Ulrich Rosenhagen

Professor Rosenhagen on the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry and the Importance of Religious Literacy

Katherine O’Brien

Katherine O’Brien: What is the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry?

Professor Ulrich Rosenhagen: The idea of the center is to bring together people from different religious backgrounds, to give them the time and space to interact with each other and to follow a curriculum. Twelve students have been selected to talk about different religious traditions and their upbringings. They discuss everything from the way they practice religion to the values they hold as foundational for their lives to the questions they have. These students also hold events to involve the greater student population.

The Lubar Institute served the wider Madison public and followed an Abrahamic paradigm. The new institute focuses more on students and looks beyond Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. We also reached out to students of Eastern religious traditions and those who considered themselves Agnostic or Atheist. We have a nice spread in this first group.

There has been so much buzz about the new center. I think because people believe that it’s a good idea. They are now realizing, it might just be good to have Agnostics, Jews, Hindus, Protestants, and Catholics sit together, work something out, share their rich resources, and then rally on state street! Actually do something!

KO: What is its mission and what does it bring to the UW-Madison’s campus?

UR: The Center really fits in a conversation we have started on campus about diversity. This is a big public university and the student body is highly diverse. Students are addressing questions of gender identity, sexual identity, and racial identity all the time.

I think religion should be part of that conversation. So when we talk about diversity, we can include religious diversity. That part of the conversation, that focuses on religious identity, has not been organized as much. The new center wants to give students a space to discuss those differences between themselves and other students. Religion serves as a tool to work out the question: What do you do with commonality and otherness? You discover that you have an enormous overlap of religious resources, but you also discover where you are distinct.

KO: What is your area of expertise? What draws you to your work?

UR: I was always interested in the way religion shapes our social and political thinking. The larger question for today is if religion has been so important in the past, particularly for American democracy, what’s the story following that? Religion always pops up in this country, contributing to and often leading social conversations on issues that needed to be dealt with. For example, during the civil rights movement Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr. were central religious voices. The movement can be interpreted as a religion one to a certain degree.

We have to ask—Where are the religious voices in our community? People may now begin to realize that it would be good to have religious voices that are grounded in tolerance rather than fundamentalism or extremism. Leaders that believe it’s actually better for us to live in a more pluralistic community.

These are the things I’m interested in—religious pluralism and the way religion is changing, and how it might affect our conversations. It’s still the same question: how does religion shape our social and political lives?

KO: What advice would you give to journalists, who need to be both clear and concise while also communicating the complexity of religion? What is the benefit of journalists reaching out to Religious Studies Scholars?

UR: One problem is the problem of religious literacy, a term I am certainly not inventing. It’s impossible to talk about religion if you don’t know what you’re talking about. For example, an interviewer once asked Reza Aslan why he, as a Muslim, can write about Jesus Christ. He was like, ‘I studied this. I have a Ph.D. from Harvard Divinity. Why wouldn’t I be able to write a book on Jesus of Nazareth?’

Journalists that want to write on religion should seek a variety of perspectives. If you have one voice to represent a whole religious group, you should go out and get another. It’s not going to be the same take on things. That diversity of thought is important.

Everyone has a certain expertise and that is something journalists can draw on. When you go out as a journalists and only talk to those who represent their own religion, that’s just one side. Beyond the practice of something, scholarship comes in to provide a history and comparison. It fosters a different type of reflection. You have to have scholarly expertise to make sense of certain questions. Journalists have to have an eye on getting a quick output, so they can’t dive into all of the problems a scholar may see.

I’m happy to see that journalists seem to have discovered religion as a field right now. There is certainly a richness to discover. Three hoorays for the journalists and three hoorays for the scholars!

KO: You have written articles that are accessible to and geared toward the general public. Why do you do that, and do you think more scholars should?

UR: I’ve written scholarly articles with lots of footnotes, but I am aware that not a lot of people outside the academy read those. It doesn’t talk to people outside the academy. I tried to bridge these two words, and I wrote in journals like the Christian Centery, Common Wheel, Sojourners, Dissent, the Chronical of Higher Education. They were read and I had feedback. You need to be aware that the way you were trained to write is not appealing to a larger audience.

My wife, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, pushed me a little bit to look for audiences. She does the same and tells her students to do that. You can do your scholarly work but you also have to find venues that appeal to more people. You don’t need to market your ideas, but you do need to tell people why it is important. This explaining takes place in more journalistic venues. As a scholar, you need to do your academic work and find a voice to talk to larger audiences.