299 – Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion

Friday 1:30-4 Gest 102, Fall 2015

Ken Koltun-Fromm
Haverford College
Gest 201
610-896-1026 (office); 610-645-8324 (home)
Office hours: Monday 2-3


This class will explore how scholars of religion have engaged the issue of religious authority. I have attempted to make sense of this complex methodological field by splicing it into six overarching rubrics: scholarly authority, religious and canonical authority, ritual authority, individual and communal authority, gendered and racial authority, and psychological authority. Each week we will discuss texts that open up these issues from within different theoretical and methodological positions, and within different traditions (although many of these texts still focus on Western religious practices, often their theoretical and methodological insights cut across a wide swath of religious practice). The goal of the course is to broaden and deepen our conversation on religious authority, and to appropriate that dialogue within our research.


This is an advanced seminar, and so it requires strong preparation and commitment to communal dialogue. Everyone must be prepared to discuss the texts in detail and with argumentative force. There are four primary requirements for this course:

  • Full and complete participation in class discussions. To participate you must be present (missing one class means missing a full week of classes), and to be present you must energetically engage your peers in discussion and debate.
  • Students will lead discussions each week. I will ask each student to sign up for one class to present the readings for that day in order to facilitate class discussions. This will most likely mean collaborating with one or more colleagues, and deciding how to move the class to a common set of issues and texts. You should plan to take about 15 minutes to introduce the material, and then continue to participate in the discussion throughout the class.
  • Preparing readings for class. I have left four classes open after Fall break for “Student Readings” so that you can engage all of us in your own research on religious authority. Here too you will collaborate with your colleagues to present material to the class. These readings might take the form of material that deeply informs your own thinking about religious studies, or it might continue some of the readings only touched upon in the weeks prior to Fall break. As you begin to explore your own intellectual interests, these readings will come into focus, but you must plan this out well in advance so that I can make and distribute copies for all.
  • Final paper of 15-20 double spaced pages. You will present a prospectus of this final project on Friday, October 23rd, and we will workshop paper drafts in the last few weeks of class.


Your grade will reflect the seriousness and intensity of your involvement in class discussions, your preparation for leading discussions and presenting new readings, and your final paper (that is, the aggregate of the four primary requirements listed above).

Haverford College is committed to supporting the learning process for all students. Please contact me as soon as possible if you are having difficulties in the course. There are also many resources on campus available to you as a student, including the Office of Academic Resources (https://www.haverford.edu/oar/) and the Office of Access and Disability Services (https://www.haverford.edu/access-and-disability-services/). If you think you may need accommodations because of a disability, you should contact Access and Disability Services at hc-ads@haverford.edu. If you have already been approved to receive academic accommodations and would like to request accommodations in this course because of a disability, please meet with me privately at the beginning of the semester (ideally within the first two weeks) with your verification letter.

Texts to Purchase

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance and Other Essays
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents

All other readings are available for download from the course Moodle page

My Policy on Technology in the Classroom

You must bring all readings to class and be prepared to read, cite, and engage those texts in the seminar. Some of you may prefer to bring in computers or other technology to access these readings (instead of printing them out as hard copies). For those who wish to use computers or other devices in the classroom, you may not use those devices for anything other than engaging in and committing to the seminar. When we step into the seminar room, we become a community of intellectual learners, and this community requires commitment and attention. If computers or other technical devices interfere with that learning process then I will no longer allow those devices in the classroom. This means that if your use of a computer or similar device prevents you or any of your peers from fully engaging the class, then you will be required to remove your device from class. Only under special conditions, previously discussed with me, may you use a cell phone for communication in the classroom; normally these devices must be turned off or left outside the room. The basic premise is this: when technology enables intellectual commitment to the seminar, then we should use it; when it undermines that commitment, we should leave it alone. Please come and see me if you have concerns about using technology in the classroom.


Friday, September 4: Introduction

Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method,” 1-3
Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion, xi-xii

Friday, September 11: Scholarly Authority

Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” 129-156
Robert Orsi, “Crossing the City Line,” 1-63
Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth, 1-18.
Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Minority Histories, Subaltern Pasts,” 97-113

Friday, September 18: Religious and Canonical Authority

Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” 87-125
Talal Asad, “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category,” 27-54
Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” 179-196
Charles Long, Significations, 1-9
Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines, 1-33
Jonathan Z. Smith, “Sacred Persistence: Toward a Redescription of Canon,” 36-52

Friday, September 25: Ritual Authority

Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 3-21, 35-46
Thomas Tweed, Crossing and Dwelling, 7-20, 54-79
Jonathan Z. Smith, To Take Place, 1-46, 96-117
Adam Seligman, et al., Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity, 3-42

Friday, October 2: Individual and Communal Authority

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” and “Divinity School Address”
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Amy Hollywood, “Spiritual but not Religious,”
Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals, 1-20, 56-89

Friday, October 9: Gendered and Racial Authority

Judith Plaskow, “The Right Question is Theological,” 223-233
Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism, xiv-xxviii
Elizabeth Clark, “Ideology, History, and the Construction of ‘Woman’ in Late Ancient Christianity,” 155-184
Bruce Lincoln, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship, 141-147, 207-209
Bruce Lincoln, Between History and Myth, 113-119
Jonathan Z. Smith, “What a Difference a Difference Makes,” 251-302
Eric Lott, Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, 3-37

Fall Break

Friday, October 23 – Psychological Authority

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 26-52, 78-118, 127-165
Prospectus of final paper

Friday, October 30 – Canon and the Body (Marco, Annie)

Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, pp. 163-216 (find text here)
Yosef Yerushalmi, Freud’s Moses, pp. 81-100 (on Moodle)
Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies, Introduction and Chapter Five (online book through library)

Friday, November 6 – Student Readings (Allegra, Liz, Abby)

Lahiri, “This Blessed House,” pp. 136-157 (on Moodle)
Cady and Fessenden, “Gendering the Divide,” pp. 3-24 (on Moodle)
Juschka, “Gender,” pp. 229-242 (on Moodle)
McBride, The Color of Water, pp. 21-36, 219-229 (on Moodle)

Friday, November 13 – Student Readings (Matthew, Justin, Marilee, Erick, Margot)

Berger, A Rumor of Angels, pp. 61-79 (on Moodle)
Golomb, “Kierkegaard’s Ironic Ladder to Authentic Faith, ” pp. 65-81 (on Moodle)
Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever, Introduction and Chapter Eight (on Moodle)
Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, pp. 255-260, 322-343 (on Moodle)
Brakke, Gnostics, pp. 52-89 (on Moodle)

Friday, November 20 – Student Readings (Michaela, Maddie, Hanna)

Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” pp. 1-21 (on Moodle)
Emerson, “The Over-Soul,” pp. 51-64
Avila, Folklore of the Freeway, 17-28, 149-179 (on Moodle)

Friday, November 27 (Thanksgiving Break)

Friday, December 4
Workshopping final papers (Justin, Marco, Allegra, Matthew, Marilee, Annie, Hanna)

Friday, December 11
Workshopping final papers (Maddie, Erick, Margot, Abbie, Liz, Michaela)