The Religion Department



Bryn Hinckley

My first semester at the University of Vermont, I took a freshman seminar class at 481 Main Street, the home of the Religion department. I remember I liked having class here because of the houses quaint, comfortable atmosphere, and character, unlike the cell block, cookie cutter classrooms found closer to central campus. Every frame and architectural line is slightly crooked, the carpets are old and trampled and frayed and the front door slams quite loudly and frequently. Professor Clarke’s class was held in the seminar room on the first floor. There is one, large family-style table everyone sits around, and the walls of the room are lined with books, the personal collection of a former faculty member. Some of these are academic books on religion, some of them are religious texts, and even a personal prayer book. When I tell people I am a religion minor, they usually ask me if I am religious. When I say no, they ask me why, if I am not religious, am I interested in religion? This is a good question.

A secular study of religion only became possible after the cultural revolutions of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Before the Renaissance, God was channeled mainly through chants and songs. The Renaissance brought the printing press and perspective painting through which God was increasingly depicted and experienced (Schafer 1977, 101). God was no longer channeled through the body, but instead rationalized on paper. Attempting to rationalize God proved much harder than it was to feel God. The Enlightenment came next and pushed scientific thought to the forefront. While religion and culture had long been virtually inseparable, new ways of thinking prompted us to consider the nature of religion. To look at religion is to look at ourselves. Whether or not you are religious, you probably came from a long line of people who were. Thus in many ways, religious understanding requires self understanding. According to Professor Trainor at the University of Vermont, “the first nine presidents were congregational ministers,” and “chapel was required until 1919.” For a long time, “religion was part of the core training of people” and was embedded in the way “all different sorts of things were taught.” It isn’t until the mid-1950s that “something approaching a secular study of religion really becomes a self-conscious policy” (Kevin Trainor, personal interview, April 2018).

The secular study of religion is constantly negotiating its role in the academic and religious worlds, between religious appreciation, reductionism, and the religious itself. Attempts to make sense of religion inevitably reduce it, and understanding religion often leads to its appreciation. The space between the reductionist and the religious is where we attempt to stay and, I argue, continuously fail to do. To transform thought into word is already a reduction, and to bring the self into it, a self with experience and bias (whether that self identifies as religious or not), is to cross that line into personal belief. In The New Metaphysicals, Courtney Bender attempted to understand the conditions from which spiritual-not-religious ideas emerged. In the late nineteenth century, American academia practiced “comparative religion” with a conviction that all varieties of religion “shared an underlying core of experience” (Bender 2010, 10). If it is the same experience underlying all the world’s religions, then perhaps there is a truth to be found about the nature of the human experience. If comparative religion’s goal is to seek out similar truths, and if these truths tell us something about humanity or the divine, how is that not in itself a religious pursuit? Bender asserts, “scholars, while not central to metaphysical and mystical pursuits, nonetheless have been far more than spectators on the sidelines of changing understandings” (Bender 2010, 12). Scholars shape discourse about religion, which necessarily affects religion itself.

At the University of Vermont, “The official policy was: the department is committed to secularity. What that means is, there’s an effort to distinguish it from being committed to a particular religious worldview… But this is the sixties and seventies, people are experimenting with drugs, all sorts of alternative spiritualities, and eastern religions,” however, “the dividing line between what was the practice of religion and the study of religion wasn’t always so clear as much as the formal policy tried to clearly differentiate those things” (Kevin Trainor, personal interview, April 2018). Because knowledge and ideas are filtered and interpreted by and through the self, personal spirituality informs and transforms through discourse and changing understandings. We continually grow and shed our convictions of what we believe to be true, whether it is personal religion or religion in general, through discourse and debate. According to Professor Trainor, professor “Robert Gussner was… originally a unitarian minister, ordained, (a lot of [the professors] were ordained, even though they were committed to secularity), and he became a Rajneeshi… and his classes were deeply informed by his spiritual values.” (Kevin Trainor, personal interview, April 2018). Whether or not a person is spiritual, religious, or neither, it is our nature to form convictions about the truth. Through external voices and ideas, we deduce what seems to be true. It is through others that we recognize the self, “the sound of the body is the sound of the other but it is also the sound of the same. From the beginning, subjectivity emerges from intersubjectivity, the one is born from the many” (Kapchan 2015, 33). The self blocks objectivity, and it is through the comparison and deduction of subjective ideas that we develop our own. A discourse about the nature and shape of religion provokes the self to alter and refine its understanding, making the study of religion a religious project.

