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Summer Workshop with Robert Orsi: Ethical, Methodological, and Pedagogical Challenges

By Daniel Winchester
The day began with sunshine and ended with rain and thunder from the heavens, perhaps an all-too-fitting close to a workshop devoted to the study of religious experience and peoples' relationships with sacred beings.

Sponsored by the religious studies program and the Institute for Advanced Study, a one-day workshop entitled Ethical, Methodological, and Pedagogical Challenges in the
Empirical Study of Religion was held on Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at the Nolte Center. Dr. Robert A. Orsi, Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, conducted the workshop. Thirty religion scholars from a variety of disciplines and several local institutions discussed issues central to Dr. Orsi's work, including religious experience, empathy, ethics, and writing in religious studies.

That people have religious experiences is of little doubt, but the study of these experiences has generally been considered off-limits to academic scholars. The conversation centered on why this was the case, and what role empathy might play in understanding how people come to experience sacred figures like saints, spirits, and gods as significant forces in their lives. Participants also considered how peoples' experiences of the holy might help us rethink key historical events such as the civil rights movement or, more recently, the religious-like devotion many Michael Jackson fans expressed after his death.

Conversation then turned to critical judgment in the study of religion. Asking tough questions about when it is acceptable to pass moral judgment on the religious individuals and groups we study, many in the group were critical of the tendency to make sharp contrasts between "good" and "bad" religion but also recognized the necessity of making ethical decisions in our studies. Scholars told personal stories about their own ethical quandaries, such as having to testify as an expert witness in a court case where an individual's religious beliefs threatened to land him in prison or of being challenged by groups who were offended by a scholar's interpretation of their religious practices.

In the third and final session of the day (and just before the storm rolled in), participants posed questions about writing in religious studies: how we can best represent peoples' religious worlds? And how might the ways we write help evoke the experiential, lived, and often messy quality of religion as it is practiced by real people in specific times and places?

The thought-provoking workshop with Dr. Orsi was a great success. Covering topics central to the religious studies program's mission to study religion creatively, critically, and
ethically, participants came away with a new appreciation of the possibilities religious studies has to offer--for students, for the public, and for themselves.

Daniel Winchester is a Ph.D. student in the sociology department at the University of Minnesota. He studies culture and religion.

Generous support for this workshop came from the following sponsors: the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, The Office of the Vice-President for Research (RCR Continuing Education Grant), the Institute for Advanced Study, the Religious Studies Program, and the Sundet Chair in New Testament and Christian Studies.

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