Freshman Seminars

The Center solicits proposals from humanities and social sciences faculty for new freshman seminars on topics significantly concerned with the study of religion. Freshman seminars provide a unique opportunity for students to work in a small setting with a professor and a few other students on a topic of special interest. Such seminars are in high demand by students and often result in new regular courses being added to the curriculum. Prior to the Center’s efforts in this area, very few freshman seminars were offered on religion. This gap is now being filled, as the Center provides incentives for faculty to teach in this area.

The current and previous Freshman Seminars are listed below:


FRS 109 “Who was or is Jesus?” taught by Elaine Pagels, Department of Religion, Fall 2015

What do we actually know about the most famous man in Western culture? What are the sources of our information — or impressions — about Jesus? In this seminar, we’ll investigate the earliest sources — both positive and negative, since none are neutral! — first, the four gospels in the New Testament, then what Jewish and Roman historians say about Jesus. We’ll also investigate ancient gospels nearly unknown, since they were censored by church leaders; these include the recently discovered Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

Then we’ll explore the enormous range of ways that various people, Christian or not, have interpreted Jesus: who he was, what he and his message means for them — in art, poetry, theology, fiction, films, video — from the first century through the 21st — including, for example, Leonardo Da Vinci, Dostoevsky, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Martin Scorsese — to a variety of contemporary sources. Participants are encouraged to bring in other examples to share with seminar members.

FRS 110 “What is Authority?” taught by Seth Perry, Department of Religion, Spring 2016

What is authority? What does it mean to find a person, or a text, or an institution authoritative? How does a person or a book or an institution get to be an authority? How do different spheres of authority — religious, political, social, personal — interact with one another? What are authority’s abilities, and what are its limits? In this course, we will begin by investigating these questions broadly and then narrow our focus to the consideration of religious authority in particular. Religion is both itself dependent on authority and authorities and, across traditions and time periods, has often been an integral part of political and social authority. Moreover, because of the nature of what we generally regard as religious knowledge, practice, and power, the terms of religious authority are particularly close to the surface. Our readings will include both theoretical investigations and case studies of religious authority from the perspectives of religious studies, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, political science, gender studies, and critical theory.

Grades will be assessed based on participation, brief weekly writing assignments, and a final paper applying our readings to a contemporary example or instance of religious authority.


FRS 108 Job, Suffering, and Modernity, taught by Esther Schor, Department of English, Spring 2015

This interdisciplinary course explores the modern reception of the Book of Job and the question of human suffering from the 17th century to the present. The ancient Book of Job asks some startlingly modern questions: Why do the good and blameless suffer? If there is divine justice, then where is the court of appeal? And if there is not, what is to motivate us to act righteously and justly? How are we to endure our suffering, and how are we to act in the face of another’s suffering? And what is the role of reason in an unreasonable, disordered universe?

We’ll investigate how modern thinkers received and revised a work that uncannily anticipates the central concerns of modernity: the claims of the subject, human rights, literary self-consciousness, skepticism, and the claims of the individual vs. those of the community.

We’ll take our cue from the Book of Job, which is a series of debates framed by a dramatic prologue and an ambiguous resolution. Each week we’ll focus on a specific topic: Job on trial; Job’s comforters, the problem of Evil, God’s answer to Job, etc. After a brief exposition of issues, each seminar will be structured as a debate, followed by reflection and discussion. We will read commentaries on Job by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians and philosophers from Kant to Negri; literary works by Shakespeare, Kafka, and Frost, among others; holocaust memoirs by Levi and Kulka; and we’ll discuss films by Terence Malick and Joel and Ethan Coen.

FRS 112 God Forbid: Religion, Secularism, and Modernity in French Society and Culture taught by André Benhaïm, French and Italian, Spring 2014

Secularism is one the most fundamental tenets of French modern social, political, and cultural identity. At the basis of the 1789 Revolution, anticlericalism, along with antimonarchism, had established the conditions for a godless, democratic culture. This apparently undeniable secular identity, however, has not disappeared, and still remains with contradictions. What this course aims to explore most intently is how the struggle between religion and secularism has been a factor for modernity.