481 Main Street is, in general, a quiet place. For the facilitation of learning, there is never music or any other unconstructive, superfluous noise. Sounding is generally reserved for discourse and communication, which there is an almost continuous stream of; in classes, office hours, and even idle conversation, the back and forth is a negotiation and organization of ideas. In Deborah Kapchans “Body,” she makes a distinction between the physical body and the lived body. While the physical body’s boundaries are at the edge of the skin, the lived body extends. Unlike the physical body, the sound body cannot acquire, consume, or own. The lived body transcends that which can be embodied, and “resists the property principle… it inhabits but does not appropriate. It sounds and resounds but cannot be captured” (Kapchan 2015, 39). The sounds of paper rustling and keyboards typing are the student’s attempt to capture the knowledge from sound. It is an attempt to keep and store knowledge for the future, a future in which that knowledge may be useful. However knowledge from sound and ‘sound knowledge’ are different, according to Kapchan. Sound knowledge is the fruit of intuition “a non discursive form of affective transmission resulting from acts of listening” (Kapchan 2015, 34). Listening is an integral part of the process of learning. Classes, whether built around lecture or discussion, must be listened to. Kapchan asserts that listening taps into various levels of conscious and subconscious understanding. To listen is to attempt to accommodate new ideas, necessarily challenging what we think we know, both consciously and subconsciously. While knowledge from sounds are consciously interpreted and applied, sound knowledge transcends “discourses (of capitalism, of culture and education, of neoliberal politics) that make and remake the body in their own images” (Kapchan 2015, 42). Sound knowledge influences the self that is not yet consciously solidified as identity. While words have enormous potential to offend identity, especially and including religious identity, sound knowledge intuits information we may otherwise reject. It’s very power is in its disembodiment, facilitating interpersonal and interreligious understanding. “Acknowledging the porosity of the body is also recognizing its evanescence and impermanence, its perpetual transformation in and through time and space, such that any continuity of identity is a labour undertaken both alone and in common, a labour that may (or may not) be engaged in consciously” (Kapchan 2015, 42). It is through and by the self that listening occurs, necessarily challenging that self or the notion of oneself. As students and thinkers in one academic community, we grow through and around one another’s ideas and perceptions.

The UVM Religion department’s mission statement includes: “a crucial part of the wider study of human cultures, global affairs, and personal identities; it is not tied to previous religious training or present religious affiliation”. The secular study of personal religious identities, attempting to remain neither reductionist nor religious, requires a tolerance which comes easy for us. America, historically a largely Protestant culture, holds distinctly individualistic values, but because we are social animals, we cannot reside in total isolation. The self necessarily comes into conflict with the other. At the religion department, individual convictions are typically voiced and understood as potential ideas rather than assertions of truth. Simultaneous values of tolerance and individuality result in a sound body which facilitates and perpetuates this context.

Questioning the self and its nature formed the basis religious thought. The chaos of not knowing the self prompted us to construct a God in whose image we were made, and a God through whom we can understand the world and ourselves in it. The study of religion is, similarly, questioning the self and its nature. Though rather than constructing or promoting a single religion, we want to understand the phenomenon occurs and what it says about humanity. It is a kind of meta-religion, but a religious practice nonetheless. Both the religious and the study of the religious formulate convictions about the self, place the self in the context of the broader world, and inquire into the nature of perceived agencies beyond the human. However the soundscape of the study of religion varies from a religious space. There is no music, dance, or attempts to feel God. Rather, attempts to understand and rationalize the phenomenon shifts personal identity to the backseat. While still engaged and occupied, identity is not often expressed. Religious identity is not the collective project of an institution, but a personal matter which is to be discussed either carefully and tastefully, or outside of class.

The sound body is permeable and intuitive. We find security in our identities while, through learning, granting those identities permission to change. Identities are at once influenced and individual, and they are shaped, transmuted, and communicated through sound. Intuition represents a powerful form of communication in discussion. It allows knowledge to be disembodied, and thus separate from identity judgement. Intuition facilitates understanding of the other. Understanding of the other necessarily challenges contradictory preconceptions, permitting the emergence of a more thorough understanding of the self. When man understands something about the religious other, “he is not acquiring understanding of a distinct object which, as it turns out, is divine: the understanding is itself divine. Thus in the acquisition of this understanding – in philosophical activity – man partially transcends his own nature” (Lear 1999, 9).



“Body.” Keywords in Sound, by Deborah Kapchan, Duke University Press, 2015, pp. 33–44.

Gallup, Inc. “Mississippi Retains Standing as Most Religious State.”, 8 Feb. 2017,

Jonathan Lear, Aristotle: The Desire to Understand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999 [of the work republished numerous times since 1988]).

Kevin Trainor, personal interview, April 2018

Schafer, R. Murray. 1977. “The Soundscape” excerpted from “The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World.”