Department History

From 1956 to the present

The origins of Western Michigan University's Department of Comparative Religion date back 50 years. In 1953, the Danforth Foundation in cooperation with the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education selected Western as one of 15 teacher training colleges to become a pilot center for a project on teacher education and religion. A committee of faculty members and administrators, including Russell Seibert, Samuel Clark, and Robert Friedman, undertook the task of studying the relevance of religion to Western's undergraduate curriculum. The committee quickly concluded that the establishment of a department of philosophy and religion was essential to the educational mission of the institution. A faculty line was created, and, on the recommendation of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, Cornelius Loew was hired to chair the new department. Courses in religion and philosophy were first offered in 1957 through the History Department, but by the following year the Department of Philosophy and Religion was ready to offer its own courses separately. The religion minor was launched in 1959, and the religion major in 1963.

Enrollment increases

Student response to the department's offerings was immediate and overwhelming. Enrollment in courses in religion climbed from 115 during the first year of Loew's appointment to approximately 1,000 in the 1963-64 academic year. In response to growing demand, the department began to expand and several hires were made in the early '60s: E. Thomas Lawson (Philosophy of Religion) and Otto Gründler (Reformation Christianity) in 1961; John Hardon (Catholic Thought and Practice) and Maynard Kaufman (Religion and Literature) in 1962; Jerome Long (African Religions) in 1964; and Guntram Bischoff (Medieval Christianity) and Rudolf Siebert (Ethics and Sociology of Religion) in 1965. When Cornelius Loew was tapped to become Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1963 (and subsequently Provost), Lawson was named acting chair, a position made permanent in 1965.

So successful was the department in terms of its enrollment and growth, that it was one of 10 chosen to be part of an investigation of the academic study of religion at state universities conducted by Robert Michaelsen and the Society for Religion and Higher Education (Robert Michaelsen, The Study of Religion in American Universities [New Haven, Conn.: The Society for Religion in Higher Education, 1965], pp. 42-51). Michaelsen's enthusiasm for the religion program's innovation brought it national recognition and was instrumental in recruiting two new faculty from the University of Chicago, H. Byron Earhart (Japanese Religions) and Nancy Falk (Hinduism and Buddhism), both hired in 1966.

Religion and philosophy separate

In June of 1967, religion and philosophy became separate departments. This occasioned a thorough rethinking of the department's direction and curriculum. Through a series of special meetings, the faculty decided that the goals of liberal education would be better achieved through the study of all religions on the same terms, and not by privileging Christianity as all other religion departments were doing at that time-and as WMU had done at first. The program was redesigned with four components: historical studies, morphological and phenomenological studies (later changed to comparative studies), methodological studies, and constructive studies. In so doing, Western's was the first religion department in the United States to build a program that paid as much attention to Non-Western religions as it did to those of the West. Lawson subsequently spent a good deal of time traveling around the country promoting Western's model; he contrasted it to the Christian-centered "seminary model" then in use in most undergraduate religion programs and the "Zoo approach" of hiring believers to "represent" their own religions. Although Western's program's even-handed treatment of all religions was too radical for most schools to follow, Lawson's arguments and the example of the department were instrumental in gaining acceptance for the "religious studies" curricular model that soon became a mainstay at most state universities (see, for example, Victor C. Hayes and Claude C. Welch, "Religious Studies in the United States: An Analysis of Religion in the Undergraduate Curriculum," Journal of Christian Education 16 (D 1973), p. 151-65).

Difficult times

The '70s and '80s were periods of economic slowdown and retrenchment at Western. As in many academic departments in the humanities and social sciences, the faculty of comparative religion spent much of its time simply fighting to keep what it had built. Two positions were lost through retrenchment (Long, Kaufman), and the department faced and survived two major efforts to close the program down completely. Two provosts hired during this decade proved hostile to housing religion departments in public universities and felt that the humanities in general did not fit with their largely vocational vision for the University. Nevertheless, wiser heads prevailed, as the department's national reputation, its strong undergraduate major, and its continuing contributions to general education made it clear to all that this was a program fundamental to the University's mission.

Despite these challenges, progress was made. Enrollments and student interest remained high, as they have every year since the department was founded. David Ede (Islamic studies) was added to the faculty in 1972, the same year that Falk became chair. Falk served for three years, followed by Bischoff, who was succeeded by Lawson in 1976. In addition to developing the program in comparative religion, several faculty members during these decades were instrumental in the creation of many other University programs, for example, international studies, Asian studies, African studies, women's studies, environmental studies, and medieval studies (Gründler was one of its first directors). In addition, before his death in 1988, Bischoff developed the "Criteria for the Training of Public School Teachers in the Discipline of the Academic Study of Religions," a document which has since served as a blueprint for undergraduate teaching minors and master's level teacher training programs nationwide. It was during this period as well that Siebert began his annual "Future of Religion" course, offered through the Inter-University Center for Post-Graduate Studies in Dubrovnik, Croatia. An international showcase for scholarship on the critical theory of religion, Siebert's course has operated continuously for the last 25 years, even meeting during the bitter fighting of the Yugoslav War from 1991 to 1995. Since that time, Siebert has expanded his scope by offering a similar course in Yalta at the invitation of the Ukrainian government and the Universities of Kiev and Simferopol.

Name change

The late '80s and '90s brought several changes to the department. To better indicate the critical and cross-cultural nature of the academic study of religion, the department changed its name to the Department of Comparative Religion in 1994. Francis Gross (Christianity) came to the department after the demise of the general studies program in 1988, and Timothy Light (Chinese religions), who came to Western to help strengthen the International Studies programs and subsequently became Provost, joined the faculty in 1992. Both added to the diversity of the department's offerings until their retirements. New hires during this period included Jonathan Silk (Buddhism) in 1995; Brian Wilson (Religion in America) in 1996; Susanne Mrozik (Buddhism) in 1999; and Jaclyn Maxwell (Christianity) in 2000. Both Silk and Maxwell have since been lured away to other universities, and Earhart retired in 1999. Since then, however, the department was been pleased to add to the faculty Stephen Covell (Japanese Religions), Kevin Wanner (Medieval Christianity).

Graduate programs

When Dieter Haenicke came to Western as president in the late '80s and began promoting new WMU graduate programs, comparative religion was an obvious candidate for development. The M.A. program began accepting applications in 1990, and the Ph.D. program began accepting applications in 1995. Since the inauguration of these programs, the department has graduated 45 M.A.s, and produced its first Ph.D. in 2002. Of course, in addition to developing its graduate program, the faculty has also remained committed to furthering interdisciplinary and international studies at Western. Along with her work with women's studies, Falk was instrumental in the creation of Western's Department of Asian Languages and Literatures. Wilson, before becoming comparative religion chair in 2001, served as interim director of American studies (1999 to 2000) and academic co-director of the Fulbright International Summer Institute in American Studies from 1999 to 2001.

Department remains committed

The Department of Comparative Religion today is one of the oldest departments of its kind at a state university in the United States. Over the last nearly half-century, its faculty have trained thousands of students and produced scholarship that has become classic in the field (e.g. Earhart's Religions of Japan, Falk's Unspoken Worlds, Lawson's Rethinking Religion, Loew's Myth, Sacred History, and Philosophy, and Siebert's Critical Theory of Religion). As the department looks ahead to the coming decades, it remains committed, in the words of its mission statement, "to raising critical questions about the present and future significance of religious thought at practice." Given global events in the past years—and especially in light of Sept. 11, 2001—it is clear that the investigation of such questions about religion is now more important than ever.