Religious Studies | Practices of the Self
R780 | 26817 | Stalnaker

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 social contexts 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.

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.  The course will include a number of recent
theoretical accounts of self-formation, as well as several recent
studies of analogous phenomena in different traditions and
settings.  If time allows we may also examine a few primary sources
from Western and East Asian religions.  Historical study and
comparison should shed light on the accuracy and broader
applicability of the European-derived theoretical accounts, and help
refine a cross-cultural understanding of such “practices of the
self.”  All readings will be in English, in translation as necessary