This column is devoted to sharing student and faculty input on the various majors offered at Lawrence. The goal is to highlight areas of study that are not well known and to provide undecided students an inside look at things they may want to study.
For the students and faculty working within the Religious Studies department at Lawrence University, the impact of religion can be seen and felt in countless aspects of our own lifestyles, ranging from the art we consume to the food we eat. This interconnected quality found in religion makes it a perfect fit into the well-rounded mentality that Lawrence University bolsters. Religious Studies pursues the process of exposing religion as an aspect of our society that pervades many facets of the world we live in.
Religious Studies works to grapple with the definition of religion and to come to terms with the idea that its meaning is enriched with complexity and nuance. Students work to see religion in the world around them in order to better understand its impact and the lives of those who practice specific faiths.
Senior Gabi Makuc stated, “I think one great thing that the department does is that we’re constantly questioning, ‘what is Religious Studies?’ in the classroom. A lot of the classes will start out with questions like that and by the end everyone is thoroughly confused about what it even is. And I think this is really important.”
Religion has a specific meaning for every individual, and becomes connected to a wide variety of ideas and pursuits. Religious studies embraces interconnections, and in that way, embraces the ideals of liberal arts education. Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Constance Kassor stated, “What I think the really cool thing about religious studies is that religion is everywhere, and if you study religious studies, it touches on literally every other field of studies you can think of. Politics, government, sociology, anthropology and sciences. Religion is there in all of those things.”
For Makuc, one of the best parts about her studies is seeing how religions exist in the lives of people today. She stated, “One thing that I really love is the emphasis on experiencing faith traditions. A few of the majors go to Deerborne, Michigan every year to go into the Islamic American community there, attend some of their prayers and get to see what their life is like in that community, which is largely a second generation Arab-American community. Getting out into the community and interacting with not just the readings, but with how people live out their faith is really cool to me.”
Not only does Makuc value these face-to-face experiences, she also puts great worth into the religious texts she reads in her studies. She stated, “I love reading texts that people have cared so deeply about for so long. I want to read the same line over ten times because this is how other people have used these texts, they’ve used them to meditate on, they’ve used it as a guiding life principle. And what kind of truth can I find in it that will teach me how to live better in the world and how to live more compassionately and give me a new perspective on life.”
The Religious Studies Department gives students the chance to interact with many aspects of different religions. The emphasis on getting out of the classroom is a priority for many students and faculty. Kassor said, “My area of specialty is Asian Religion, specifically Tibetan Buddhism. I get travel a lot and spend a lot of time in Nepal and India for research. I’m going to be taking a group of students to Nepal next year on a travel program. We’ll be traveling over D-Term and I’m excited to see this develop.”
Kassor spoke to the impact of this sort of engagement. “Initially I thought I was going to be a biology major,” she said. “I was going to be a biomedical engineer. Then I took a class on Buddhist thought. There was a monk who was at my campus and was teaching a course on Buddhist thought. And I was just totally fascinated by it. Then I got to go on a study abroad trip to India and that just changed everything. I came back, changed my major and ended up going back to India for a while after college. I went to grad school, and here I am.”
“For me, the most important thing I’ve gained from religious studies really culminated in my Senior Experience trip,” Makuc stated. “It was something I was learning about all along in this major which is listening. I think it’s the ability to listen to somebody else, the ability to listen to a totally different way about thinking about God or thinking about the universe. And then, personally, I like taking that and then listening within myself. How does this speak to me? On my summer trip I met a lot of people with many different life and faith experiences. It was a gift being able to listen to them and then often when I’d turn the recorder off they’d want to listen to my story, too.”
For anyone who takes a religious studies course at Lawrence, Kassor stated, “What I hope students take away from their classes is that religion is everywhere, and that for better or for worse, you can’t escape it. Religious thought really informs a lot about how we view the world, how we interact with other people. What I hope they can take away is that they can appreciate that religion underlies most everything.”
Here at Lawrence, the Religious Studies department gives students the chance to interact with ancient texts that have impacted the lives of individuals for thousands of years, as well as opportunities to see how those texts are affecting the lives of those practicing their own faith today. In this way, students can begin to grasp the expanding scope of religion, and its importance in the fabric of the world.