Fall 2018 Department Newsletter

Message from the Chair
Department Spotlights
Department Announcements
Alumni Updates/Class Notes
Donor Recognition
Support the Department
Stay Connected

Message from the Chair

Professor Robert Eisen
Robert Eisen

We had another good year in the Religion Department. Alf Hiltebeitel retired in the spring of 2017, and we celebrated his lengthy and distinguished career at GW with a one-day conference in the fall. Alf’s departure left a gaping hole in our curriculum, but it’s been partially filled by Balaji Hebbar who has taught for us on a wide range of topics for many years and has always received stellar reviews from students. He will be teaching a number of courses on Hinduism and Buddhism.

Our annual Berz and Ziffren lectures were great successes. Both dealt with the subject of Islam. The first was about Muslim life in America in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, and the second was about women’s fashions in the Islamic world.

Our faculty continued to be active on the research front, with two of us publishing books in the past year. Paul Duff published a book on early Christianity, and I myself got a book out on how religious Zionism has dealt with the moral dilemmas of war.

The programs housed in the Religion Department, besides the BA in religion, continued to thrive. The BA in peace studies saw enrollments expand again, while our MA in Islamic studies also had another wonderful year. 

Write-ups on everything mentioned here are contained in these pages. You’ll also find a piece by Jon Wood on the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that was celebrated this past year. In addition, you’ll find a piece by Connor Elliott, a graduating religion major and our Yeide Prize winner. We’ve also assembled updates about our alums and faculty. 

Finally, your contributions are always appreciated. They go to supporting everything we do in the Religion Department.

Robert Eisen

Professor and Chair of Religion
[email protected]

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Department Spotlights


Jon Wood
Jon Wood

The 2017 fall semester corresponded with a major anniversary in the history of religion—500 years since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. We thought it appropriate to acknowledge that anniversary in this year’s newsletter. Professor Jon Wood, a specialist in Christianity in our department, shares the following remarks about this momentous event:

Martin Luther’s 95 alarming propositions sparked the Protestant Reformation, a movement that had an enormous impact on the history of the Western culture. Numerous editorials and other media events last fall assessed Luther’s legacy, but the Reformation itself was always much more than the single-handed affair of Dr. Luther.

Western Christianity had never lacked for dissenters and reformers, but now a vast establishment came to be known as Protestantism, which itself involved at least two camps—Lutheran and Reformed. The Church of England—despite being influenced by the Reformed camp—constituted yet another profile. Still other reformers of many different sorts came to be called “Anabaptists.” Roman Catholicism itself also underwent a fairly dramatic transformation with new dogmatic definitions and with new religious orders such as the Jesuits (a.k.a., Society of Jesus).

Complexity is all the more evident when you bear in mind that all upheavals of Reformation also involved the aesthetic, literary and even technological experiments of the broader Renaissance. Some observers today look back on the events of 500 years ago as an occasion to bemoan the hotheadedness, partisanship and human misery that the Reformation unleashed. Those are claims one must not dismiss too lightly. Even so, one can easily imagine an alternative history in which the absence of the Reformation might have culminated in its own perhaps no happier set of outcomes. One thing I take from Reformation history is that universities must not gag diversity, but that, for all their personal faults, students and professors must meet the crisis of their times with disciplined thought, creative speech, compassion and courageous action.


2018 graduates from the Islamic Studies program. From left, Seyda Karaoghlu, Halim Khoiri, Kelly El-Yacoubi and Yi Lei.
2018 graduates from the Islamic Studies program. From left, Seyda Karaoghlu, Halim Khoiri, Kelly El-Yacoubi and Yi Lei

We completed another highly successful year in our MA program in Islamic studies. The graduating class of 2018 was as diverse as classes in years past, with students hailing from a number of countries, including China, Indonesia, Turkey and the United States. The theses produced by these students were quite impressive. They wrote on a variety of subjects, including Chinese Islam and the origins of Islamophobia in Europe, and two of the theses have attracted the interest of academic publishers.

