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Sacred Spaces, Religious Texts and Social Change: Delmas Foundation Grant Supports Religion Department Collaboration With German Scholars
Syracuse University’s Department of Religion has received a $4,000 grant from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation to support a collaboration with the Center for Religious Studies (CERES) at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany. SU will host a symposium with German colleagues to discuss research and grant opportunities on latent normative texts and the use and reuse of sacred sites.
“This is a planning meeting to see if we have enough common research interests to create a compelling case for writing large grants,” says religion professor James W. Watts. “The collaboration gives each department access to funding opportunities on the other side of the Atlantic.”
The symposium will explore future research collaborations on two different subjects. One, the study of latent normative texts, focuses on the ways people use old texts, typically sacred books, to justify contemporary political and legal positions. For example, some use the Hebrew Bible verse from Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” to condemn homosexuals. People use references in other texts to justify defending racism, war and land claims, Watts says.
“People use ancient scriptures to defend practices and institutions that seem threatened by progressive changes in social norms and legal expectations,” Watts writes in the grant application. “Normative texts can also be used to promote social change as a return to lost values and principles, that is, as ‘reform’ or ‘revival.’”
The collaboration with CERES could create historical and contemporary case studies that offer insight and guidance about how to evaluate and manage such attempts to revive old normative texts. “This is a theme we want to look at on a comparative level,” Watts says.
The American-German team also will research changes in physical spaces, such as native temples turned into churches or churches transformed into mosques. The study of space and place includes large-scale national claims to cities (like Jerusalem) and territory (such as the partition of India, Native American land claims, and Israel and Palestine).
Religious spaces play a prominent role in politics and international affairs, Watts notes. “We hope to gain the ability to describe some larger patterns and begin to think in terms of responses and policy decisions about things,” he explains. “You begin to think about how the transitions can be handled gracefully rather than with conflicts.”
The collaboration builds on the expertise of several Department of Religion scholars. Watts, for example, leads the Iconic Books Project, which investigates how books and texts function as material objects of social power. In 2015-16, he was a Käte Hamburg Kolleg visiting fellow at Ruhr University. His work with CERES spurred conversation with his German colleagues about a longer-term collaboration.
Philip Arnold’s works on how the 500-year-old Doctrine of Discovery still shapes legal decisions about native land claims. Arnold, associate professor and chair of the religion department, is founding director of the Skä·noñh Great Law of Peace Center on Onondaga Lake, which highlights the significance of that sacred site for the Onondaga Nation.
Virginia Burrus, Bishop W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion, addresses the relevance of early Christian theology on contemporary ecological thought in her new book, “Ancient Christian Ecopoetics: Cosmologies, Saints, Things” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). And religion professor Joanne Waghorne edited “Place/No-Place in Urban Asian Religiosity” (Springer, 2016). It includes essays on new or changing religious organizations in Singapore, Bangalore, Seoul, Beijing, Hong Kong and other locations.
Ten CERES faculty members will join Syracuse faculty at the March 4-5, 2019, symposium. A $5,000 CUSE Seed Grant, awarded in April, also supports the project. SU’s religion department and CERES this semester initiated a graduate student exchange program.
“The Delmas and CUSE grants will make it possible for us to embark on this rare experiment in research collaboration between religion departments,” Watts says. “We expect it will expand our understanding of how both places and texts change with the societies that cherish them.”