Remember a time when fulfilling the religion requirement involved choosing between a handful of course offerings? Like the era of typewritten term papers and smoking in the snack bar, those days at Muhlenberg are long gone. Proof of just how different—and diverse—Muhlenberg’s religion department is today can be found in the sheer number of courses available to students seeking to satisfy the “R” requirement. In the fall 2004 semester, more than 20 courses are offered. In addition to “R,” these courses meet a variety of other general academic requirements, such as “W” (writing-intensive), “D” (diversity and difference), “L” (literature), and “P” (philosophical reflection).
Department Head Dr. Hemchand Gossai is excited about the religion department’s increasingly important role in the Muhlenberg academic community. “We go far beyond the “R” requirement,” he says. “We’re offering interesting courses that range from ‘The Religions of Star Trek’ and ‘The Poetry of Tao’ to ‘Mystical Encounters’ and ‘Hebrew Prophets.’ This year, we have introduced new classes such as ‘Religion and Film’ and ‘Religion and Ecology.’” The department also features highly topical courses such as “God Today” and “Religious Extremism: Violence, Politics, and Religion.” Students established now can choose Jewish studies and Asian traditions in addition to the general religion minor. An honor society in religion was last year, and the department is actively bringing majors and minors together for discussions of current events and socializing.
Not coincidentally, perhaps, the number of religion majors and minors has grown dramatically over the past four years: from about 18 in 1999 to a total of 74 majors/minors during the 2003-04 academic year. When asked about the striking increase in students pursuing religion as a major or minor, Gossai lights up. “It’s very exciting!” he says.
Gossai, whose modest demeanor precludes him from talking much about his own outstanding academic accomplishments, has no such compunction concerning his department. “I am going to unabashedly plug the department,” he says with a grin. “We’re doing great things!”
Although the broad selection of courses helps attract students to the department, Gossai believes that the increased numbers of major/minors also is due to students’ interest in transcending traditional religious education. “Whatever religious background students have, had usually come from their parents or some aspect of religious education,” he says. “Most of their religious education thus far has involved shaping them into members of a particular tradition. That’s an important part of their lives, but often they are looking to go farther and learn more, and in the process challenge the conventions and expand their horizons.”
Students who take a religion class at Muhlenberg, says Gossai, “discover that we are offering more than the usual. We are teaching them how to think about things—how to imagine outside of what they’ve been taught to believe. Our goal is to prepare students to be active, informed members of society.” Part of that preparation, he adds, can be providing students opportunities to learn more about their own religious heritage in an academic setting. “When we’re passionate about something, we want to learn as much about it as possible,” Gossai explains. “Some of what we learn is breathtaking and beautiful, even when we encounter the difficult and painful in our learning, as we will. An important part of the learning process is to raise questions persistently and transcend the superficial, realizing that some answers will not be easily forthcoming.”
Another reason for the religion department’s rise in popularity undoubtedly has to do with its passionate department head. One of the most popular professors on campus, Gossai never has an empty seat in one of his classes. Though he’s more comfortable discussing the accomplishments of his colleagues and the department in general, Gossai eventually provides background on himself—such as that he left a tenured position at another college to come to Muhlenberg. “I was first drawn to Muhlenberg by its outstanding reputation,” he says. He also welcomed the chance to work in his areas of specialization: the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew prophets, ancestral narratives and issues of social critique and marginalization.