The MA program also sponsored a number of events. These included two lectures by Professor Pedram Khosronejad of Oklahoma State University on “Shi‘ite Rituals.” Another talk was given by Yi Lei, who is among this year’s graduates from our program. Yi spoke on “Islam and Sufism in an Eastern Province of China” and presented the results of her field research in China. All three events were very well attended and elicited interesting discussion among participants.

We eagerly look forward to starting another year. At least five new students will be entering the program in the fall, and they again come from several countries, including Canada, Pakistan, Azerbaijan and the United States. The MA program in Islamic studies has been a great success, and we are seeking to expand it even further.


Peace Study GW CCAS man holding a child

The Peace Studies Program has continued to thrive. Under the talented teaching of our two adjunct professors, Eli McCarthy and Tony Jenkins, our Introduction to Peace Studies courses once again generated triple-digit waitlists. The Capstone Seminar showcased projects ranging from an analysis of the Syrian refugee crisis to the environmental degradation of orangutan habitats in Indonesia. We also proudly graduated our first peace studies honors major, Katherine Ornelas, this May. Our peace studies alumni report that they are doing well in graduate school, law school and in the work force. Hannah Barry, our social media intern, keeps our Twitter and Facebook accounts updated, so please join us online!

Department Announcements

Faculty Kudos

Eyal Aviv had a book accepted for publication that deals with the revival of Buddhist scholasticism during the Republican Period in China (1912-1949). He also gave a talk at a conference about the contribution of Buddhist thought to social and political philosophy. He also participated in a two-week intensive seminar about the problem of self-knowledge sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Some of Mohammad Faghfoory’s books that were written during the last two decades have been translated into Persian and are in press in Iran. They will appear in four volumes. He also revised his monograph Ethics of War and Peace in Shi'ite Islam (Cambridge University Press, 2014) for publication in the United States by Kazi Press. Mohammad also gave a lecture on “The Current State of Affairs in the Shi’ite World” for an event sponsored by the Next Wave Muslim Initiative

Xiaofei Kang taught a new introductory course on Chinese religion in fall 2017. She also organized a workshop on “The Body and Chinese Religion” at GW. Xiaofei was invited to present papers and give talks on gender and Chinese religion at UC Santa Barbara and Yan’an University in China. She was also invited to speak at the International Conference on Chinese Women in World History at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan and at the Annual Conference of Asian Studies.

Robert Eisen published a book titled Religious Zionism, Jewish Law, and the Morality of War with Oxford University Press. He is also working on a new book titled Jews—A Success Story: How a Minority Survived Centuries of Persecution and Thrived in the Modern West.

This year Paul Duff published a book entitled, Jesus Followers in the Roman Empire. See the book-notice in this newsletter. He also co-led GW’s periodic reaccreditation effort, which included the creation of a self-study and hosting a campus visit by a team of academics from other prominent universities. GW has now been reaccredited until 2026 with a very positive review from its evaluators.

Derek Malone-France continued to focus on developing both scholarly and broader public connections between the humanities, especially religion and philosophy, and the scientific field of astrobiology—the study of the origins and evolution of life on Earth, combined with the search for and possible study of extraterrestrial life. He was invited once again to lecture on these issues at the University of the Azores. He also spoke at a symposium on Religion and Astrobiology at Georgia Tech and at the annual meeting of the Society for Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Three of Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s books were translated into other languages in the past year: Mulla Sadra (Indonesian), (Jakarta: Sadra International Institute, 2017); Muhammad: Man of God (Spanish), (Chicago: Kazi Press, 2017); and two different translations of Islamic Philosophy from Its Origin to the Present (Urdu), (Lahore: Talabah Press, 2017). Dr. Nasr also published several prefaces and book reviews in both Persian and English. 

