New dean defends role of Religious Studies
by Eric Smith
There is a renewal of interest in religion and spiritual matters in North America, according to Barry Levy, the new Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies.
On a trip to the U.S. last month Levy said he was "truly amazed at the number of publications, magazines, newspapers, TV shows, special broadcasts, special interest programs and so forth on religion and the Bible. And it's starting to trickle into Canada too."
People aren't necessarily more religious, according to Levy, but they are showing a new interest in the phenomenon of religion. And in his new job, Levy is hoping to capitalize on this development.
"Whether it's because people are fed up with the scientific era and now want to go back to a more spiritual existence, or because people just have a natural craving for the intimate--and religion deals with that in ways that other aspects of society don't--I think it's fair to say that we are watching a rebirth of interest in religions and in religion and we [as a faculty] need to be a part of that."
Levy is taking over the faculty at a time when there continue to be questions about its future. As McGill looks for ways to rationalize its operations to meet government-imposed reductions in its operating budget, there is speculation the courses in the Faculty of Religious Studies may be offered instead by a department of the Faculty of Arts.
Levy argues for the place of his faculty in an institution like McGill. Religious Studies plays two important roles, according to Levy. In addition to satisfying the academic interest in religion that he identifies in the general population, the faculty also trains religious practitioners.
"There are people who either want to be teachers of religion or ministers or preachers, or in some way work on religion in a much more positive advocacy role rather than just as an academic pursuit," said Levy. "And I think that from the University's point of view it is in our interest and in the interest of society in general for such people to be trained in universities.
"It would be very easy to divorce such institutions and say 'Let theological schools go out and train their own religious leaders--they have no place in the secular university.' That's an easy way out. I think that we're all better off if our religious leaders are trained in universities."
If Religious Studies is to have a role in training religious practitioners, according to Levy, it will need to continue to be its own faculty. "Whatever we do in the Faculty of Religious Studies regarding the training of ministers or people who want to have an advocacy role in the presentation of religion doesn't belong in Arts," said Levy. "Arts would not be happy with it. And so if for no other reason--and I believe there may be other reasons--it becomes necessary to have a different kind of faculty that combines both the academic and the professional interests of that particular group."
Levy's own academic interests are in the field of interpretation of scriptural texts. It is a field where he believes McGill has many strengths. With his move from Jewish Studies and McGill's Jewish Teacher Training Program to the Faculty of Religious Studies, Levy is adding his expertise in the history of Jewish scriptural interpretation to the faculty's strength in Christian scriptural interpretation.
"Hopefully we'll be able to begin to coalesce some kind of activity there and eventually be able to bring into such an arrangement any other form of scriptural interpretation, and I don't mean just the Bible, because just as there's a history of scriptural interpretation in Judaism and Christianity, there is in Islam, and there is in Buddhism and there is in Hinduism and so forth,'" he said. "And I would like to see this all become one coherent program in sacred scriptures and the history of their interpretation. If I could do that that would be a major contribution. I think McGill would then immediately become a world centre. Given the resources presently in place, I think we really have a world-class opportunity here."
The Reporter caught up with Levy on his third day in his new job, and the new dean was careful to stress that any priorities he's outlining for the faculty are still very preliminary and speculative. "I really am still trying to learn rather than control and dictate," he said. But certainly near the top of his agenda, as for many at McGill, there will be the question of funding. He believes he can demonstrate that in the recent past, the faculty has taken more than its fair share of fiscal blows. "Over the last few years we have had a number of early retirements and a number of people who have left," he said. "And as a result there is a significant drop in teaching staff which obviously has all kinds of implications."
But as the current budgetary climate dictates, Levy is also looking for ways to work out relationships with other departments which offer language courses and courses with moral and ethical dimensions, "so that we are able to eliminate duplication and enhance what isn't being given at the same time.
"There are courses in philosophy that relate to religion. There are courses in the music faculty. There are courses in ethics in a number of places. There's a department in the Faculty of Education called Culture and Values that has a number of courses that relate to religious studies, not only religious education. And then you go through anthropology, classics, Jewish studies--Arts has many courses that relate to religion. So there's a lot out there that one can plug into and we need to connect them."
Teaching will also be a priority for the new dean. "I am a trained teacher," he said. "A couple of years ago I won a teaching award from the Faculty of Arts. Obviously I take teaching seriously." But so soon into his tenure, Levy said he has not yet had the opportunity to evaluate his faculty's courses from a pedagogical standpoint.
And in addition to attracting students to the University, Levy hopes to attract students currently enrolled at McGill in other programs to courses in Religious Studies. "I think one of the ways in which one attracts students is by responding to their academic, personal and intellectual needs," said Levy. "Now those keep changing and one must be responsive to them. I think particularly at the undergraduate level, one has to do a certain amount of popularizing the issue."
An ordained rabbi, Levy is the faculty's first Jewish dean. "I may be the first Jewish dean in the world in a faculty like this," he said. "I think it's very significant. I think that it demonstrates a true openness that has rarely, if ever, been the hallmark of institutions and faculties of this sort."