Summer Institute Overview

The four-week Institute will involve daily seminars with regular lectures by the director and visiting faculty. The participants will also work on their own projects, whether those projects are research papers on some problem in the study of religion, or the re-engineering of the survey course they regularly teach. Throughout, we will examine the approaches of a range of textbook authors. Finally, we will archive some of the collective work of the Institute on a website that will remain accessible to teachers across the country.

It should be noted that in addition to classroom and library study, the location of the Institute in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area will provide participants the opportunity to see a variety of local religious sites. The teaching of World Religions in contemporary America means teaching about traditions that are no longer distant and exotic, but ones followed by our neighbors. This is especially true in the Twin Cities, where there are large populations of recent immigrants. Local scholars who can serve as consultants have explored the religious diversity of the Twin Cities. There are numerous mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples, Lebanese, Latino and Coptic churches, Ojibwe communities, and Zen meditation centers.

Academic Resources

DeWitt Wallace Library is conveniently located on campus. During the the summer, Library hours are Monday through Thursday 8:00 am – 4:30 pm, and Fridays 8:00 am – 12:30 pm.

Internet Access

Secure WiFi is available to participants via Macalester’s network or eduroam. Find out if your home institution is a member of eduroam.

Summer Institute Outline

  • Most mornings will consist of seminars on the topics and readings listed for each week.
  • Afternoons will involve field trips and freedom to work on individual projects.

Week One


  • What are our individual strengths and weaknesses?
  • What expertise can I share?
  • The problem with the word “religion”
  • The problem with the words “Hinduism” and “Buddhism”
  • The Big Five: what religions are counted as World Religions

Visiting lecturers

  • Tomoko Masuzawa, University of Michigan
  • Donald Lopez, Jr., University of Michigan

In this week, we will get a sense of the academic specialties of our participants. In one case a participant will be a specialist in Judaica and not well-acquainted with Chinese culture. Another will be a specialist in Japanese Buddhism and know very little about Islam. All of us will have these strengths and weaknesses and will open conversations about what we would consider a workable competence in the various religious traditions that we teach. We will also begin the conversation about how critical studies of the intellectual history of World Religions Discourse should affect our teaching. How can we use these studies to give students a critical distance on the way many textbooks approach the study of religion?  Tomoko Masuzawa, whose influential book, The Invention of World Religions, will visit to give a lecture and lead a discussion on her key ideas, primarily the way the category of religion was first articulated by Europeans, assumed to be a universal in human experience and then applied to a variety of non-European traditions, even when that application might not be warranted.

With this introduction, we will begin our discussion of religion in South Asia, where two prominent traditions, Hinduism and Buddhism, were first named by Europeans. How did Hindus and Buddhists self-identify before contact with Islamic and later European civilizations?  In studying these traditions, should we concentrate on scriptural texts, or do such texts play a minimal role in the lives of most followers? What can we agree upon as the most fundamental elements of South Asian religions that one should convey to students?  I have done scholarly work on these questions and will be further assisted by Professor Donald Lopez, one of the most prominent scholars of Buddhism in the United States. His early work, Prisoners of Shangri La (1999), challenged romantic stereotypes about Tibetan Buddhism, and his recent work, From Stone to Flesh (2013) is an account of how European portraits of the Buddha evolved to give us the image of the historical Buddha so prominent, and popular, today.

One of the insights Lopez brings is the salience of romanticized versions of a religion like Buddhism. These versions are adopted by Buddhists themselves, and used by emigrés to promote support and appreciation. We will be able to test this sort of phenomenon by visiting a Cambodian temple in Hampton, Minnesota and an elaborate Hindu temple in Maple Grove, Minnesota, both an easy drive from the institute.  Macalester professor Erik Davis will serve as a consultant here.  He has long experience of field work in Cambodia and has led several field trips to the Hampton temple. When insider practitioners give romanticized portraits of Buddhism or Hinduism to would-be student ethnographers, how do teachers guide those students to be both respectful and skeptical of accounts they might assume are “authentic”?  How do students weigh the authority of the outsider-scholar against that of the insider-spokesperson?

Suggested Readings

  • T. Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions
  • D. Lopez, From Stone to Flesh: A Short History of the Buddha
  • R. McCutcheon, Critics not Caretakers
  • J. Laine, “Mind and Mood in the Study of Religion”
  • ______, MetaReligion, preface and Introduction
  • P. Almond, The British Discovery of Buddhism
  • T. Fitzgerald, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity
  • S. Balagangadhara, The Heathen in his Blindness
  • T. Asad, Genealogies of Religion

Field Trips

  • Hindu Temple of Minnesota
  • Cambodian Buddhist Temple of Minnesota

Week Two

  • The problem of the “three teachings” (san jiao) of China (Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism)
  • The problem of Shinto
  • The place of Zen in Japanese Buddhism
  • Religion and Power in East Asia
  • Are the religions of East Asia really “religions”?