Irene Oh conducted a student workshop for graduate theology students at Georgetown University last fall. She published an article, "The Asian American Urban Vote" in Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump, ed. Miguel de la Torre (Orbis) last fall and has been writing an article on religious ethics and peacekeeping, as well as an introductory book on religious ethics. Irene is starting a fun new project on Islamic gardens.

Kelly Pemberton traveled to Morocco in December 2017 to conduct interviews with members of the Moroccan government and local NGOs on the development of the solar industry in that country. She is currently working this research into a chapter for her book-in-progress, Islam and Gender Activism: A Global Perspective. She is also working with Derek Malone-France and Rob Eisen in the Religion Department, as well as others at the American Association for the Advancement of Science to develop a series of events on religion, environment and science in fall 2018 and spring 2019.

Jon Wood’s book, Priesthood in Reformation Zurich, has been accepted with Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Publishers. It should be out by the fall. Jon was also very active on the speaking circuit this past year. The 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation prompted many invitations for Jon to give lectures about this event from institutions across the D.C. region. See Jon’s write-up about the anniversary in this newsletter.



Connor Elliott, BA ’18, Receives Yeide Prize for Top Religion Graduate

Each year, our department awards the Yeide Prize to its best graduating student, and this year it was awarded to Connor Elliott, BA '18. 

He writes the following about his experience as a religion major at GW

My concentration in the religion major was Islam, and I therefore took a number of excellent classes with Dr. Nasr and Dr. Faghfoory. My senior thesis grew out of my studies with these mentors and was titled “Omani Tolerance: A Strange Case of Conservatism and Tolerance.” It examined how the Ibadi branch of Islam, which has dominated the culture of Oman for centuries, has managed to develop a conservative theology while maintaining tolerance toward other branches of Islam as well as other religions in general. I argued that unique historical conditions shaped Oman’s history and were responsible for the unusual views of tolerance that its people developed.

After graduation I hope to stay in Washington, D.C., and work for a think-tank that has a Middle East program. My education in GW’s Religion Department has been highly rewarding. Everything I have learned during my four years will be vital for the research I hope to carry out after graduation and in my future endeavors as I build a career.


Book Notice: Robert Eisen

This past year, Robert Eisen, chair of the Religion Department and a specialist in Judaism, published a book titled Religious Zionism, Jewish Law, and the Morality of War with Oxford University Press. The book deals with a timely topic. Ever since the state of Israel was established in 1948, it has been plagued by war, and that has presented religious Zionists with an immense challenge. Jewish law prior to 1948 includes little material on war because it developed during centuries when Jews had neither a state nor an army. The leading rabbis of the religious Zionist community therefore had to create an entire body of law on this subject where practically none had existed beforehand, and they responded to the challenge with remarkable energy and ingenuity. The corpus of laws on war they produced is both comprehensive and nuanced, and these laws now serve as a critical source of guidance for Orthodox Israelis serving in their country’s military.

Rob’s study is a pioneering work on this fascinating chapter in the history of Jewish law, a chapter that, up to now, has received relatively little attention from academic scholars. He examines how five of the most prominent rabbis in the religious Zionist community have dealt with key moral issues in war. He also examines how the positions of these rabbis compare with those of international law. These explorations provide critical insight into the worldview of religious Zionism which in recent years has become increasingly influential in Israeli politics.

Book Notice: Paul Duff

When Jesus of Nazareth began proclaiming the kingdom of God, he likely had no intention of starting a new religion, especially one that included former pagans. Yet, a new religion did eventually develop—one that not only included non-Jews but was soon dominated by them. How did that happen? Paul Duff explores this question in his new book, Jesus Followers in the Roman Empire (Eerdmans Publishers, 2018).

Paying special attention to social, cultural and religious contexts—as well as to early Christian ideas about idolatry, marriage, family, slavery and ethnicity—Paul’s informed narrative shows how the rural Jewish movement led by Jesus developed into a largely non-Jewish phenomenon permeating urban centers of the Roman Empire. The book has been praised by reviewers as a sophisticated piece of scholarship that also manages to be clear and highly readable.


