World Religion at BYU

BYU’s Church History and Doctrine department in the Religious Education school has recently posted a job that may go to someone in “World Religions.”  This is an important search and I am eager to see the outcome.  Whoever is offered this position is in an important position to shape a coming generation’s approach to the study of non-Mormon religions.  BYU is to be commended on this tradition of teaching “world religions,” however small a part of the curriculum. The history of this position has been shaped by the development of courses on “world religions” in previous decades across the academy, and the way that this interest manifested itself even within the Church as the 1978 “God’s Love For All Mankind” statement demonstrated.  As those “world religions” courses in colleges, universities, and seminaries have come under greater scrutiny and have been abandoned or modified in many religion and theology programs, it will be interesting to see how BYU’s future hire engages with (updates?) the curriculum.

The position is framed as a “world religions” job, but the teaching duties include heavy responsibilities for D&C courses as well.  One problem that the search committee may face is finding someone who is qualified for the position, not only for teaching modern Mormon history, but also the broad scope of billions of people’s religious history and practice.  Certainly all people must teach somewhat outside of their discipline, but for a position as broad as “world religions” one faces special problems.  Graduate schools in religious studies may require their students to gain basic facility in a religious tradition outside of their primary area of research, though not all have such a requirement.  There are some programs that are explicitly based on a “comparative” methodology, but even in these circumstances, students are generally limited to two traditions to compare, and often that comparison is done within certain historical or geographical boundaries.  As opposed to 30 years ago, graduate students in religious studies programs today are more likely to be specialists in a particular religious tradition, within a particular time period, than experts on the whole “religion,” let alone the number of different religious traditions generally covered in “world religions classes.”

The move toward specialization in a single, limited subfield in graduate training in religious studies is not simply the result of  hyper specialization of academia, but rather a methodological rejection of previous generations of scholarship.  This happened for a few different reasons.  First, much of the earlier, comparative work on “world religions” turned out to be deeply problematic scholarship, often misrepresenting the objects of study in fact and approach.  These approaches tended to hypostatize, systematize, and dehistoricize “religion” in its various manifestations.  Today, for example, whether there is even such a thing as “Hinduism”  before the colonial period is a serious scholarly debate.  Second, these approaches often were invested in particular Christian theological categories, most frequently ranking religious values according to how much ritual or theological thought they had, preconceived notions about “gods,” and often categorized traditions and more or less “primitive” religion.  Third, this approach to “world religions” tended to assume at the outset that “religion” was a universal human category, and that we all knew what was supposed to be in it.  The problem arose when the category of religion in native cultures either didn’t exist, or differed dramatically from our own.  For instance, the conflict (and distinction) between science and religion has a particular history in the West that is often absent in other cultures, making the very distinction itself non-existent in some cultures.

The field of Religious Studies, and the rise of religion departments and “world religions” classes can be traced to the late 1960’s.  Throughout the next few decades, colleges began to add a single faculty member in Religion who was expected to be the expert in all religious and teach broad survey courses.  Schools with a history of institutional religious affiliation slowly transformed their theology programs into religious studies programs, or at least added a token position or two.  As the faculty in these departments grew, faculty were able to specialize more.  Even at schools with large theology faculty, they often saw the need to have more experts in comparative religion, especially at progressive Catholic schools.  By the 1990’s, religious studies faculty and departments had become a standard program in secular and religious schools.  It was also at this time that serious intellectual critiques were offered of the field that exposed its theological and normative biases from the first generation of American scholars (W.C. Smith, Eliade, Ninian Smart, Huston Smith, etc), and the field has been transforming since.  These scholars were influenced by theories of religion that have been critiqued as ecumenical theology.  “World religions” classes have been dropping like flies over the last 10 years, and hires in these positions are usually one found at very small colleges, never at a place the size of BYU.

