Religious Studies | Majors Seminar in Religion: Spiritual Exercises and Self-Cultivation
R389 | 27572 | A. Stalnaker

Majors only, Intensive Writing.

Can anyone ever really change who they are?  Religions tend to
answer this question with an emphatic yes.  And it does seem that
religions can transform people:  some believers even become selfless
servants of the poor, or suicide bombers.  But how and why might
this happen?  Similar circumstances push people in quite different
ways; “good intentions” alone are not sufficient for real conversion
to some difficult new form of life.  This class focuses on how
religious commitments are conceived, articulated, and nurtured
through methodical practices that give followers specific direction,
guiding them through alternative territories of sin and salvation,
ignorance and wisdom, or suffering and bliss.
Methodical practices of personal formation are a topic of growing
interest in ethics, the history of philosophy, and the history of
religions.  Pierre Hadot refers to such disciplined efforts to
reshape emotion, desire, habit, and overall consciousness
as “spiritual exercises.”  Others have studied similar phenomena
under descriptions such as “asceticism,” “technologies of the self,”
and “self-cultivation.”  Examining such practices sheds new light on
the broader question of how flawed and frail human beings can
actually become good, and perhaps even heroic, sagely, or saintly.
It also provides a unique window into the psychosocial mechanisms of
religious power.  After an introduction and some contemporary
theoretical analyses, we will turn to several mostly ancient primary
texts, both Western and East Asian, and then close with some
descriptions of contemporary regimes of personal formation.
Historical study and comparison should shed light on the accuracy
and wider applicability of the European-derived secondary accounts,
and provide impetus for refining a cross-cultural understanding of
spiritual exercises.  All readings will be in English translation.