The Annual David and Sherry Berz Lecture: Dr. Ayaz Virji

In last year’s newsletter, we reported that a major donor to the Religion Department, Dr. Ayaz Virji, was featured in a lengthy and moving write-up in The Washington Post. Dr. Virji is a physician in Dawson, Minn., a small town located in an area which heavily supported Donald Trump when he was elected president. A local Lutheran pastor and patient of Dr. Virji’s was concerned about the hostility toward Muslims that the election had unleashed and therefore asked Dr. Virji to give a public talk about Islam. Dr. Virji reluctantly agreed, and the talk was so successful that he was asked to give subsequent talks in other towns nearby. The story in the Post outlined Dr. Virji’s remarkable efforts to educate people in his region about Islam.

We asked Dr. Virji to give the Berz lecture about this experience, and he gladly agreed. The talk was entitled, “Islam in America Post-Trump: A Muslim Physician’s Experience in Rural America.” Dr. Virji captivated the audience with his reflections on poignant topics, including Islam in America, women’s rights, terrorism and Islamic law. The main theme of his talk was how Islam has been misunderstood by its critics.

The Annual Abbie Ziffren Memorial Lecture: Professor Elizabeth Bucar

Elizabeth Bucar of Northeastern University delivered the Ziffren Lecture this year on the topic of “Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress.” Professor Bucar’s interest in this topic grew out of her major area of research, which is ethical questions concerning gender and politics in everyday religious practice. In her talk, Bucar shared findings from her latest book about women’s fashions across the Islamic world, an exploration that took her to Iran, Indonesia, Spain, Italy and Turkey. The lecture was both interesting and entertaining. Bucar shared numerous photos she had taken herself of women in the countries she visited and did a great job getting the audience involved in examining the variations of dress that these women had adopted and why those variations existed. This lecture was one of the best attended lectures that the Religion Department has ever sponsored.

Retirement Event Celebrates Alf Hiltebeitel’s Career at GW

As we reported in the newsletter of a year ago, Alf Hiltebeitel retired from GW after 49 years of service. He had a brilliant academic career as one of the world’s foremost experts on Hinduism, and he brought distinction to GW in general and to our department in particular. At the end of September 2018, we had a day-long conference to celebrate Alf’s accomplishments.

Alf’s colleagues and students gave presentations. They shared their research and described how it had been affected by Alf’s scholarship. The speakers included Brian Collins of Ohio University; Perundevi Srinivasan of Siena College; and Norman Girardot, who is Emeritus at Lehigh University. Alf himself addressed the audience at the end of the event with a talk titled “Freud’s Mahabharata,” a presentation, which, in addition to probing a topic that Alf had been working on, also allowed Alf to delve into a series of personal reflections about his career. We are unlikely to see anyone of Alf’s stature in our department again any time soon.

Of the speakers who gave presentations, Norman Girardot knew Alf the longest, and we have therefore reproduced his remarks here:



Dear friends, bear with me. I need to set the broad context for my contribution to this celebratory and, dare I say it in the spirit of a certain bygone mentor from Chicago, a very “sacred,” and quite “primordial,” event. We perform an important passage ritual today. Truly we partake in a kind of puja wherein Alf, our Avatar and incarnate Hindu god, is treated like a member of a divine academic royalty, with all of the accompanying delights and accolades—as well as, at times, revelations of best-kept-hidden truths. The Sacred is only known through the Profane.

