even "banned" by the religions themselves. We seek answers that help us face and overcome religious intolerance by informing us about other views, challenging our religious stereotypes, and addressing fears that sometimes lead to hostility and violence.
This does not mean that our approach is antithetical to religion. While we approach religion from the perspective of free and informed intellectual inquiry, we do so with an empathy that does not privilege any particular religion. While we take sincerely the claims of religions and religious people, our investigations are not bound to the authority of any particular religious community, scripture, or person. For our students, this perspective often leads to religious awareness and self-evaluation. It facilitates a conversation that promises to reveal shared understandings and real differences between religious people, some of which have existed for centuries. If offers a place for all of us - faculty and student alike - to freely seek the difficult and risky answers to the whys and wherefores of religion.
While a Rice Religion undergraduate major or Ph.D. is the ideal professional preparation needed for a career as an academic, it also provides the kind of intellectual foundation valued in the fields of medicine, law, journalism, politics, public policy and teaching. Studying with us means engaging questions of human diversity, purpose and meaning in a global world. It is a study that takes very seriously religious pluralism, that engages the modern reality of religious diversity and assists us in trying to build understanding across the lines of religious difference.
Chair, Department of Religion
Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies