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RELG 7559

Method and Inquiry in Religious Ethics

Fall 2014 Mondays 3:30 - 6:00 PM

Location: Gibson 342

Prof. Willis Jenkins (Gibson 065, wjj2c@virginia.edu)

(Office Hours: Wed 10.30-11.30, and by appointment )

Prof. Charles Mathewes (Gibson 235, ctm9d@virginia.edu)

(Office Hours: Wed 11-12, Thursday and Friday afternoons, by appointment)

Course Description

This seminar reads recent major works in order to examine various accounts of what it means to do or study religious ethics. By what criteria should an argument in religious ethics be evaluated? What makes for generative inquiry in the field, and what disciplinary tools are most apt for conducting research? Engaging those questions should open angles of interpretation on what is “religion” and “ethics,” and how they relate to other disciplines.

The assigned books interpret the cultural conditions in which religious and ethical scholarship happens, make constructive arguments from within some particular tradition, examine philosophical grounds for making normative and religious arguments, do comparative work between traditions, and an anthropological interpretation of the normative dimensions of religious life. At the end the seminar will (critically!) read recent work from its two instructors.
Reading carefully and participating helpfully is the primary focus of the seminar and is expected of all participants. During the seminar sessions, our conversations will then follow a pattern of (a) exegesis—making sure we understand the argument; (b) assessment of strategy and conception of project—discerning what their overall aim is, and how they propose to achieve that aim; and (c) assessment of execution—determining how well they actually manage to achieve the aim. All of this will be prolegomena to asking (d) what we think of the conceived aims and actual execution of the project as a whole. The seminar will succeed only insofar as all participants work to achieve a clearer understanding of their own conceptions of religious ethics, and gain critical acquaintance with a series of disciplinary skills. Achieving his clearer understanding, and gaining this critical acquaintance, are the primary objectives of the seminar.

Requirements for this course are not onerous. They focus primarily on weekly reading and exchange of comments. In addition, students taking the course for a grade will submit two projects: an analytical profile of an academic journal and sample syllabus for an undergraduate course in religious ethics.

1. Reading, attending, and actively participating in the conversation makes up thirty per cent of one’s grade. Weekly comments on the reading make up another thirty per cent. (So sixty per cent of one’s grade is determined through participation).

Submit comments on the reading by noon of each day’s class by posting them to the Forum page of the class website. (Don’t attach a file but rather cut and paste your comments into the Forum.) Comments are limited to 500 words. In them, you should briefly sketch your understanding of the argument of the book (say, in two paragraphs of about 250 words total) and then concisely assess (a) the field(s) of scholarly debate into which the author understands her or his book to be an intervention; (b) what s/he is trying to do with this intervention; and (c) the strengths and weaknesses of the intervention. You may, if you wish, add specific questions to take up in the seminar.

Comments are not individually graded; so long as you post on time, in conversation with the day’s reading, and with evident thoughtfulness, you get full credit for them. There are twelve reading weeks in the course, so at the end of the semester you should have twelve Forum posts.

2. Journal Report: students will undertake an “analytical profile” of an important journal, relevant to the student’s research interests. On the first day the professors will provide several examples of previous such profiles. Length of analysis should be around 1500-2000 words, though appendixes (ideally including all TOC from the past three to five years) may make the profile longer. Each journal profile will be shared among the members of the seminar. These are due Nov 31 and count for twenty per cent of the final grade. Please post them to the course website before class on 11/31.

3. Syllabus project: develop a syllabus for an introductory undergraduate course. Suppose that your first job is in a liberal arts college, where you are asked by the chair to “teach a course in religious ethics.” No further specification is given; matters of topics, traditions, and methods are open. What would you teach? A syllabus should have a short introduction (which must function both to advertise the course and to explain its objectives) an explanation of requirements, and a schedule of readings and topics. In addition, please submit a 500-700 word prose justification of the syllabus. Explain the major decisions of your syllabus and defend the implicit argument it makes. This makes up twenty per cent of the final grade and is due Dec 14th.


Please obtain the books for the course on your own; they are not available in the University bookstore. The first book, by Michael Banner, will be distributed as pdf.


September 1


September 8

Michael Banner, The Ethics of Everyday Life [pdf on Collab]

September 15

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age pp. 1-100, 112-130, 136-176, 212-218, 299-321, 473-495, 505-535; 539-623, 636-642, 656, 690-703, 767-776 (about 350 pages)

Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason, pp. 1-43, 201-257
September 22

Weaver, The Acting Person and Christian Moral Life

September 29

Emilie Townes, Womanist Ethics and Cultural Production of Evil

By now, decision made on journal to be studied for report
October 6

Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infiinite Goods

October 13

Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition, selections

October 20

Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety

October 27

Aaron Stalnaker, Overcoming our Evil

November 3

Talbot Brewer, The Retrieval of Ethics (I)

November 10

Talbot Brewer, The Retrieval of Ethics (II)

November 17

November 24

December 1


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