Today I want to emphasize the sense and sensibility of “context” both with regard to this ritual celebration and to Alf himself. In many ways, comparatively speaking, it is context—the uncanny contextual or entangled nature of the human cultural enterprise—that is the intellectual, academic, and personal thread that sinuously runs throughout Alf’s life and work. Yes he is our Hindu Avatar—one of the Indo-Aryan gods who has descended and is with us at this time and place. And as we all recognize especially today in this benighted imperial city and at this distinguished institution of higher learning both named after the same slave-owning progenitor, this is a time—the Kali, Alt-Right or Evola-Bannon-Trumpian Yuga perhaps—that requires some guiding wisdom from gods at all the higher and lower levels of the cosmos. This pertains especially to the need for some satiric and roundly sardonic wisdom from the gods of light having a special association with our Avatar Alf—that is, to name a few: Vishnu, Krishna, Draupadi, Georges Dumézil, Ted Williams, Madeleine Biardeau, Bill Russell, Fritz Staal,  Albert Camus,  Chuck Long, Samuel Beckett, and of course Sigmund Freud. However let me quickly note that Mircea Eliade was more of a minor Alfian deity in this pantheon. As for Carl Jung, I believe that both Alf and I found it hard to put up with the often trippy aspects of the American Jungian cult. Moreover as we know from Sudhir Kakar’s work, when in India in 1938 Jung was obnoxiously xenophobic when it came to appreciating the actual Indian tradition.

As Alf has shown us, it is always the contextual that is the content of our inquiries and, at the same time, the very premise and process of our interpretive method. A veritable Universal Dharma of Knowing. Indeed a devotion to context is at the very heart of Alf’s scholarly work—along with his contributions to higher education at George Washington University as a teacher, departmental chair, university colleague, prolific international scholar, intrepid participant observer of Indian ethnographic tradition and most remarkably by his creation of the innovative, albeit short-lived, interdisciplinary Human Sciences Program. This was a humanistic program of comparative contextualization where the entangled “everything” of culture—a fabric of texts, history, and tradition—really was both imaginatively and rigorously studied.


Alf is above all a powerful scholarly exemplar of a broad contextualized approach to understanding the texts and contexts of Hindu tradition. In this regard, I draw your attention to the impressively braided and overflowing lushness of his interrelated textual and ethnographic work, as well as to those other works that some might view as rather frivolous – thinking here of his edited books and ethnographic work on, for example, the ritual and symbolism of hair,  the reflections on the obtuse “joke structure” of the Mahabharata, the Goddess as feminist, and his confrontation with his own fears and “castration anxiety” in the encounter with a Hindu eunuch cult performer insisting on showing his “operation.”   

It is, then, the context of Alf’s life and his work of contextualization that will be the focus of my homage this afternoon. I cannot pretend to address the Indological technicalities of Hindu epic texts or tradition in the manner of Alf or our two other interlocutors. I am more of a generalist who began with China but finally realized that he was psychologically and intellectually wedded to what Eliade used to call a “bird view” of too many different things—that is, a phenomenological and tricksterish comparativist more than any kind of properly sequestered Sinological scholar. As Zhuangzi once said, I prefer to “wag my tail in the cultural mud.”

I only became fully aware of this proclivity when I started to research and write  a very long book on the history of Sinology and the Müllerian emergence of “comparative religions” and the “Sacred Books of the East” in the 19th century. The irony of this situation was that I began my book on the “Victorian Translation of China” in the 80s when I accidentally became involved in my very own contextualizing ethnographic work in the American South with the quasi-Daoist Evangelical visionary preacher-painter Howard Finster. Needless to say, some of my Sinological colleagues have never forgiven me for what they perceive as an impossibly brazen withdrawal from the Middle Kingdom. But I have come to accept what must be.

Alf has not jumped his Asian ship in the way I have; and I do not at all suggest that he should. My point is that his approach to India prevents him from following the straight and narrow path of an area specialist or text scholar without any comparativist or phenomenological sensitivities. And that is the greatness of his accomplishments as a scholar of India. He shows us more of the full depth, wondrous diversity, and ramifying meaning of Hindu tradition. As we should all know from his person, writing, and field work, Alf is a scholar who courageously understood his texts through the lens of Indo-European cultural-linguistic affinities and the often surprising ethnographic transformations of urban-rural traditions and popular culture. There is always a recognition in his work that popular traditions and “strange,” seemingly irrelevant, often repressed, comic, or sexual elements within a culture past and present tell us much about the full, and often uncanny, woven “meaning” of any particular elite text.

