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Harry Gamble
Stephanie Gross
Harry Gamble, department chair

Religious Studies has multiplied like loaves and fishes at U.Va.

By Charlotte Crystal

God has been good to the Department of Religious Studies. Like religious studies programs at other American universities, the department was founded here in the mid-1960s amid a national religious revival, said Harry Gamble, professor of religious studies and department chair.

Now, each year, 2,000 to 3,000 students -- including 150 to 180 majors -- sign up for classes with the department. "It's gratifying to see how much interest undergraduate students show in religious studies," said Gamble, who studies early Christianity.

"It's an intrinsically fascinating subject."

Student interest has grown steadily over the past decade, particularly in the religious traditions of other cultures.

"Even so, the growth hasn't come at the expense of Christianity and Judaism," Gamble said. "I think it stems from an increasingly global sense of the world."

Over the past 30 years, the Department of Religious Studies has grown from four to 26 full-time faculty members whose expertise covers a broad array of world religions -- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Yoruba religion -- as well as other topics, such as women and the Bible, myth and ritual, human genetics, ethics and theology, and evil in modernity. With cross listings from other departments and interdisciplinary courses, the religious studies department offers more than 150 classes to undergraduates.

While programs elsewhere tend to take a comparative approach to the study of religion, the department here takes a tradition-based approach, Gamble said. Religions are studied in depth by academics who are also practitioners. Rather than trying to apply abstract concepts to different religions, they work the other way around, exploring how individual religions illustrate a general theory.

"We're generating a new method of studying comparative religion," said Peter Ochs, Edgar M. Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies. "Instead of imposing abstract terms on religions, we bring pairs of religions into dialogue and observe the kind of language those practitioners use to understand each other. So two by two by two, as we compare religions in depth, we are generating a new vocabulary."

Indeed, the many strengths of the department have not gone unnoticed. For the past decade, undergraduate teaching at the religious studies department has been ranked first or second in the country by the Gourman Report, which rates undergraduate programs at universities worldwide. And in the most recent National Research Council report (1995), U.Va.'s doctoral program in religious studies was ranked first among public universities and sixth overall.

But the department is not sitting on its laurels.

As part of the larger College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences campaign, the Religious Studies Department is seeking to raise $6 million to establish chaired professorships and other faculty positions, to fund graduate fellowships and to support other departmental activities, such as visiting scholars and symposia.

In particular, Gamble's wish list includes faculty who could add to the offerings in Chinese religions, Islamic studies, Jewish ethics, medieval Judaism, and Hinduism. In addition to increasing the offerings, a larger faculty also would enable the department to offer smaller classes to undergraduates and foster interdisciplinary work.

Along these lines, the department is moving to create a new course, "Religion in American Democracy," which should open for enrollment in fall 2002, Gamble said. The interdisciplinary course will explore the powerful social, cultural, economic and political forces that affect American politics.

And recently, the department received approval to launch a new undergraduate major in Jewish Studies next fall.

Between now and then, Gamble hopes that donors will help him lift the Religious Studies Department to another plane.

In s'Allah -- God willing.



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