Home to the largest Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe, France has both pioneered and struggled with their integration. These tensions, we will see, play a role not only in the modernization of these religions, but also in the modernization of society and culture.

In the cultural productions of the modern period (literature, visual arts, cinema, etc.), ethical and aesthetic innovations often originated in new, ambivalent perspectives on religion. Some of the main contradictions relate to the search of new ethical grounds without God (from Don Juan’s libertinage to Camus’ existentialism). In the realm of aesthetics, from the Belle Époque’s avant-garde experimentations to contemporary productions, new forms of expression often accompanied equivocal postures vis-à-vis religion.

This seminar aims to explore this fertile (albeit polemical) set of dynamics by drawing from cultural history, current events, literature, and culture — from the canonical corpus (“classic authors”) to the popular domain (films and graphic novels), which offer prime material for looking at this topic through the broadest possible spectrum.

FRS 134 What Makes for a Meaningful Life? A Search, taught by Ellen Chances, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Spring 2013.

With the pressures and frenzied pace of contemporary American life, it might sometimes feel as if there is little time to contemplate the question of what makes for a meaningful life. How does each individual find deeper meaning for him/herself? What is the purpose of my life? What is the relationship of the meaning of my life to some kind of larger purpose? How do our lives fit into the larger world around us? Throughout the ages, writers, thinkers and religious figures; wise ordinary folks — the person next door, one’s parents and grandparents — have grappled with these questions. The course explores, from a variety of perspectives, some of the responses to the “big questions” of life. The readings and films are taken from different cultures, different time periods and different spheres of human endeavor and experience — for example, from Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” to Kurosawa’s “Ikiru (To Live)”; from “The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi” to “Forrest Gump”; from Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” to A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh”; from Taoism to Tolstoy; from Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” to Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” to Albert Schweitzer’s “reverence for life.” The goals of the seminar will be: (1) to investigate the thoughts that others have had; and (2) to examine the students’ own questions and responses to the issues raised.

FRS 156 Islam in the West, taught by Lawrence Rosen, Anthropology, Spring 2013

Recent years have seen a fluorescence of studies about the history and circumstances of Muslims in the West. From the Muslim slaves brought to the United States, through immigration as guest workers and residents in Europe, to the changing attitudes that followed in the wake of 9/11, the situation of Muslims in the United States and Europe provides a site for asking questions about religious integration and accommodation, the role of religious law and practices in the jurisprudence of a foreign culture, the representations of Islam in literature and film, and the relationship between the generation of initial migrants and their Western-raised progeny. Particular attention will be given to the insights from studies in religion and anthropology to the understanding of religious conversion, reform and revitalization; the formation of transnational charitable organizations as mechanisms of migrant-homeland continuity; the religious renewal of a younger generation; and the internal conflicts over proper rituals and prayer forms when people from diverse countries are brought together in a single place of worship. Building on my own experiences speaking to Muslim organizations in the United States, we will also arrange a meeting with Muslim student organizations on campus and make a trip to the nearby Islamic Center of Central Jersey in Monmouth Junction, N.J. (and possibly the Cordoba Center near Ground Zero in New York City) to talk with Muslim leaders about the current concerns of their congregants.


FRS 129 “Forgiveness,” taught by Olga Peters Hasty, Slavic Languages and Literatures.

How to respond to wrongdoing is a complex issue, and one on which human coexistence depends. For millennia, forgiveness has been the domain of religious and philosophical thinkers, but recently it has also attracted the attention of sociologists, historians, political scientists, legal scholars, psychologists, and even medical professionals who are interested in reactive attitudes that foster individual and collective well-being. In this seminar we will explore how creative artists and thinkers from a broad variety of cultures struggle with translating the ideal of forgiveness into real-life settings. The narratives of forgiveness around which the seminar is structured serve as points of departure for discussing how forgiveness works (or doesn’t) in diverse contexts, including personal relations, want of due process, social injustice, retributive justice, and restorative justice in the aftermath of historical wrongs (e.g., war and colonialism). As we study narratives of other times and places that offer different perspectives on forgiveness, we will reflect on the pertinence of the questions they raise to our own world: How is “forgiveness” variously defined? What generates the need for forgiveness? Are there wrongs that cannot be forgiven? What consequences does forgiveness have for the forgiver and the forgiven? Is forgiveness contingent on repentance and atonement, or can it be unconditional? Who can rightfully extend forgiveness? What motivates someone to seek forgiveness? What constitutes apology? What sort of moral or ethical obligation is placed on those of whom forgiveness is asked? These and many other questions that a study of forgiveness opens have no single, unequivocal answer and must be revisited time and time again in the course of working out a good and just course of action that can help to rectify past wrongs and forestall new ones. (Wednesday 1:30 – 4:20 p.m.)