A Freudian perspective has recently emerged in Alf’s reflections on his life’s work concerning the Mahabharata’s textual and cultic traditions and their harboring of a strange and yet familiar return of the repressed – all that is hidden in the dark womb of sexual, social, and personal life. Much of this, like life in any culture at any time and place, is simultaneously sacred and profane, edifying and absurd, sad and hopeful, serious and funny, familiar and uncanny. As Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen have shown us, Freud could be a serious comedian. After all, is it not the case that all real, or let us say “epic,” comedy involves some recognition and revelation of the Hidden or Repressed. And despite the heavy-handed deprecations of Freud by Frederick Crews, or the comprehensive attack on Eliade by Edmund Leach, there is still plenty to be edified, amazed, and amused by in Hindu tradition as unveiled by Freud, Eliade and Hiltebeitel.

Worth noting here is that this Freudian sensibility was anticipated by Alf’s intellectual heritage, especially as cultivated in those extraordinary revolutionary years in Chicago during the cataclysmic cultural upheavals of the 1960s. And we should remember that it was especially the expansive awareness of other cultures, religions, and consciousness in the 60s that led to the fitful establishment of Religion Studies as a discipline acceptable to the mainstream secular academy. Those of us at Chicago at that time were imbued with the emergent and open-ended spirit of the fledgling phenomenological perspective and multi-cultural interdisciplinarity of the so-called “history of religions” tradition, the somewhat more respectable academic inheritor of the earlier, and often overly Protestant, Müllerian tradition of Comparative Religion.

Most of us of in this generation, with Alf showing the way, were frequently bemused at Chicago by the prevailing disciplinary tribal mores, trendy theoretical fashions, and god-awful academic politics. In fact, being housed in the Divinity School, we were, it must be said, more or less Outsiders within the context of the greater university. And this was both our badge of shame and our saving grace. One way to cope with these disparities was to view the rituals and personalities of the Divinity School and the larger University through a prism that was always passionate but also mordant and funny with a refined taste for the absurd and strange. And it is worth recalling again that among Alf’s early cultural heroes were the absurdist existentialists Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus. As in Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café in Paris, we were all at the Swift Hall Coffee Shop comparing notes on Eliade’s phenomenology of myths and fantastic stories and an emergent Lévi-Straussian structuralism. It was in this caffeine-laced basement environment that we participated in our own theater of the absurd.

I will mention here only a few other absurdist exemplifications of life at Chicago at this time (and Alf and Randy will know the references): The Kitty aka Warshansky, Enigmatic Woman, Doc Savage, P.P. G. Sarath, Sueo Oshima, Eliade’s sacred squirrels, and the funk singer Joe Tex as expressed so vigorously in his 1967 immortal and immodest song “Skinny Legs and All!”  Amidst the dark social unrest at home and the turmoil of the Vietnam war, there was also the joy of a new-found intellectual liberation and breadth linked to an internationalized awareness of different cultures and religions, as well as a kind of absurd existential funkiness about life in general: “skinny legs and all."

We were always impatiently waiting for the never-arriving avatar of Godot or Camus’ Stranger during those years at Chicago led by a band of brilliantly quirky and sometimes flawed or guiltily tainted mentors like Eliade, Long, van Buitenen, Tillich, Ricoeur, Polanyi, Geertz, Creel, Bellow, Arendt, Bettelheim, and others (later Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, J. Z. Smith, Victor Turner, and Paul Wheatley) who in the manner of Geertz’s “deep play” appreciated the symbolism of cock fighting as a window on the ritual intercourse of the serious and the silly, high and low, elite and popular aspects of cultural tradition, particularly religious and academic life whether in Bali or Chicago. Moreover, much of the absurdist incongruity of this era is perhaps best captured in one of Eliade’s favorite Latinisms—that is, the alchemical “coincidentia oppositorum” of all human life.