BYU’s history with its “World Religions” classes likely parallels this national history, with the class emerging probably sometime in the 80’s.  I don’t know the details of the origins of the “World Religions” classes, and I don’t know the details of how they have been taught in recent years.  (I would love to learn the story if anyone knows it!).  However, without any recent hires in these positions (I understand that those who currently hold the few positions designated for this specialty have been in the job for many decades), BYU has unfortunately not kept up with the historical development, and instead represents a rather anachronistic approach to both the importance of the study of non-Mormon religion, as well as the acceptable methodology for doing so.  Of course, BYU’s primary interests in its RE programs are theological and apologetic, not grounded in the academic interests represented by the study of religion.  But this dichotomy can hold it back if the theological and apologetic interests are guarded from being informed by changes in the field more generally, because those original interests were as shaped by the historical period in which they first appeared in LDS intellectual circles.  For instance, more updated approaches like comparative theology, done by someone like Francis Clooney, can perhaps provide a model for a normative approach in the particular interests of Mormonism, while at the same time avoiding the sorts of stereotypes, simplifications, and distortions present in earlier approaches to “World Religions.”

How can BYU’s “world religions” curriculum respond to these changing assumptions?  How should the theological interests of such courses respond to the more secular interests of the discipline of Religious Studies?  The next hire for this position at BYU will have the opportunity to shape this future discourse by updating the curriculum, and seriously asking the question of not only is it responsible to teach a class on “world religion,” but also how might Latter-day Saints constructively engage with non-Mormon religions.  This task is a significant one, and not one that can be met by a single individual, especially one informed by the contemporary critique of “world religions” type classes.  I wish that person the best in their important task.

7 Replies to “World Religion at BYU”

  1. Not qualified to comment on the academic questions here, but I took world religions from Dr. Keller at BYU in the mid-1990s. It was a survey course with some general information and source text readings from various religions. Dr. Keller’s extreme earnestness (at least he had actual training in a number of other religions) was sufficient to overcome the anachronistic feeling of the class. Since what I remember about it most was the engagement with other sacred texts, it occurs to me that comparative approaches to sacred texts could provide a more academic framework for a work religions course while working for BYU’s purposes.

  2. Thanks DCL for sharing your experience. I have no first hand knowledge of how these classes have been taught, but I hear the teachers have been great.

  3. Thanks for the overview of the field, TT. I really like the suggested approach of focusing on sacred tastes. I’ve heard Alonzo Gaskill does a good job with the class.

    Also, I should add that whil adjuncting at BYU over the summer, I heard that world religions was by far one of their most popular classes, so there is a drive for it from the students.

  4. World Religions at BYU goes back until a least the late 60’s. I took an undergraduate class in World Religions from Burt Horsley in 1969 and then a graduate class from Spencer Palmer in 1970. This was back when the undergrad class counted toward the fulfillment of religion graduation requirement. We used John Noss’s “Man’s Religions” as the text.

    (Burt Horsley also taught a two semester history of the Christian church – which also fulfilled the religion requirement.


  5. TT, you raise several significant questions.

    The position is framed as a “world religions” job, but the teaching duties include heavy responsibilities for D&C courses as well. One problem that the search committee may face is finding someone who is qualified for the position…

    Qualification to teach, as far as RE is concerned, is not the same as being qualifited to publish on American religion and Japanese Buddhism, for instance. Teaching the D&C courses can be done (and is done) by those without training in anything to do with America or religious studies.

    I’m sure the job ad will attract many applicants, but I’m curious how many of those applicants will even have a non-Biblical religion as their area of study. My sense is that there aren’t many LDSs out there.

    Since RE is only partially made up of profs trained in religious studies, and since many of those who were trained in religous studies did their work in the Bible, I’d be curious to see how many of these issues you raise are even on their radars.

    I do know that some of the courses developed in recent years (like Islam and the Gospel) have become quite popular, so there is demand from students and willingness among instructors to offer courses that might mitigate some of the problems you raise.

    One positive about the status quo is that, from what I hear, the world religions classes are among the most demanding in RE. IMO, the fact that the class isn’t explicitly about the Gospel (although it’s in the title of the class, and so has the potential to be the measuring bar against which other religions are compared) allows the instructors to take a more distanced approach to the course, and since students can’t be graded on their testimony they have to be graded on their comprehension of the material.

  6. I loved Gaskill’s World Religions class a few years back, though that owes as much to his hilarity as a lecturer as anything else (in fairness, it was about as rigorous a class as I ever took from the religious department, for what little I think that’s worth)

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