English R1B

Reading and Composition: Religion in the First Person

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
16 Fall 2020 Delehanty, Patrick
TTh 5-6:30

Book List

Augustine, St.: Confessions; Bunyan, John: Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners; Defoe, Daniel: Robinson Crusoe; Eliot, T.S.: Four Quartets; Kempe, Margery: The Book of Margery Kempe; Robinson, Marilynne: Gilead

Other Readings and Media

Selected PDF's with poems by John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Richard Crashaw, William Wordsworth

Films: Diary of a Country Priest (dir. Robert Bresson); First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader). 

Possible Secondary Readings by William James, Simone Weil, Barbara Lewalski, Max Weber, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Caroline Walker Bynum. Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Mercia Eliade, Hans Blumenberg, Charles Taylor, Ernst Kantorowicz


O Lord, I truly toil at this task and labor in myself. I have become a troublesome field that requires hard labor and heavy sweat. We are not trying to explore the regions of the sky, or measuring the distances of the stars, or inquiring about the weight of the earth. It is I who remember, I the mind. It is no cause for wonder that what I am not is far distant from me; but what is closer to me than I myself?” -Augustine of Hippo

In a founding document of religious studies, William James proposed that instead of investigating theology, doctrine, or ecclesiastical organizations, a study of religion would benefit more from a study of, “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” This course intends to do just that. We will accomplish this difficult task through an investigation of numerous literary texts drawn from the history of Christianity that seek to represent an individual’s relationship to the divine. Our goal is not merely to better understand the psychology of the religious believer, however. Along the way we will also see how the genre of spiritual autobiography made a decisive impact on the course of English and World literature, how spiritual autobiography emerged as a dominant genre in the wake of the Protestant reformation, and how any theory or history of religion is incomplete without having recourse to the experience of the individual believer.

We will begin with brief excepts from the Hebrew Bible, primarily the Psalms, considering them both as poetry and as statements of belief or comfort in the face of adversity. We will then turn to the 4th century A.D. with Augustine’s Confessions, an extraordinary document that had dramatic influences on literature, western philosophy, and the development of Christianity. These forays into the ancient world will set up many of the questions that we will be attempting to answer throughout the semester, and they will continue to guide us as we move into the middle ages, the Reformation period, and beyond. We will consider several different genres, such as prose non-fiction, prose fiction, lyric poetry, and film, tracking how each genre presents a different relationship to our chosen subject. We will also spend a good deal of time on historical context, and we will see how the texts we read not only deal with the eternal or divine, but how they are also deeply resonant with socio-economic problems contemporaneous with their authors. To that end, we will look at the writings of recent historians and literary critics in order to get a better grasp of the issues our texts are responding to.

In addition to cultivating your critical thinking and literary analysis skills, this course will help to strengthen your academic and analytic writing. Becoming a better writer requires practice; as such, you will be required to write several essays of increasing length as the semester progresses, as well as revising your writing heavily. We will also work on improving your writing through shorter assignments such as reflections, responses, and revisions.

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