There are many stories to be told about this mythic era, one of which has to do with the infamous non-debate between Geertz and Eliade staged at a local bar by graduate students from Anthropology and the History of Religions program. But that is a story for another time and place. I want here to recount only one final story that highlights another intellectual hero for many of us doing graduate studies at that time. I refer to Chuck Long the flamboyantly charismatic African American scholar who upon receiving his doctoral degree at Chicago in the capacious spirit of the Eliadean “history of religions” became a close colleague of Eliade in the Chicago program and certainly the most spell-binding shamanic teacher at the Divinity School.

Long had a rare talent for taking abstract ideas about the fundamental nature and meaning of Eliadean themes like “spirit and matter” or the “sacred and the profane” and making them seem surprisingly simple and yet insightful, relevant, and exciting. Alf tells us that evening bull sessions with Long over vodka were among his most memorable experiences while at Chicago and he has always remembered Chuck’s provocative and pithy declaration about religion on the day in 1968 that Martin Luther King was assassinated. As Chuck said with great shamanistic fervor “religion is folks doing things.” My first reaction to this was, really, “just doin’ things”?  Well, as Alf went on to say, Chuck’s trenchant aphorism is “still—word for word—the best thing anyone has ever said about religion.” Alf explained that Chuck’s illustration of this oddly mundane definition of religion was the ritual action of the “putting of a cape, or shawl over the shoulders of preachers in the black church after they had spoken, which he said, was done to register that they had spoken forcefully” with “divine afflatus or creative inspiration.”

Now I must tell you that I have come to agree with Alf, even if I think it is finally necessary to add at least one word to Long’s exceedingly terse definition. That word is “special” as in: “folks doing special things.”  This strongly resonates with the spirit of Ellen Dissenayake’s evolutionary reflections on the human aesthetic and religious impulse and skill to make our mundane actions, words, and things “special” or “set apart” in a way that contextualizes the root ritual meaning of religion, the holy, the sacred, the strange, the sublime, the absurd, the uncanny, or the beautiful. At the same time, it draws together phenomena associated with the down coming of a “divine afflatus”—i.e., religious ecstasy and artistic creativity, visionary experience and the creative imagination. I believe Mircea Eliade also knew this truth about religion and art, story and performance, although not as emotionally and powerfully as Chuck Long and I rather imagine that is why they—the myth man and the ritual man—had such a mutually beneficial relationship.

Need I add that Alf’s work also certainly channels these same themes. It’s not so much the elitist myths, stories, and texts of culture, but the ever-changing ritual traditions that count in the making or “doing” of religion and art. Not sacred turtles on top of an infinite number of other turtles, but mostly the ritual act of piling them up, over and over again, “all the way down.” 


At the very end of my remarks, let me leave you with several final texts and contexts for understanding and appreciating our Avatar Alf Hiltebeitel and the transitional phase of life he enters into at this crucial ritual moment. I first draw your attention to two texts coming from China. Recall with me then Zhuangzi’s suggestion that this is a time not to “fade into the mist,” but like the sacred tortoise who dreads being sacrificed, prefers only to wag its “tail in the mud.” And then there is Kongzi or Confucius who somewhat daoistically observes that when entering into the seventh decade of life, you are finally able to “follow your heart’s desire without transgressing what is right.” [七十而從心所欲,不踰矩 ]

The other context most properly comes from Indian Hindu tradition and I refer to the fact that, in the Ashrama scheme of things, Alf has already transcended the Forest Dweller stage of life. The truth is that he seems ready now to embark on the path of the Sannyasin where the perfection of wisdom and spirit is uppermost. But I suspect in keeping with Alf’s iconoclastic and defiant spirit he will not go forth as a complete recluse. Rather as he enters into the Great Silence he will continue to speak even more loudly and powerfully of all that binds us ritually together: those repressions of silence and sound, spirit and matter, wisdom and compassion, male and female, text and tradition, sacred and profane. This is what’s called, “folks doin’ special things.”