FRS 168 “Morality in America,” taught by Sarah Rivett, English.
This course examines the place of morality in American culture. We explore the power of morality to shape social conduct, the responsibility of an individual toward society, revolutions, and different ways of imagining the role of America in the world. The course considers two distinct—and at times competing—traditions of morality in America. One develops from Enlightenment concepts of reason, universalism, and individualism, and one emerges through the unique history of Protestantism in America. We begin with the moral codes that shaped two founding phases of America and the United States. Early immigrants to the New World struggled to establish a godly society based on Christian values of virtue and charity. Our readings invite us to consider how these values have persisted, even as the Enlightenment and the American Revolution contested and reconfigured society according to principles of reason, sentiment, and individualism. For example, we will examine the relationship between Christianity and political action in literature of the American Revolution by Thomas Paine and Phillis Wheatley. The culture of dissent evident in this literature forecasts centuries of American thought from antebellum reform movements to abolition and the American Civil War, from the Social Gospel movement to Civil Rights. How has morality intersected with the history of dissent represented in writings by Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charles Shelden?

FRS 151 “Art and the Lifecycle in Africa” taught by Chika Okeke-Agulu, Art and
Archaeology and African American Studies.
The seminar explored art and rites associated with birth and childhood, initiation and rites of passage, marriage, manhood and womanhood, death and ancestorship in Africa. The course was enhanced by Life Objects: Rites of Passage in African Art, a special art exhibition organized specifically for this seminar by the Princeton University Art Museum.

“The Varieties of Religious Experience Today” taught by João Biehl, Anthropology.

FRS 116 “People of the (Comic) Book: Jews and Their Images in American and French Popular Culture” taught by Andre Benhaim, French.

Kevin Kruse, History, “The Religious Right in Modern America”

Leora Batnitzky, Religion, “Religion and Science: Biology, Minds, and Souls”
Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, Sociology, “God of Many Faces: Comparative Perspectives on Migration and Religion”

Adam Elga, Philosophy, “Religious Conviction, Religious Disagreement.”

Michael Cadden, Theater and Dance, “Strange Angels: Some Twentieth-Century Annunciations.”
Maria DiBattista, English, “Modern Heresies and the Literature of Belief.”
Wendy Heller, Music, “The Music of the Jews: Worship, Culture, and Spirituality from Ancient to Modern Times.”
Tom Leisten, Art and Archaeology,”Reconciling Unity and Diversity: Islamic Art and Islamic Culture.”
Negin Nabavi, Near Eastern Studies, “Islamic Movements in the Modern Middle East.”
Carolyn Rouse, Anthropology, African American Studies, “Engaged Surrender: Race, Gender, and Religion in the U.S.”
Valerie Smith, English, African American Studies, “Religion and Resistance in Narratives of Slavery.”
Tim Watson, English, “Conversions.”

Negin Nabavi, Near Eastern Studies, “Islamic Movements in the Modern Middle East.”

Isabelle Nabokov, Anthropology, “Violence and Anguish in Religious Experiences.”
Susan Naquin, History, “Religious Movements in Modern China.”
Francois Rigolot, Romance Languages and Literatures, “Religion, Renaissance, and Reformation.”

Ze’eva Cohen, Humanities, “Body and Spirit: A Comparative Approach to Sacred Dance.”
Andrew Feldherr, Classics, “Literature and Sacrifice in the Greek and Roman World.”
David Sussman, Philosophy, “Is It Rational to Believe in God?”