St. Mark's religion classes help students understand and appreciate that there are multiple ways in which humans make meaning of their existence and condition, and multiple opinions on how best to regulate human behavior and interaction.
Students are required to study at least three religious systems of thought (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), as well as other meaning-making systems, either religious, humanist, ethical, philosophical, aesthetic, or historical. In both style and substance, the classes are non-sectarian, and similar to what one might find in a college class on religion or philosophy.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Fall & Spring
The Abrahamic Traditions
This course explores the scriptures, histories, beliefs and practices of those whom the Qur’an calls “The People of the Book”: Jews, Christians and Muslims. What assurances, hopes and fears bind these faiths together? What has divided them, often to the point of bloodshed? The answers to these questions are multi-faceted and require careful study and appreciation of the contending scriptural claims, the merging and diverging histories, and the diverse forms of worship and practice that have developed in these three faiths over the millennia. In this course, students will dramatically improve their scriptural literacy, their understanding of the religious impulse, and their confidence in bringing their own thoughts and experiences to bear on some of the most analytically elusive and yet deeply meaningful questions in human history. They will also have the opportunity to experience the contemporary manifestations of these three religions, visiting local places of worship — a Jewish Temple, a Christian Church, and a Muslim Mosque to cap their study of each religion. (Open to Forms IV, V, and VI. All students are required to take Judaism, Christianity and Islam as part of fulfilling their Religion requirement)
Many traditions conceive of the spiritual life as a journey or quest — a pilgrimage. This is not only true of art and literature that is overtly spiritual or religious, but also of secular works. This course will ask students to engage with a variety of different media (memoir, novel, film, poetry, music, etc.) and consider the commonalities and differences between spiritual journeys within different traditions and during different eras. Why is it that humans seek something beyond themselves? How do external experiences, circumstances, and landscapes shape our interior quest and vice-versa? Can all humans be thought of as participating in some sort of pilgrimage? What is it that humans are really striving for? As students examine these ideas, they will also turn a critical eye toward their own journey or quest, finding new and creative ways to express that journey. (Open to Forms IV, V and VI)
Ethics and Morality Fall
What does it mean to be a good person, or to live a good life? How should an individual or a society decide what is right and wrong; which actions are obligatory, optional, or prohibited? Are there universal and eternal moral truths, or is everyone’s opinion on moral questions equally valid? These are some of the questions that humans have asked throughout all times and places, and that philosophers and theologians alike have struggled to answer. In this course, students will study a sampling of the great western philosophical and theological ethical traditions. They will also be encouraged by class projects, discussions, and formal debates to think for themselves, to engage controversy intelligently, and to form their own reasoned and defensible positions on important and challenging issues facing society today, such as sexual ethics, environmental sustainability, economic justice, capital punishment, war, and the challenging range of bio-ethical issues including genetic engineering, euthanasia, and the uses and implications of reproductive technologies. Film, literature and current events will be used as resources alongside the text, and lively but reasoned and respectful debate will be a primary mode of learning. (Open to Forms IV, V and VI)
Roman Philosophy and Religion Fall
In this course students examine the history and development of Roman religious and philosophical belief, tracing it back to its origins in Greek thought and following it forward as it fused with Christian ideology in the Medieval period. Although students will read a variety of texts the core of this class focuses on Latin authors in tranlsation and includes passages from the Dialogues of Cicero and Seneca, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, Ovid’s Fasti, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and St. Augustine’s Confessions. As a final project, each student will research and write a paper on a topic of interest that arises out of their readings.
Sacred Places: Sites of Spirituality
In this course the students would explore a variety of sacred sites of the world and learn what makes places sacred. These sacred sites would include both natural areas, such as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and Uluru in Australia, as well as manmade sites such Borobudur in Java and the Vatican in Rome. The overarching framework for looking at the sites is set by the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai who argues that places are created rather than born, and that it is how we as humans interact with a place that creates meaning for a place. Appadurai identifies three aspects in this process that are essential: agency—i.e. what people do at a place and who’s allowed to be there; sociality—i.e. what kinds of interactions take place at the place; and reproducibility—i.e. what one has to do to pass the locality on to a new generation. In addition the students will learn about the religions associated with each sacred site studied. This course also fulfills one semester of the Religion Department requirement. (Open to Forms IV, V and VI)
Social Justice in Local and Global Contexts
Fall & Spring
This course will examine the complexities of race, class, and gender in US society and other selected countries from an interdisciplinary approach. Using the lenses of anthropology, history, literature, psychology, religion, and sociology students will engage issues of inequality and injustice and deeply explore historical and current events. Fundamental questions will be deeply explored like “What is Race? How do we define femininity/masculinity? What are the root causes of poverty?” Through film analysis students will also have the opportunity to discuss the politics of representation in the media. A component of the course will be focused on a particular global issue (e.g. poverty, sexism) and students will work collaboratively and use their problem-solving skills to develop strategies that address that issue. (Open to Forms IV, V and VI)
Eastern Religious Thought
SpringEastern religious thought differs radically, in many ways, from the monotheistic religions that originated in the Ancient Near East. Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism are Western designations for several distinct but related ways of “seeing and being” that offer enduring answers to perennial human questions about ultimate reality, and satisfy the universal human desire for self-transcendence. As speculative as it may sometimes appear to many Westerners, Eastern religious thought is immensely practical and is meant to be practiced. This course will survey several of the great Eastern ways of seeing and being, focusing on the mythology, philosophy, imagery and devotional practices of both ancient and contemporary practitioners. It will be conducted as a seminar, so students will, in consultation with the teacher, engage in special projects of their own design around personal interests. Besides periodic tests and other assignments, students will also keep a journal of written responses to focused questions arising from their reading and class discussions. (Open to Forms IV, V, and VI)
Mystics and Zen Masters
Many religious traditions seek to unite the human with the divine, a process that American poet Denise Levertov called “oneing.” In this comparative course, we will trace the development of mysticism in a number of different traditions including Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Along the way, we will also apply the critical lenses of psychology, anthropology, and gender studies to these practices, attempting to discover why humans seek union with nature or deity and how gender and society affect that search. To aid in our discussion, students will read from a number of modern mystics including Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as medieval and ancient mystics and mystical texts like John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, The Cloud of Unknowing, the Islamic poets Rumi and Hafiz, the Tao Te Ching, and many others. (Open to Forms IV, V and VI)
Advanced Religion: Philosophy and the The Death of “God”
There was a time in the Western world when the existence of God was assumed by all “rational” people, leaving atheists with a lot of explaining to do. Over the last four centuries, however, secularism and atheism have posed increasingly resonant challenges to the notion of a “God,” leading Nietzsche to assert, at the end of the 19th century, that God was effectively “dead.” What mortal challenges has modernity posed to theism in the last four centuries, and what challenges does it still pose today? When and how did belief in the existence of God come to be considered a laughable—even a dangerous—proposition? And how have believers chosen to respond? We will trace the ascendance of atheism, together with the theistic reaction it has provoked, from the time of René Descartes to 9/11, with help from philosophers and theologians such as Hume, Kant, Freud, Hitchens, Kushner, C.S. Lewis, Tillich and Khaled Abou el-Fadl. Contemporary fiction that explores issues of faith and doubt, such as Salzman’s Lying Awake, Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, Martel’s Life of Pi, and the poetry of Philip Larkin and others, will help inform our study, as will contemporary films such as The Truman Show and The Matrix. (Open to Forms V and VI)