Religious Dimension of Life

Dr. Gisela Teran Webb. RELS 1010

Description: The purpose of this course is to introduce the student to the human quest for meaning and the sacred—which we call religion.  We will investigate ways in which this quest is expressed and discussed within the “community of faith” as well as ways in which religious experience is reflected upon and discussed outside the faith community.  We will study (1) the language of myth and ritual, through which religious concern is “performed” by those within faith communities; (2) the language of theology and philosophy, through which religious concern is expressed in a systematic manner, (3) the language of the social sciences, through which religious experience is discussed in a “non-normative,” critical perspective, and (4) the language of contemporary cultural forms, whereby individuals explore issues of religious meaning through current media, such as novels, music, and film.



Introduction. Goals. What is religion? The story/journey/transformation/embodiment of ethics/being in the world. Myth, ritual, ontology, cosmology, gods, epistemology, eschatology, sacred, profane, systems of purity/impurity. (Read Xerox handouts of myth and ritual from different religions.) Film

2. Finish section on myth and ritual. Read Xeroxed materials. Films


Read Plato’s Phaedo. Early religious-philosophical questions about the fundamental nature of reality: What is the nature and goal of human existence? How do we know? Why does Socrates say that the philosopher is always engaged in dying and death

4. Contemporary theology dealing with the questions of reality and faith: Tillich’s analyses of the “fundamental” structures of reality and faith. Read Dynamics of Faith. Ch. 1, concentrating on your assigned subsection. How does Tillich understand such terms as faith, religion, God, idolatry? How does Tillich see the role of doubt and authority in religion?

5. Tillich continued. Read Chapter 3 on Religious Symbols. What is the nature of religious language and imagery? What are the characteristics of a symbol? What is the meaning of the statement, “God is a symbol of God”?

6. Feminist theology. Discuss the history of biblical interpretation and theology, particularly as it relates to women. Read Rosemary Radford Ruether, Mary the Feminine Face of the Church. Questions: What do the terms “biblical exegesis”(hermeneutics) and “historical criticism” mean? What is theology? What is the relationship between culture (political, social, and linguistic structures) and theology? How have women and feminine imagery appeared in scripture and theology? Do you think Ruether speaks for concerns of women in all cultures and classes?

7. Review

8. Exam


 Discuss Freud, Erikson, and James handouts. How would these writers describe the source and nature of religion? Would theologians and social scientists use the following terms in the same way?  Traditional religion, true religion, authentic religion, illusion, native religion, healthy religion, unhealthy religion, alternative religion, mysticism, spirituality, orthodox, unorthodox, heresy, new age religion, fundamentalism, popular religion?


Film: Jesus of Montreal. Question: What are the explicit and implicit religious questions and views—theological, historical, ethical—expressed in contemporary media? Before viewing the film, read the gospel of Luke in the bible. Essay on the film due next week. What is the director’s understanding/interpretation of the biblical account of Jesus’ life? How does he express it through the film? What are the director’s views on the nature of religion and religious forms (traditions, symbols, institutions)? Is the film effective3, controversial, provocative, meaningful, offensive? Why?

11. Read Elie Wiesel’s Night. What can we extrapolate about human nature from this story? Why and how is there oppression? Do human beings have free will or are they determined (“programmed”) by physical, instinctive, psychological, or social phenomena?

12. No classes

13. Contemporary pedagogy on traditional arts: Read first three chapters in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. First, does Suzuki communicate the essentials of Zen philosophy and practice in a way that is accessible for the modern west?  What do you understand him to mean by “the beginner’s mind?” What do you think Suzuki means by saying Zen practice is easy but it is not easy; it is ‘nothing special’? Why is are body postures important? What do they ‘mean’? What does Suzuki mean by saying “To give your sheep or cow a large spacious field is the way to control him.” Do you agree with him? Why? 

14. Discussion of papers, utilizing issues covered in the semester.

15. Final exam.

*Note: We may switch the film, Jesus of Montreal to Nov. 15. Ask.


Expectations and Grading:

1.This course requires an attitude of inquiry, self-reflection, and respect for knowledge and critical thinking. Attendance and participation are essential

2.The final grade will be based on the average of the following: 33% for the midterm, 33% for the final exam, and 33% for the combined grade of your homework grade, your participation, and your research paper (5-8 pages)

3. Homework will not be accepted late unless you were absent. Your homework papers are not graded as much on whether they are "right" or "wrong" as whether you make an effort to respond to the assigned reading, focusing on the question the teacher asks you to consider. Your homework is graded on whether you turn it in or not. You will receive a grade from 0 to 4.0 depending on how many homework you handed in on time. For example, if there are 6 assignments and you hand in 5, divide 6 into 5, and you get 83%, which is a B, or a 3.0 for your overall homework grade.

4. Participation first of all means regular attendance. Missing three or more classes will override all other grades and you will probably fail the class. If you have some job-related crisis, family crisis, or extended health problem, it is your responsibility to inform me immediately of the situation. School activities, pledging, and so forth do not constitute excused absences

5. Participation also means being on time to class and staying until class is dismissed. You miss critical introductory remarks and clarification of problem issues if you are not in class from the very beginning. Also, a pattern of tardiness indicates disrespect and lack of planning. I will take note at the beginning of class. If you come in late and have already been counted absent, you will need to let me know at the end of class that you came in later so I can remove the absence mark. However, after a third tardiness (coming in after your name has been called during the attendance), your overall class grade will be lowered by one half letter grade each time. Leaving early will affect your grade. Class is from 5:45-8:15

6. Participation also means the quality of the participation. Respectful, courteous questioning, debating, dialogue, critical thinking, non-derisive humor and empathetic listening are hoped for. Disrespect and distracting behavior will not be tolerated and includes such behavior as private whispering/talking while the teacher or a student is addressing the class; body language or comments of derision or "accidental tactlessness,”  massaging tongue studs, and wearing wild eye contacts. No eating in class. No reading out of class materials during class. If you have a question, raise it to the teacher--which signifies inclusion of the class, or ask the teacher in private out of class. Finally, if the teacher signifies to a student that their behavior is not appropriate, and the student responds in a disrespectful or disobedient manner, that student will be asked to leave the class and will not be reinstated without seeing the teacher and the dean.

7.If you are absent, email or call my office or a fellow classmate to get the assignment.

8. Most of all, if you feel confused, frustrated, or have some personal, academic, or religious issue that you don't want to discuss in class, please make an appointment to see me. Don't wait until the exam time when it's too late. As Lao Tzu said, "Big things always start as little things" so deal with them while they're small

Office: Fahy Hall 324. My office phone: 761-9461, Secretary of Religious Studies: 761-9480.


Office hours: To be posted the first week of class. Other times by appointment.


Required texts:

Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith

Rosemary Radford Ruether, Mary: The Feminine Face of the Church

Elie Weisel, Night

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Xeroxed handouts


Office hours to be announced first week of school.

Dr. Gisela Webb, Religious Studies Department and Director of the University Honors Program Phone:  973-761-9461, email:

Secretary of Religious Studies, Stacey Coulter: 973-761-9480