C-Week Special: What is Christianity to You?—Interview With Professor Nick Kasparek

If you have read our previous article, you'll know that we are holding a VIRTUAL Christianity week. For our third C-Week Special, I would like to share my interview with a professor at ICU who has studied religious studies. Here is what I learned!

 

Nice to meet you, professor Kasparek. I really appreciate your cooperation with the Her Campus ICU team! Before we start, could you introduce yourself to our readers?

Thank you for inviting me! Some ICU students might know me as the shorter Nick in the ELA department. I grew up in Missouri, the USA, in an area sometimes called the “Bible Belt.” In fact, two evangelical Christian denominations have their world headquarters in my hometown. At 19, I left that area to go to a liberal arts college in Minnesota, where I encountered some very different worldviews. After taking some interesting courses in my first year in college, I decided to major in religion, though I continued to take various other courses, especially in education and South Asian history. To me, all these subjects seemed related somehow. When I graduated, I joined the US Peace Corps as a volunteer, and I have been living abroad ever since, first in China, then in India, and now in Japan. I have studied other subjects in graduate school, including peace and conflict studies, and now I’m primarily focused professionally on the field of education. However, I think that I will always be interested in religious studies as a kind of amateur scholar.

 

What is Christianity to you?

Christianity to me is a name for all the various associated traditions, symbols, and ideas that have had a profound influence on societies and people throughout the world, for better and for worse. I know that Christianity has had an important role in shaping my own perspective on life and the world, and I know that it has deeply influenced my sense of morality, even in many ways that I cannot directly identify. For me, at this point in my life, Christianity represents a rich source for interpretation, both as a kind of object for my interpretation and as a resource for interpreting. I don’t know whether or not to call myself “Christian,” but in some ways, I believe that I certainly am.

 

Why do you study religious studies? 

I think that my most mind-blowing courses in my first year of college were religious studies courses. While other courses provided me with fascinating perspectives and information, a few religious studies courses seemed to rearrange my mind completely. Perhaps what I loved was a sort of unlearning process, even when this process was somewhat uncomfortable. A course on the historical Jesus gave me a new way to see the Bible and how one could have scholarly discussion about it. A course on Hinduism and modernity gave me a window into another society and a mirror on my own. It was amazing to me that such a seemingly exotic faraway place could reveal new things to me about my hometown and about US politics. A course on Sufi Islamic mysticism and poetry gave me yet another view of religious expression as art and is open to kaleidoscopic interpretation. I could go on and on about other courses that made me reflect on my own beliefs and to begin to notice some of the inevitable and potentially productive contradictions in my beliefs. After just one year of that, I was completely hooked!

 

Why is it important to study religion? 

I think that some of us tend to have a strange view of religion. To us, others’ religiosity often seems to be either simply romantic or frighteningly dangerous. Meanwhile, our own religious beliefs, whether we call these our “religion” or not, might seem deeply personal, private, ambivalent, and complex, or even just natural. I think that studying religion helps us to avoid seeing other people or societies as exotic. Studying religion helps us to respect others as complex meaning-making people. It helps us to recognize that we all struggle with contradictions, symbols, and leaps of faith. We are all trying to interpret the world and our role in it, and it is not at all unreasonable for any of us to at least consult the stories, wisdom, and teachings in the traditions called “religions.” At the same time, there is no reason to avoid questioning others’ interpretations, even if these are often considered private religious beliefs. And we can certainly examine the real effects that these interpretations have on others, whether through politics, economics, or any other recognized public realm.

Recently, my ARW students read Jack W. Meiland’s excerpt about critical thinking in The ELA Reader. We questioned why he seemed to make an exception for religious beliefs. Should we really just turn off our critical thinking any time the word “religious” is involved? Would that be truly respectful of those who hold beliefs? I found myself wondering again if this exception for anything “religious” might be the source of various uncivil debates. Again, religions seem to be reduced to simple-minded ideals or dangerous delusions. I think that studying religions in their true complexity, and in their various effects on people’s lives, helps us to avoid such simplistic conclusions.

 

What do you think Christianity week could teach ICU students?

Personally, I love the intellectual approach to Christianity at ICU, in addition to the cultivated sense of community and ritual. The Sunday services and other events that I have attended have always offered attendees (or, at least me) something profound to think about, regardless of whether they are Christian or not. In these services, I have felt as though I am being offered a glimpse into the deep private reflections of someone who has grappled with profound questions and issues, who has sought out the wisdom of many others, and who is now sharing all of this with us. Christianity Week could teach ICU students about this kind of reflective thinking, which some philosophers of education such as John Dewey have praised as truest form of intellectual thinking. Christianity Week could also suggest to ICU students some of the many approaches one can take to studying religion seriously, especially about how religion influences, and is influenced by, various histories, societies, and politics.

 

What do you want ICU students to think about during this period? 

I would like for ICU students to be open-minded during this period. As I alluded to before, Christianity might seem strange to those who have not grown up around it, and it might not seem to relate to these students’ lives. Christianity Week could provide all of us with an opportunity to see otherwise hidden connections between Christianity and our lives. Even supposed “outsiders” can join the discussion of what Christianity is, what it could be, and how it affects every aspect of society.

 

Do you have any comments for ICU students and especially for '24 students who have never experienced Christianity week or Christian theology yet?

Please don’t hesitate to join in because of any fear of doing or saying the wrong thing!

In my case, I had never been to a Catholic service until my first year at university, just as I had never been to a Hindu temple, a Muslim mosque, or a Sikh gurdwara. I was really worried that I would do something wrong and accidentally offend people in these holy places or during sacred services. But I found that I really didn’t need to worry too much. With a basic attitude of respect and curiosity, I was warmly welcomed, guided, and included wherever possible. It was not as gravely serious as I had imagined. My research writing students have also told me about how pleasantly surprised they have been about how they were immediately welcomed into sacred spaces on and off campus.

I would encourage ICU students who have not experienced Christianity Week or anything Christian before to relax and take a similar attitude. You will be welcomed, guided, and included, and you don’t need to worry about causing accidental offense.

Stars in the night sky Photo by Sven Scheuermeier on Unsplash

Lastly, I would like to say...

Thank you to Nick for his cooperation! Christianity week is normally held over one week in late May every year, but it was canceled due to the current pandemic. However, we could use this time during self-quarantine to think about Christianity and religion. Just like taking a deep breath, you could try to take a moment for yourself. As Nick mentioned earlier, I hope everyone would be open minded, especially since now is the time we need to stick together, help others, and love each other

Her Campus ICU would like to say thank you for staying home and staying strong!