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Golden Year for the Department of Religion - Page 2
Decades of Religious Studies
by James C. Dobbins, Professor of Religion and East Asian Studies
C. Dobbins, Professor of
Religion and East Asian Sudies
was the first permanent faculty member in east Asian Religions.
Clyde Holbrook, founder of the
Department of Religion and pioneer
in the field of Religious Studies.
Edward Long, Progessors of Ethics
and author of a widely used survey
of Christian ethics.
H . Thomas Frank, specialist in Biblical Archeology.
Herbert G. May, an editor of
the Revised Standard Edition
of the Bible.
Gordon (Mike) Michalson, a Kant scholar who gave the opening
lecture at the 50th anniversary.
Grover Zinn, a historian of
Christianity, especially of the
twelfth century. (Archives.)
Clyde Holbrook made his academic home at Oberlin for 26 years, designing
and managing the Department of Religion from 1951 until 1977. He
believed in a critical examination of religion, even admitting the
possibility that atheists might be right. He also allowed for an
empathetic approach to religionone that recognized its ennobling
and redeeming qualities. This stance became the hallmark of religious
study at Oberlin, but it also became the prevailing ethos of religious
studies in America, of which Holbrook was one of the pioneers.
Holbrook's first three years, he taught most of the College's religion
courses. Some of Oberlin's classic religion courses appeared soon
thereafter: Holbrook's trademark Introduction to Religion, in which
he laid out his approach to the religion as reflected in Christianity,
non-theistic Humanism, Hinduism, and Confucianism; Life and Teachings
of Jesus, one of the most popular religion courses in College
history; Christian Ethics, which evolved into Moral Issues
under Ed Long; and Modern Religious Thought.
As new faculty members were appointed, Holbrook gradually yielded
curricular areas to others, and by the mid-1960s, much of the curriculum
was in place. Although weighted toward Christianity (and its Jewish
antecedents), courses were taught from Holbrook's distinct non-confessional
standpoint. The Christian component was consolidated with the arrival
of Tom Frank in Biblical studies in 1964 and Grover Zinn in the
history of Christianity in 1966. Nate Greenberg of the classics
department taught an annual course on the history of Judaism, and
the study of Judaism and Islam expanded with the creation of the
Judaic and Near Eastern Studies Program in the early 1970s. That
program operated outside the Religion Department, but many courses
of Asian Studies If the first phase of the department's development
consolidated the area of western religions, the second phase, up
to the early 1970s, expanded the non-western ones. This area was
established in earnest when Don Swearer arrived in 1965 to teach
Asian religions specifically. In 1970, the position grew into two,
one emphasizing South Asian religions and the other East Asian.
the early 1970s, the general shape of the religion department was
set. It continued in this configuration for the next two decades,
offering areas of concentration in Biblical studies, modern religious
thought, ethics, the history of Christianity, South Asian religions,
and East Asian religions. Courses in Judaic and Near Eastern studies
Voices The department's third phase began in the late 1980s
and early 1990s. Marked at first by a new position in Islam, which
completed the unfinished business of diversifying religious representation,
the department next recognized the need to include diverging voices
within religions. New courses focused on the African American religious
experience and, more recently, women and religion. It also diversified
Introduction to Religion, which is taught now as a forum for
diverse issues and subject matters.
study of religion has not been driven by a single organizing principle.
Subfields have been defined, sometimes by disciplinary approach,
geographical location, historical periodization, or specific religious
tradition. Students gradually have become more aware of other religions
in the past 50 years. But many also have less understanding of the
historically formative religions of American culture. This situation,
too, has forced the department to modify how and what is presented
in courses. As a field, religious studies is still a work in progress.
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