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CSRC Inaugural Open House
Thursday, October 30, 2003

Inaugurating the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture
The Memorial Room, 30 October 2003
Alumni Hall
Vanderbilt University

Professor Volney P. Gay, Director:
The mission of the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture is to foster the integrated study of religion and culture across Vanderbilt University.

Our wager is that we will learn more about religion and its intersections with culture by pushing beyond the walls of departments and schools. This will not be easy. Departments and schools create walls for good reasons, both political and scientific. To persuade colleagues to scale these walls, we must offer them intellectual rewards.

These rewards will emerge in the disruption of traditional categories and the discovery of new ways to think about religion and culture. I say disruption because within our departments we have become disciplined. We have learned difficult lessons and we resist stumbling through new ones. The question is, frankly, why bother? Why tolerate confrontation of our usual ways?

We should tolerate confrontations from other disciplines because our usual ways are rooted in exclusion. If we are to advance within a discipline, exclusion is necessary. Progress means rejecting many claims and favoring a few. We concentrate our gaze upon a smaller area, under more intense scrutiny. Yet, success breeds the idealization of methods; sometimes, it breeds amnesia for problems that do not submit to our investigation.

We meet this evening in a building conceived in 1919 and completed in 1925. Its builders wished to preserve “in marble or bronze all the names of those who served in the greatest crusade of history,” World War I. In the dedication ceremony of this room, I am sure that those present read the names of the 44 Vanderbilt men who died in that War. We see their names inscribed on the two fireplaces that flank us. Humbled by their sacrifice, we are, nevertheless, troubled by this linkage between religion and politics.
This room reflects the values of Vanderbilt University in 1925 and, as such, we respect it. These inscriptions memorialize only white men because at that time only this group of men won admission to Vanderbilt. We have moved away from that stage of Southern culture, but we have not escaped the need for culture. Culture, the second “C” in CSRC, designates a constant feature of human groups.

Culture is the spoken and unspoken rules that define a group and make exchange possible. We are born into contexts created by these rules. We are born into bodies that become gendered, into families with shaded histories; we are born into specific nations, and we are born into our “Mother Tongue.” Our first language defines home; it is the primal form of mutuality; it names the “I’ and the “Thou.”

To become recognizably human, we must be immersed in these distinctive contexts. Yet each is founded on exclusion and difference. We do not speak “Language” - we speak Spanish, or English, or Chinese. Fixed in a specific culture, we become “Us.” Those not like Us, those not coupled in our intimacies, become “They.” Culture names the rules that, woven into us, feel eternal. Culture is a ship, made of truths, legends, beliefs, and hopes lashed together. To make our ship sea-worthy, we tell ourselves stories.

Religion is the beliefs and actions that tie us to the transcendent. The transcendent is that which seems infinite, eternal, and uncreated. Some people call the transcendent God; others call it Destiny or Nature. In all cases, we know that the Real is larger than us. Whether or not there is a Creator, we know that we are created.

Confronting the immense losses of World War I and immersed in religious discourse, the builders of this hall told themselves a story about Providence and the Mission of the American army in Europe. Utilizing the language of religion, they asserted that these 44 sons of Vanderbilt gave their lives in a crusade, ordained by God, to win the war against Germany.

This University requires us to scrutinize claims about God’s will and history. Across the Atlantic, in other Memorial Halls, are millions of German names, each one hallowed by a grieving family. Only eight years after this room was dedicated, authorities in the German Church surrendered to the Third Reich. Other Germans declared that their faith required them to resist the regime. Paying with their lives, they helped preserve the integrity of the Christian witness.

A central objective of the Center is to examine the interplay of culture, religion, and political forces. Understanding past struggles will also help us look forward, into our shared future. In what unseen ways do we confound our accidental traditions, with what is essential about Human Being, and, if that term fits, about God?

These multi-storied questions will not yield to one discipline alone. To address them, we need the resources of the Center and we need the intellectual gifts of the entire University.

Thank you for helping us inaugurate the Center this evening.
Prof. Volney Gay
Vanderbilt University

Inaugurating the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture
The Memorial Room, Alumni Hall
Vanderbilt University
30 October 2003

Professor Douglas A. Knight, Director:
Why should a university engage the issues mentioned by Volney? And why specifically at Vanderbilt? The increase in disciplinary specialization over the past century has tended to discourage scholars from venturing beyond their fields of expertise — at least in public. This trend is appropriate; it has, after all, resulted in the remarkable accomplishments, insights, and knowledge that have improved our well-being and our understanding of the world around us. But we also need to look beyond our own fields, to examine the interstices and the linkages between our spheres of research.

