A grand heritage: Religion department celebrates half-century

Religion professors: Aline Kalbian, John Kelsay, and David Levenson.
John Kelsay, top, the Richard L. Rubenstein Professor of Religion and Bristol Distinguished Professor of Ethics who has twice served as the Department of Religion's chair; Professor Aline Kalbian, the current department chair; and University Distinguished Teaching Professor David Levenson, the department's longest-serving faculty member.

With a distinguished faculty, high-achieving students and an outstanding national reputation, Florida State University’s Department of Religion has plenty to be proud of as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this academic year.

“Since 1965, the mission of our department has been to promote research and instruction designed to increase understanding of the many ways in which religion affects human life,” said Aline H. Kalbian, a professor and chair of the department who came to FSU in 1998.

The department has 18 full-time and several more part-time faculty members, about 60 master’s and doctoral students, more than 100 undergraduate majors and an office staff of three.

“All of us feel that we are part of a grand heritage,” Kalbian said. “Marking this anniversary is a way of acknowledging that, as well as a means of looking forward.”

Part of that grand heritage includes the granting of more than 50 doctoral degrees and three faculty members who, over the years, have received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship, which are highly competitive, mid-career awards that recognize exceptional capacity for productive scholarship: John Kelsay, the Richard L. Rubenstein Professor of Religion and Bristol Distinguished Professor of Ethics; Bryan J. Cuevas, the John F. Priest Professor of Religion; and Kathleen Erndl, an associate professor of religion.

Three faculty members have received National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships: Cuevas, Erndl and John Corrigan, the Lucius Moody Bristol Professor of Religion.

In addition, Cuevas is a past fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study, which is located at Princeton, and Corrigan was the recipient of a Fulbright Distinguished Research Chair, the most prestigious appointment in the Fulbright Scholar Program.

“The scholarly work recognized by these awards and honors represents the stature of our faculty on the national and international stage,” Kalbian said.

The department also is home to three prestigious international journals: Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, edited by Corrigan and Professor Amanda Porterfield; the Journal of Religious Ethics, edited by Kalbian and Professor Martin Kavka; and Soundings, edited by Kelsay.

“Having these journals here brings a lot of good attention to FSU and the department,” Kalbian said. “They also give our graduate students opportunities to engage, assisting in the editing.”


Before the department held its first class in 1965, courses about religion had been offered at Florida State through the Department of Philosophy. By the early 1960s, however, there was a growing interest in establishing a separate religion department.

“There were people in the Department of Philosophy who taught religion, but there was increasingly a cultural divide between them and the philosophers, per se,” said Kelsay, who came to FSU in 1987 and has twice served as the department’s chair, 1996 to 2006 and 2012 to August 2015.

While the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Abington School District v. Schempp declared school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools in the United States to be unconstitutional, it did not ban religion from public education. On the contrary, the decision helped clarify the difference between the teaching “of” religion from the teaching “about” religion in public institutions.

“A lot of people in departments of religion cite that as being an important piece in the establishment of these departments at state universities,” Kelsay said. Among the institutions establishing religion departments during this time were Penn State, the University of Indiana, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

When Robert A. “Bob” Spivey was hired in 1964 as the department’s founding chair, he spent his first year establishing a general outline for the department and hiring faculty members.

“We had six people when we started out,” Spivey said. “A couple of people were drawn from the philosophy department and others were brand new.”

During the early ’60s, faculty numbers in the field of religion increased dramatically, according to Spivey.

“We were recruiting people particularly for the study of world religions,” Spivey said. “We started out with a basic Introduction to Religion course, which was popular, helping students who were going to take further courses in religion to have a basic understanding of what religion is all about.”

Beginning with an undergraduate major only, the department granted 24 bachelor’s degrees from 1966 to 1969. The first three master’s degrees were granted during 1969-1970. Though the department’s doctoral program would not be established until 1993, students could earn a Ph.D. with a focus on religion through the university’s Program in Interdisciplinary Humanities.

“During those early years, we were particularly active in interdisciplinary programs at the university,” said Spivey, who was honored by the university in 2003 with the creation of the Robert A. Spivey Professorship of Religion, which is currently held by Professor Amanda Porterfield.

The Contemporary Department

The cadre of faculty that came in the late ’60s and early ’70s had a common profile: They had training in either Judaism or Christianity, most had degrees from divinity schools and some were ordained clergy. But what began as a department that was modern in scope and focused on Western religions has grown into one with a reach into antiquity and a focus on Eastern religions, too.

In addition, the creation of the doctoral program in 1993 was a major milestone, says the department’s longest-serving faculty member, University Distinguished Teaching Professor David Levenson, who came to FSU in 1976.

“Over the years we have developed for both the graduate and undergraduate program more advanced and specialized courses with broader coverage of the world’s religious traditions,” Levenson said. “For example, we now have more people covering Asian religious traditions than in any time in the department’s history.”

One of the distinctive features of the department is the wide array of language training offered to the graduate and undergraduate students, enabling them to study the classical literature of the various traditions in the original languages.

“The language component of our department is often overlooked,” Kalbian said. “For any scholar, the important thing is to go back and look at various translations over time, which provides a lot of insight into how a text develops.”

Not only are the department’s language offerings rare in an undergraduate religion program, but so to is the enthusiasm with which they are received by undergraduates, according to Kalbian.

