The discussion of religion is one that is extremely complex, controversial, and often intimidating in American society.
Separation of church and state was established in order to maintain freedom of religion in the U.S., but it has also led, in some respects, to a form of religious illiteracy. For instance, in order to avoid any appearance of indoctrination, most public schools, avoid the study of religion in their curriculum. For many students at Rocky Mountain College who grew up going to public schools, it is difficult to be open minded to the study of religion, the very topic they were raised to keep separate from their education.
However, there is a lot to be learned by examining religion, philosophy, and theology from an academic viewpoint.
Dr. Aaron Rosen, Rocky Mountain College’s newest Professor of Religious Studies, is bringing a variety of religious classes to Rocky that have never been offered by the religion and philosophy program before. Rosen can be found around campus accompanied by his large and loving Newfoundland dog, Ramsey. Rosen stands out with his eclectic and stylish Albert Einstein like hairstyle. However, the new professor brings much more than an adorable dog and a killer hairstyle to Rocky Mountain College, he also brings with him highly impressive credentials.
After starting his education at Bowdoin, a small liberal arts college not unlike Rocky, he went on to earn a Diploma, MPhil and PhD from the University of Cambridge in England. Rosen has previously taught at some of the top universities in the world including Yale, Oxford, Columbia, and most recently King’s College London, where he still holds an honorary professorship and supervises doctoral students. He has written two books, one of which was recently named one of the best books of the year by The Times of London. He has edited two scholarly books, written two children’s books (in press), and been interviewed by journalists from The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC, and other media outlets.
What motivated a man of such accomplishments to leave his students and academic colleagues at Cambridge and London to teach at a small private college in a relatively rural part of the country?
Rosen explained that going back to teaching more introductory level classes and helping to create a strong religious studies curriculum at Rocky has a lot of value to him.
“Many of these thinkers and theologians that I am teaching now, are ones that I haven’t looked at in years because they aren’t related to my current research,” said Rosen. “I think in a lot of ways teaching a wide variety of classes at Rocky is a good way to develop as a scholar. For me, it’s important to be really research active and find connections between research and teaching. I want my teaching to be infused by research, and vice versa.”
Even with the addition of another highly qualified and extremely interesting professor on campus, religion is still a field of study of which many students are wary.
Senior Erika Gwinn, who is considering enrolling in Dr. Rosen’s Bible in the Modern Imagination class next semester, said, “I am very interested in expanding my biblical knowledge and being
However, Gwinn expressed that her main concern in taking a religion class is what the views of the instructor may be and how these beliefs will affect the way in which the class is taught.
The bias of an instructor is both a concern and a curiosity for most students, especially in a field in which most elements are up to the understanding of interpretation.
Dr. Rosen addressed this issue saying, “I think there are a lot of misconceptions as to what the study of religion is. Many countries in the world are studying religion in the classroom, because they consider religion to be one of the most important things about them. As it comes to my own faith, I generally say I’m agnostic where I used to say I was an atheist. I was raised Jewish but my mother grew up Catholic. I grew up identifying as a Jew but my background is a mixed bag. I’ve always found myself drawn to Judaism and I always find myself wanting more knowledge so that I can make informed decisions and pick and choose what is beautiful and attractive in faith, in my case Judaism.”
“There is a difference between instructing about a faith and teaching someone how to be religious.” Rosen continued, “I’m not teaching how to be religious, I’m teaching about religion. If that leads to changes in how a person is religious, that could be a positive, but it’s up to them to decide what they utilize that knowledge for. I want them to challenge themselves, that is what is most important to me; to see things other people take for granted and to question them.”
In the U.S., many people have taken the attitude that there is an absolute opposition between belief and knowledge, that belief is something you have to be defensive about and that is has no intellectual character. Religion gives us a sophisticated language for questioning things, it doesn’t just provide simplistic answers.
“For people who are religious and frightened of taking my classes, I want them to see
that their religion is much more sophisticated, complex, and beautiful than they might sometimes give it credit for,” said Rosen. “If they feel they need to be defensive, then it isn’t really doing it justice. If you don’t think that you can be an intellectual or you can’t question things deeply and be religious, you need to read the greatest Christian thinkers in the history of Western culture. They have the been the ones that have asked the most questions. God himself, throughout the Hebrew Bible, suggests that certain types of question should be encouraged. I want to help people do justice to their own faith in that complexity and I want them to take that appreciation for complexity out into the world. The only gospel I’m interested in is preaching to people: the appreciation of how complicated things are.”
If students can learn to be open and embrace the complexity of religion, imagine how much better they could be at doing this same thing with politics and world issues. Students can take the same approach that is required to interpret religion in one of Dr. Rosen’s classes and transfer it to other things. They can use it in life as a tool for understanding how to ask the right questions. In today’s complex society it’s a particularly important time to think clearly about individual values, and how things like religious and cultural differences are handled.
“Once we stop asking each other about religion and stop being curious,” said Dr. Rosen, “then we are headed toward disaster. The hatred and fear surrounding Islam right now is particularly scary and it’s concerning to see how a certain presidential candidate has fanned those flames, emphasizing a highly distorted image of Islam, rather than its profound similarities with Christianity. The proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country, for example, or scare-mongering about refugee children who happened to have the misfortune of being born in a country in a civil war, is not just bad politics, it represents poor education about religion. The American public is easily preyed upon by not having a sufficient and sophisticated graspof the history of religion. I want to help students gain a deeper appreciation of religions, especially those of other people, so that they can make informed decisions.”
Religious studies are not just for those who are religious, nor is it only for those who are atheist. Learning to work through very difficult and complex information to reveal what is really being said is a skill that can be extremely useful for people in all walks of life. Though the appeal of this kind of knowledge may interest many students, there is still the question and the fear of how one person’s individual faith or lack thereof may be impacted by taking a class on religion.
“Some people think it leads to a cynicism, or that the more you learn the less religious you become. What I have found is that the more I learn about religion, the greater my respect for it,” stated Rosen.
As students finalize their classes for next semester they should consider enrolling in a class with Dr. Aaron Rosen.
Gregor Watson, a sophomore who is currently taking Rosen’s Introduction to Religious Thought Class said, “His classes are always interesting. You can definitely tell that he is a very intelligent man. I think he does well in teaching a lesser-known subject. Plus, bringing Ramsey to class always brings me a smile.”
During the spring semester, Dr. Rosen will teach Introduction to Judaism, The Bible in the Modern Imagination ,and Religion in Modern Visual Culture.