In Fall 2011 the Columbia University Seminar 751 was founded to create a research group dedicated to the investigation of literacy and writing in world religions (cf. http://universityseminars.columbia.edu/seminars/religion-and-writing/). Its focus is the comparative study of the roles of literacy vis-à-vis the uses of writing as a form of communication technology in religious traditions. Approaching the relationship between religion and writing through the lenses of literacy and communication technology, the seminar strives to address all media – from inscriptions on stone and clay tablets to internet websites – and all literary genres – from myths and commentaries to divine revelations and hymns – as well as the theoretical and practical implications of the absence, or rejection, of writing.
The seminar title includes the word “religion,” as its starting point is the thesis that religions have an impact on whether and how societies approach writing and literacy. At the moment the possibly most popular application of this thesis is the wrong, and yet persistent claim that Islamic theology is responsible for the fact that the diffusion of letterpress printing technology – coming during the medieval era from China and Korea and from northern Europe during the early modern era – halted at the borders of the Islamic civilization. Since it is impossible to examine a negative, it is one of the aims of the seminar to provide an interdisciplinary context for the thesis’ further investigation.
The seminar’s meetings are usually held on Tuesdays in the Faculty House of Columbia University, 64 Morningside Drive, New York, N.Y. 10027 (for directions, click here). The meeting begins at 5.00 pm, and around 6.45 pm we will adjourn for dinner in the Faculty House.
September 18, 2017 – Rachel Fulton Brown (University of Chicago): The Annunciation: Behind the Scenes
October 17, 2017 – Philip Haberkern (Boston University): Writing a History of the First Reformation: Hussites and Protestants in the Sixteenth Century
January 23, 2018 – H. Smith (University of California Irvine): How Infinity Came to Be at Home in the World: The Contribution of Eighteenth-Century German Religious Poetry to a Modern Scientific and Theological Paradigm Shift
There was a profound change in the conception of the divine over the long eighteenth century, which played out as a transformation of the notion of the infinite. By around 1800 the infinite was no longer conceived of as transcendent, “out there,” and “overwhelming” (as in the Baroque) but, rather, a part of this world and to be experienced with a new sense of uplifting sublimity. In Germany, this “paradigm shift” (which involves more than just “secularization”) was largely made possible not just by scientific discoveries (like calculus, telescope, microscope) but also, crucially, by the explosion of religious poetry and its extensive reception. For example, Bartold Heinrich Brockes (1680–1747) published his celebrations of the “earthly pleasure in God” (Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott) in nine volumes amounting to some 5500 pages. In endless variations, he wrote of the divine spirit that he found in the minutiae of nature. Later in the century, Friedrich Klopstock (1724–1803) produced literal orgies of ecstatic feeling in his readers through his religious hymns and epic poem (The Messiah). His aim was to show that poetry is worthy of capturing the divine in language and transmitting it through feelings. Such writings prepared the reading public for a transformed vision and experience of the Divine–Infinite in nature.
February 27, 2018 – Katie Terezakis (Rochester Institute of Technology): J. G. Hamann, Trojan Horse of the Enlightenment
March 22, 2018 – Dagmar Anne Riedel (CCHS-CSIC & Columbia University): Making Books Talk: The Reception of an Andalusian Biography of the Prophet
April 17, 2018 – Christine Helmer (Northwestern University): Theological Writing and Religious Experience
Columbia University encourages persons with disabilities to participate in its programs and activities. University Seminar participants with disabilities who anticipate needing accommodations or who have questions about physical access may contact the Office of Disability Services (tel. 212-854-2388, disability [at] columbia.edu). Disability accommodations, including sign-language interpreters, are available on request. Requests for accommodations must be made two weeks in advance. On campus, Seminar participants with disabilities should alert a Public Safety Officer that they need assistance accessing campus.
The abstracts of all talks since January 2012 are archived here. Please do not hesitate to contact us for any further information. If you wish to attend a seminar meeting, please email elizabethmpowers [at] icloud.com.
Mahnaz Moazami, co-chair
Center for Iranian Studies
mm1754 [at] columbia.edu
Elizabeth Powers, co-chair
elizabethmpowers [at] icloud.com
Dagmar A. Riedel, Columbia University, Center for Iranian Studies, Fall 2011 – Feb. 2017
Carolyn J. Quijano, Columbia University, Department of History, March-April 2017
Deborah G. Shulevitz, Columbia University, Department of History, March 2014 – March 2017
Hannah K. Barker, Columbia University, Department of History, Fall 2011 – Feb. 2014
Last updated, 8 January 2018