Even with the wide range of scholarship already existing within each division of the university, no one school is in the position to cover the entirety of the intellectual and empirical world. There are issues that overlap our fields, that are burrowed deeply into the common soil on which we stand. Or to use another image, we are positioned at various points on an intricate web, and the strands spun between us deserve our attention as much as do the intersections where we are located. In fact, it belongs to the very nature of the university as such that we should find common cause in dealing with issues that are bigger than any one of the constituent parts. We need, in a word, transinstitutional initiatives.

The problematic addressed by this Center is the interweaving of religion and culture. It is a good fit for Vanderbilt, certainly in light of the historic role of religious studies in the academic curriculum. One of the initial four schools at Vanderbilt’s founding was devoted to the study of religion, and now the Divinity School stands as a distinguished partner alongside the other nine schools of the university. There are only three other divinity schools in the country like ours – Chicago, Harvard, and Yale, each of us based in a private research university and unaligned with any religious body. The undergraduate Department of Religious Studies, ranked 16th out of 474 departments of religion (according to the Gourman Report), supports the comparative and theoretical study of world religions. The forty faculty members forming the Graduate Department of Religion are drawn from six different schools, and its graduate student body is the largest of any graduate program on campus. In fact, it has awarded nearly 500 Ph.D.s to date, the most of any department at Vanderbilt. The 1995 National Research Council report ranked the Graduate Department of Religion seventh highest in the nation among all graduate programs in the field.

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story. There is a remarkably diverse interest on this campus concerning the nature and impact of religion and its interrelationships with culture. Volney and I sensed this intellectual intrigue as we were developing the proposal for the Center, and we have confirmed it again and again during our work since the Center was approved in January of this year. Colleagues have contacted us to explore ways in which they could become involved in the Center’s work. Many have proposed ideas for collaborative research. We have been in conversation with several deans and department chairs about ways in which the research of their faculties can be fostered through interdisciplinary work sponsored by the Center.

We are a research center, not a social center and not even a teaching center. As with other transinstitutional initiatives, we have been charged to enhance the quality of scholarship on campus through a strategy of new collaborative work among colleagues, many of whom may never have had working relationships with each other previously. The hunch is that something new and significant can result when a topic is analyzed jointly by historians, literary critics, sociologists, linguists, scientists, legal specialists, artists, religion scholars, biomedical researchers, geologists, physicists, philosophers, anthropologists, and many more. We hope that long-term relationships among colleagues in different disciplines will result, as well as the development of new co-taught courses. We are also targeting graduate education by offering full fellowships and summer grants for research conducted within the area. The Center plans to organize upwards of five or six interdisciplinary research groups running concurrently, each for up to three years in duration and meeting for discussions on a bi-weekly basis. With 8-10 faculty members from two or more schools and a couple of graduate students in each group, we should soon have as many as 50-60 scholars contributing at any one time to the research sponsored by the Center.

Each of the specific topics studied by the groups will represent some important intersection of religion and culture at potentially any time or place. Projects currently in the development stage deal with such topics as economics and poverty, civic justice, art and religion, ecology, religion and health, music and religion. Others, such as violence and terror, or some aspect of religion and science, will begin exploratory discussions by next year. This year we hope that at least three of the topics already in development will present proposals that can be approved for immediate launching. In each case we will expect that the groups’ discussions will issue in notable results such as international conferences and major book publications.

The Center for the Study of Religion and Culture would be no more than a gleam in our eyes if not for the far-sighted leadership of Chancellor Gee, Provost Zeppos, and Vice-Chancellor Jacobson. They perceived the need as well as the potential for transinstitutional initiatives such as this Center. The Board of Trust, with its chair Martha Ingram, approved the commitment of more than $100 million for the Academic Venture Capital Fund, from which a grant of $3,072,000 has been awarded to underwrite the work of this Center. Deans James Hudnut-Beumler and Richard McCarty have supported Volney and me through the long process of proposal development, and their ideas as well as their willingness to encourage the participation of their faculty members have made the venture possible. We thank also our faculty colleagues for their encouragement, especially those who reviewed the proposal during the Strategic Academic Planning process. Susan Wiltshire deserves special thanks for her help during this process, and now also for sitting on the Center’s Steering Committee along with the two deans. And finally Volney and I want to express our deep appreciation to Mark Justad, the Center’s full-time Executive Director, and Cathy Chalmers, our administrative assistant, for their considerable efforts in helping to launch the Center and to direct the refurbishing of the office space, even to the extent of staining furniture, tearing out fixtures, and fixing windows themselves.

If you haven't yet seen their handiwork, we want to encourage you to visit the Center’s offices on the third floor. And over the coming years we look forward to having all of you involved in some aspect of the work of the Center. Thank you for coming today.

Prof. Douglas Knight
Vanderbilt University