Conversion and Religious Transformation Lecture Series

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CONVERSION AND RELIGIOUS TRANSFORMATION: ANCIENT AND MODERN EXPERIENCES AND PARADIGMS

This lecture series, which extends the programming at Green College by UBC’s Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture, will focus on religious experience at points of change, especially but not exclusively in the ancient Mediterranean world and in the post-medieval (Christian) West. Speakers will examine representations of moments of individual and collective conversion to a new religious tradition as well as points of transformation and evolution within traditions. Focusing on diverse cultures and communities throughout history, they will also engage a variety of methodological and theoretical perspectives. The series is co-sponsored by SSHRC Partnership Grants in “The Evolution of Religion and Morality” and “Early Modern Conversions: Religions, Cultures, Cognitive Ecologies.

This year’s seminar series will be held at 5pm at Green College (except where noted):

the Green College Coach House
6201 Cecil Green Park Road, The University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z1

Everyone is invited to attend.

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Peter Marshall

University of Warwick
“The Origins of the English Reformation Reconsidered”

How different might the first years of the English Reformation look if we try to view them forwards rather than backwards, remembering that the first generation of converts to reform were not early “Protestants,” but late medieval Catholic Christians? This lecture will argue that we need to see the concerns of the early Reformation as emerging from, as much as reacting against, the mainstream devotional priorities of early sixteenth-century Catholicism. It will examine how reformers remained in important ways shaped by their Catholic heritage of ritual and piety, and the implications for understanding the process of conversion.

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Dietrich Jung

University of Southern Denmark
“Theology, Anthropology and Sociology: The Nineteenth-Century Conceptual Transformation of Religion”

Contemporary ideas and practices of religious conversion are closely related to the modern concept of religion. To a large extent the origin of this concept is found in nineteenth century debates about religion within emerging disciplines such as anthropology, comparative religion and sociology. Thereby, some core elements of liberal Protestant theology were transformed into a set of universal features that came to represent religion in conceptual terms in the social sciences and humanities. Taking the life and work of the Scottish Theologian and Arabist William Robertson Smith (1846-94) as its point of departure, the lecture aims at elucidating the emergence and global diffusion of this modern concept of religion. It will trace it back to a complex process of historical and social construction, connecting the very different academic milieus of Victorian evolutionism, French Positivism and German Liberal Theology.

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

Clifford Ando, University of Chicago
Jörg Rüpke, Erfurt Universität

“Creating Conversion: Sociological Perspectives on Religious Change”

Traditional histories of religion in the ancient Mediterranean situate conversion in relation to two changes: the abandonment of an old, incorrect polytheism in favour of a new, truthful Christianity; and the emergence of religion as a domain for the exercise of individual choice and expression of an individual relationship with the divine. We will discuss three issues left uninterrogated by this literature: (1) the nature of collective religious identity and the situation of the individual in Mediterranean polytheisms; (2) the local and translocal nature of gods, i.e. theological aspects of polytheism that bore upon the perceived need to declare an affiliation or change of affiliation; and (3) the sociological conditions undergirding the emergence of a Christian notion of conversion in the high Roman empire. The aim is to historicize conversion and establish more clearly its historical and cultural particularity.

Monday, January 5th, 2015

Yii-Jan Lin

Pacific School of Religion
“Made This Way: Religious, Cultural, and Bodily Conversion”

“My process of transition was primarily a spiritual transformation.” This statement comes from the testimony of a transgender man, speaking of his bodily conversion, a transition that most fixate upon as a physical transformation. Yet for many of the transgender population, the experience of transitioning is comparable to religious conversion. What can this reveal about the experience of conversion and its phenomena, physical, spiritual, or transcending that duality altogether? Two texts from the New Testament have served as scriptural affirmation of transitioned bodies for Christian transgender communities, Matthew 19 and Acts 8. The first records Jesus’ describing eunuchs as having been so “from birth,” “been made eunuchs,” or “made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.” The Acts passage narrates the conversion and baptism of an Ethiopian eunuch, a Jewish proselyte. Given the Jewish context of early Christian communities and Deuteronomic prohibitions against the inclusion of eunuchs in the temple cult, several seemingly contradictory elements are at play in these texts. This paper explores these early Christian texts via a transgender reading of them in order to tease out the physical in religious conversion and the spiritual in bodily conversion both today and in early Christianity.

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Carla Zecher

Director of the Center for Renaissance Studies, Newberry Library, Chicago
“Converting the Ear: Sixteenth-Century Christian Travellers’ ‘Discover’ the Muslim Call to Prayer”

The beauty of the Muslim call to prayer, from its inception in the seventh century, has been perceived to be instrumental not only in convening the faithful and fostering a sense of community, but also effecting conversions to Islam (or, if rendered badly, distancing a potential convert). European travel accounts of the sixteenth century offer a sampling of early descriptions of the prayer call, mostly as it was rendered in Istanbul, from the perspective of Catholic and Protestant listeners. Did they perceive the Istanbul call to be captivating, and if so, to what did they attribute its persuasiveness – to the sacred text? The beauty of the practitioner’s voice? Do they appear to have been concerned about its potential to convert? What role did the call to prayer play in shaping their overall perceptions of Islam and, more broadly, the Levant?

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Alexander Beecroft

University of South Carolina
“The Roads to Damascus and Hanoi: Conversion and Cosmopolitanism in the New Testament and the Mouzi Lihuolun”

In the middle of the first century AD, a Pharisee from Asia Minor, Paul the Apostle, writes in koinê Greek to the emergent Christian community in Rome, citing passages from the Psalms and Deuteronomy to do so. About a century later, a Chinese intellectual, known to us as Master Mou, living in exile in what is now Hanoi during the collapse of the Han dynasty, writes a Treatise on Removing Doubts (牟子理惑論), which uses quotations from the by-then canonical Confucian classics to advance the Buddhist cause. Both men, in other words, use an existing cosmopolitan literary language to promote a universalist religion whose origins lie outside the languages in which they write. Paul, by citing his texts in Greek, is able to re-orient them from their original Israelite audience to the larger world of the Roman empire, while Master Mou domesticates the alien Buddhist tradition with reference to Chinese texts. Using these two roughly-contemporaneous conversion narratives as a starting-point, this paper explores the process of conversion as inherently cosmopolitan, occupying a space in transition between competing worldviews.

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Celia Schultz

University at Michigan
“Emic and Etic Notions of Sacrifice Among the Romans”

Scholars of religion have, for some time, been wrestling with the “insider/outsider problem,”  but that discourse has not yet had widespread influence on the study of ancient Roman religion. Given the nature of the evidence, however, there is much to be gained by taking a fresh look at some elements of Roman religious life through insider/outsider lens.  The present paper takes up one such element, sacrifice, and explores the ramifications of two methodological habits current in the study of it: the tendency to assume that “sacrifice” meant to the Romans the same narrowly defined ritual practice it means to most modern users of the term and the heavy reliance on non-Roman sources for the reconstruction of Roman sacrificial practice.

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