At Pomona College, students from all disciplines are encouraged to undertake research. Some apply for funded focused summer research through the Summer Undergraduate Research Program. Below are recent projects completed by students in the Religious Studies Department.

2017

The Question of Utopia for (Post-)Marxists

Saul Nadis ’19; Advisor: Oona Eisenstadt

The academic left today divides roughly into two camps: those who endorse identity politics and those who endorse class politics. Adherents of identity politics support a multitude of struggles—race, class, gender, sexuality, bodily morphology, etc. These struggles are usually deemed equal, but also intertwined, based on an awareness that what gets considered an identity itself is the result of struggle. Adherents of class politics, however, insist that all identity struggles are dependent on or have their origin in economic relations. However, this does not imply that identity struggles cannot gain some autonomy from such economic relations.  Perhaps one of the strongest advocates of class politics today is philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who labels class struggle an example of an “oppositional determination.” Zizek asserts that although “class” is just another identity within contemporary hegemonic struggles, the very possibility of the proliferation of a multitude of identities is itself overdetermined by “post-industrial” capitalism. I explore this claim’s value in juxtaposition with innovative concepts in contemporary identity politics — such as Lee Edelman’s “simthomosexual” anti-futurism and Jared Sexon’s qualified “afro-pessimism” — that provide an alternative ethics to the class-based optimism latent in neo-Marxism. Thereby, this paper connects differences in philosophical ontologies with some of the political differences that are hindering the left today.
Funding Provided By: Paul K. Richter and Evalyn E. Cook Richter Memorial Fund

Raised in the Pews: The Second-Generation Chinese American Christian Experience in the South

Nathan Hahn ’19; Advisor: Darryl Smith

“Raised in the Pews: The Second-Generation Chinese American Christian Experience in the South” was a study on Chinese American Christians who have grown up in the Southern United States. The goal was to find how cultural differences with older generations and their peers influence the religious experience and perspectives of Chinese Americans from the South with both older generations and their peers. The study was done using quota sampling of Chinese Americans from two Chinese churches in the South who had grown up there. Participants were each interviewed to give insight on how they feel their ethnic background influences the role that Christianity plays in their life and their identity. The study showed that second-generation Chinese American Christians who are brought up in the South see common ethnic background contributing to how they can build communities in church. Many described the desire to share a common ethnic background with those who they go to church with and the impact that it has. Individuals also expressed that a common faith acted as a bridge with peers of different ethnicities, often even emphasizing shared faith above ethnic difference.  Some also expressed the influence of differences between themselves and older generations within church. The study begins to provide a perspective on the religious experience of second-generation Chinese American Christians raised in the South and the impacts of cultural and generational difference.
Funding Provided By: Aubrey H & Eileen J Seed Student Research Fund

2013

Representing the Holocaust in Children's Literature

Alexandra Kelly (2015); Mentor(s): Oona Eisenstadt

Abstract: How can children’s literature – characterized by a tendency to employ dangerously teleological scripts of trauma and triumph – address the Holocaust, ethical treatment of which necessarily resists assimilation of the event into redemptory narratives valorizing suffering? To answer this question, I read the work of such proponents of “anti-redemptive” historiography as James Young and Saul Friedlander while familiarizing myself with the fields of Holocaust studies and modern Jewish philosophy. I studied the ideas of Perry Nodelman and other children’s literature theorists, as well as the existing scholarship on Holocaust children’s literature. Next, I read 70 topical picture books, chapter books, and young adult novels published between 1973 and 2012, noting the age group of the “target audiences”, nationalities of the authors and implied readers, and other factors in assessing differences. Intrigued by Young’s analyses of art installations that indirectly represent the horrors, intrude into everyday life, and spark inter-generational conversation, I’ve concluded that the most compelling and least objectionable examples of Holocaust children’s literature are those penned by Maurice Sendak, who draws upon irony and symbolism to create self-reflexive, multilayered unions of text and illustration that invite rereading at all stages of development. Currently, I am drafting an article expounding upon this idea, with the eventual goal of publication this year or early next.
Funding provided by National Endowment for the Humanities

Opening the Mind's Eye: Visual Stimuli in Tibetan Buddhist Meditation

Alec Terrana (2014); Mentor(s): Zhiru Ng

Abstract: Among the many schools of Buddhism, Tibetan Vajrayana boasts the most extensive and multi¬layered use of iconographic representations of the transcendent. The most widely used form of imagery in Tibetan Buddhism is the thangka, a painted scroll that generally depicts a mandala or a bodhisattva, which is used as a guide to meditation. These thangkas serve as mental supports to the process of generating complex visualizations, imprinting philosophical concepts into meditators’ minds by helping them transition from the grosser levels of visual comprehension to increasingly subtle stages of understanding. Nearly every aspect of a thangka carries symbolic significance and a message, which serve as a form of visual scripture of the teachings of the Buddha. Through deep examination and intense focus, these symbols guide practitioners into their own minds, aiding them in the process of enacting paradigmatic shifts in perception. Additionally, as practitioners become more experienced in working with complex visualizations, the sacred symbols take on the further function of enabling meditators to perform physiological changes as well, changes that closely correlate to spiritual advancement. Through the example of the Kalacakra mandala and Tantric deity, we can gain a more precise look at the multiple levels on which these visual aids to meditation operate, revealing a highly developed tool for psychological and physiological transformation.
Funding provided by National Endowment for the Humanities

N.T. Wright and Dualism

Ryan Stewart (2014); Mentor(s): Kenneth Wolf

Abstract: One of the classic questions of Western religion is whether or not the universe, and indeed the human person, has a spiritual “superstructure.” Either this world is completely devoid of any spiritual dimension or reality or there is a distinct spiritual element, separate from our body and world—perhaps a “soul” or a “heaven.” In this “dualism,” the “material” and “spiritual” are completely opposed and separate. When applied to religion, dualism suggests a hierarchy that devalues the material in favor of the spiritual. My research investigates how N.T. Wright, a contemporary Christian theologian, criticizes dualism. Focusing on 2nd Temple Judaism, Wright’s work seeks to recover a historically accurate understanding of early Christianity, especially the Pauline epistles. In his view, a material-spiritual hierarchy would not have made sense to early Christians. Rather, any Christian theology rooted in its “Jewishness” should reject the devaluation of the material in favor of the spiritual. I argue that Wright’s understanding of Judaism, Eschatology, Philosophical Anthropology, and Soteriology all develop as a reaction to dualism. I have three conclusions. First, Wright’s anti-dualism is nothing new when set within the Christian tradition. Second, Wright’s entire theological project can be understood as a reaction to dualism. Third, this anti-dualistic theology has significant implications for vocational callings and environment responsibility.
Funding provided by National Endowment for the Humanities

2012

The Tanach Project: An Online Platform for Collaborative Analysis of the Hebrew Bible

Rina Sadun (2014); Mentor(s): Erin Runions

Abstract: Studying the Hebrew Bible often relies on careful analysis of the text’s wording and grammatical construction, which can be cryptic and open to multiple interpretations. Although millennial of scholarship have produced an abundance of interpretations, it is still difficult to compare a variety of sources for individual words and verses, even with existing digital databases. This project entails design and preliminary programming for a new website called The Tanach Project, which seeks to aid biblical study by providing a collaborative platform for compiling sources and adding new textual analysis. In addition to letting users tag verses with citations of published commentaries that reference them, the site provides a detailed rubric that users can use to tag individual words based on over 20 grammatical elements including root, stem, and prefixes. Other users will then be able to search these tags to analyze word usage and identify patterns based on grammatical elements.
Funding provided by Pomona College SURP