“Students will take a class, say Introduction to the New Testament or the Old Testament, and they’ll get so excited about it that they’ll tell David Levenson that they want to learn Greek or Hebrew so they can read it in the original,” Kelsay said.

In the department’s Asia section, for instance, faculty members want their students to know a number of languages that aren’t regularly offered elsewhere at FSU, so they end up teaching languages such as classical Chinese or Japanese, Sanskrit, Tibetan and Hindi/Urdu. For those studying Religions of Western Antiquity, faculty offer courses in classical Hebrew, Aramaic, Coptic, Ethiopic and Syriac, as well as advanced courses in Greek and Latin religious texts.

“When I mention to colleagues at other universities that I have taught Syriac (the Aramaic dialect used by Near Eastern Christians for the past 1,500 years) to 18 students, half of them undergraduates, they are amazed and not a little envious,” Levenson said.

The department’s language offerings, according to Levenson, should fall under the category of “unusual things we can do for undergraduates” because such training is typically reserved elsewhere for graduate students.

The Basic Student Profile

While a few undergraduate religion majors are interested in becoming a member of the clergy or working with the religious community, most are simply students who enjoy studying about religion as they pursue all sorts of degrees. International affairs, for instance, is based in the social sciences but allows students to take courses all over the university from multiple academic perspectives.

“So (international affairs majors) come over and take, say, the Introduction to Islamic Tradition or the Introduction to Buddhist Tradition or the World Religions Survey, and they see that their interest in international affairs is well served by this, because its kind of a unique window by which you can understand other people and other cultures,” Kelsay said.

An advantage of a major such as religion, according to Levenson, is getting to experience the small, liberal arts college feel as an undergraduate at a major research university.

“In term of the major courses, undergraduates get a lot of interaction with faculty,” Levenson said.

Most students who seek a doctorate in religion want an academic career and intend to teach at a university, so the department’s track record in graduate placement becomes an important factor in student recruitment.

“In the early years of our doctoral program, we didn’t really have a track record,” said Kalbian of the department’s 22-year-old doctoral program — young by most standards. “It’s not that we weren’t placing people, we just didn’t have the numbers of students. But now I think we can really show evidence that our students are being placed and competing against students from the top institutions and in some cases beating them to get jobs.”

Of the 22 graduates who received a doctoral degree since 2012, 16 have academic appointments, two have administrative posts here at Florida State, one went into business and one is studying for the Roman Catholic priesthood.

In addition to placing its graduates in good jobs, the department’s track record includes two former graduate students who received the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship through the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and another who received an American Association of University Women Dissertation Fellowship. Both are highly competitive fellowships.

The Future

Based on the past 50 years of enrollment figures, student interest in religious studies at FSU has remained steady with two exceptions. Around the time of the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991 and immediately after 9/11, interest in Islam surged. Conversely, the worldwide financial crisis that began in 2008 caused a nationwide dip in the numbers of students majoring in the humanities, including religion.

“For about four years there was even a drop in the number of students who took an elective in humanities,” Kelsay said. “One explanation for this might be parents who reinforced for their children not to pick majors that they didn’t think translated directly into the job market.”

The enrollment numbers have since rebounded, and this fall, the department’s courses are packed to the gills.

“We are not a stagnant department,” Kalbian said. “I don’t think anyone would view us like that. We’ve been on the move since I got here, and certainly before then. We’ve increased numbers in terms of everything — faculty and graduate students, and awards and accolades that faculty and students receive.”

Kalbian and Kelsay both foresee a continued and vigorous emphasis in several nationally trending areas in the study about religion, including an interest in Islam, Christianity in a non-Western, global context and applied or practical ethics.

“We’re going to do our best to keep abreast of and keep producing things that make excellent contributions to these,” Kelsay said.

Anniversary Events

Throughout this academic year, the Department of Religion will sponsor a several lectures to celebrate its golden anniversary.

  • On Thursday, Oct. 22, Ed Blum, a history professor at San Diego State University, will give a lecture, “The Age of Miracles is Still With Us: Twelve Steps to Recovering American Religious History,” from 5 to 6 p.m. in the Dodd Hall Auditorium.
  • On Monday, Nov. 16,Anne Monius, a professor of South Asian religions at Harvard University, will give a lecture, “From Confidence to Critical Rethinking: The Study of South Asian Religions in the Wake of Said’s ‘Orientalism.'”

Additional lectures — the dates and times of which have yet to be finalized — will be given by noted scholars.

  • Ronald Green, emeritus religion professor at Dartmouth University, “Decoding Religion: Can We Theorize Human Religiousness?” (the Lucius Moody Bristol Lecture in Social Ethics).
  • Stephen Teiser, the D.T. Suzuki Professor in Buddhist Studies and professor of religion at Princeton University, “Curing with Karma: Healing Liturgies in Chinese Buddhism” (the Sheng Yen Buddhist Studies Lecture Series).
  • Donald S. Lopez, the A.E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist Studies and chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan, “Dispatches from Nirvana: 45 Years of Buddhist Studies” and “Christian vs. Buddhist: The Battle for the Soul of Tibet” (both of which are part of the Tessa J. Bartholomeusz Lecture in Religion).

For the latest information, visit www.religion.fsu.edu.