Suggested Readings

  • H. Hardacre, Shinto and the State, 1868-1988
  • T. Kuroda, “Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion”
  • D. Ownby, Falun Gong and the Future of China
  • D. Overmyer, Folk Buddhist Religion
  • J. Laine, MetaReligion, pp. 31-58; 212-217.

In week two, we will move from South Asia to East Asia, where the question of the relationship of religion to political power and the state is paramount. Whereas some textbooks celebrate the fact that many Chinese seem to embrace multiple religious traditions at once, serving then as models of religious tolerance, this leaves unexplained the massive persecution of Buddhist institutions in the ninth century, the repeated government repression of sectarian groups from the Daoist Yellow Turbans of the second century to the Falun Gong in the twentieth. Where does empathetic appreciation of the virtues of any tradition give rise to a sort of tolerant prescription,  obscuring aspects of history that are challenging and complex?

In Japan, the state is similarly involved in the management of religion, with Shinto organized in the eighth and the nineteenth centuries to support the imperial regime. Oddly, though Shinto is described as the indigenous religion of Japan, modern surveys among the Japanese population show that large numbers of people either don’t recognize the word Shinto, or don’t consider it a “religion” (shukyo). This accounts for the fact that though a majority of people claim not to be religious, a similar majority admit to praying daily at a home shrine. Surely our categories need greater precision to account for these facts.

Week Three

  • Western monotheisms: branches of the same tree?
  • Teaching Christianity in a Christian culture
  • Teaching the diversity of ways of being Muslim
  • Islam outside the Arab world: how did it spread?
  • Visiting lecturer: Carl Ernst (University of North Carolina)

Suggested readings

  • S. Cohen. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah
  • M. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, vol. I (selections)
  • C. Ernst, Following Muhammad
  • R. Horseley, Jesus and Empire
  • G. Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity
  • J. Laine, Meta-Religion, cc. 4-9

Field Trips

  • Islamic Society of Minnesota
  • Other local mosques, synagogues, churches

In the third week, we will turn to the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, often styled the Abrahamic religions. Garth Fowden has traced the rise of universalism, and especially monotheism, and its implications for the Roman Empire in late antiquity. Here we can trace the history of western monotheism and see the ways these traditions overlapped but came to see themselves as distinct if not thoroughly opposed to each other. From a world-historical point of view, we can consider the work of the great Islamicist Marshall Hodgson who wrote of the confessional religions arising in semi-arid regions of the Nile-to-Oxus region and hear from Professor Carl Ernst (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), a prolific scholar whose work often turns on the problems of how to portray the religious life of Muslims in a balanced and fair manner. Because of the importance of these questions for us at this time, it is critical that we investigate the ways students are confronted both with Islamophobic stereotypes as well as the accounts of apologists who view one version of Islam as the correct and authentic one.  Again we will see the problem of authority and the contrast of insider and outsider accounts. How can students have a coherent understanding of a wide variety of Islams?

Week Four

  • Religion beyond the institutionalized traditions
  • Native American cultures in Minnesota
  • Underlying Issues in the survey of religions: description vs. prescription; tolerance and academic critique; feminism and egalitarian values; classical vs. popular


  • Sharing our findings
  • Visiting lecturer: Michael McNally

Suggested readings

  • M. McNally, Honoring Elders: Aging, Authority, and Ojibwe Religion
  • __________, “Native American Religious Freedom Beyond the First Amendment”
  • W. Sullivan, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom

Field Trip

Visit to local Ojibwe sites with Michael McNally

In the final week, we will consider two main questions. First, how can one describe the religious life of people who do not follow traditions that are highly institutional, doctrinal, and organized?  As a case study, we will learn from Michael McNally, who has spent a long career studying the religious life of Ojibwe people in the Minnesota region. He will also lead us on a visit to local sacred sites, and raise questions about how the category of religion has been invoked by legal authorities in negotiating with native peoples like the Ojibwe.

Finally, we will return to the big questions of the institute. What can we conclude about balancing the need to give students a basic literacy in understanding a variety of religious traditions in the world, and yet come away with an appropriately critical view of the categories we use in organizing this knowledge.  What sort of website would be most valuable to teachers as they take on the job of teaching “Religions of the World” and what sort of high level scholarship would help us in the effort to teach undergraduates responsibly in this field.