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Alumni Updates/Class Notes

Amara Amadiegwu, BA ’18, has started her master’s in Development Studies at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. Her expected date of graduation is September 2020.

Kenny Ames, BA ’99, spent several years in advocacy, the media and communications. He is now returning to where his career began. He resumed congressional service with a the U.S. House of Representatives working for the CAO.

Brooks Boron, BA ’14, is currently practicing labor and employment law in Cleveland, Ohio. In addition to his legal practice, he is involved with multiple Democratic political campaigns around the state of Ohio.

Michelle Caluag, BA ’14, works in marketing in San Francisco. She is actively involved in religious event planning, retreats and meetups. She still reads her religion textbooks from time to time.

Suanne Edmiston, BA ’06, lives in Alexandria, Va., and works as legislative staff on Capitol Hill.

Amir Faghfoory, BA ’02, works as a psychiatrist in Orange County, Calif., and has returned to school after 10 years to obtain a master's and PsyD in marriage and family therapy. He is glad to stay connected to the Religion Department at GW; his father is a professor there.

Emily Filler, BA ’03, is currently on academic sabbatical from Earlham College, where she is chair and assistant professor of Jewish studies. This summer she taught at Limmud, Australia, where she gave a series of lectures in Judaism and philosophy.

Gregory Frink, BA ’10, graduated from Columbus School of Law at CUA in 2018, and is currently employed at a plaintiff-side employment law firm in Washington, D.C. He is married, has a 1-year-old daughter, and lives in the Navy Yard neighborhood of D.C.

Matthew Goldberg, BA ’96, is the director of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Louisville. He lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two daughters.

Dost Khan, BA ’99, is an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. He splits his time between managing chronic spinal pain conditions, and the perioperative care of the surgical patient.

Ellen Lee, BA ’59, received an MSS degree from the Graduate School of Social Service, Bryn Mawr College in 1963. She is retired from private practice of psychotherapy. Ellen is engaged in spiritual studies, choral singing, and travels to be with grandchildren in Maine and California.

Alisha Murdock, BA ’13, started a new role as the director of campus operations in July 2018 for Cesar Chavez Capitol Hill Public Charter School.

Batul Razvi, BA ’03, works as a staff anesthesiologist at Washington Hospital Center. She lives in Virginia and has three beautiful children.

Timothy Schum, MA ’16, is embarking on his third year as a PhD student in Islamic Civilizational Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., where he is focusing his research on aesthetic philosophy in the premodern Islamic world.

Meghan Sweet, BA ’09, is an instructor and administrator at Dharma Realm Buddhist University, a liberal arts college in Northern California where students read and discuss Eastern and Western Great Books.

Rachel Talbert, MA ’98, is in a doctoral program at GSEHD at GW and is currently conducting dissertation research.

William ("Basil") Tsimpris, BA ’98, resides in Richmond, Va., with his wife, Jen, and their children, John Landon and Anne Kathryn. He is a staff attorney for the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Laura Weil, BA ’78, has been a school social worker in Arlington for almost 20 years. She finds her degree in religion with a specialty in Judaic studies helpful in both life and work. She is proud to be an alumni of this small but mighty department.

Jacob Wolf, BA ’11, is a veterinarian completing a residency in emergency and critical care at the University of Pennsylvania.

Carolyn Zuttel, BA ’78, was rehired in San Juan, P.R. She organized Dr. Josafina Magno to introduce Hospice in Puerto Rico. She remarried a Swiss, birthed two more sons, championed for ordination of women in Bern, CH and now is an endorsed hospital chaplain in Raleigh, N.C.

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Donor Recognition


The Religion Department would like to gratefully acknowledge the following generous donors who made a gift to the department from July 1, 2017 – June 30, 2018.

+ Faculty/Staff | # Parent | ~ Student | * Friend

Toby Shawn Stuart Bordelon, BA ’99

Dr. Paul Brooks Duff +

Henry J. Ferry, PhD, BA ’60

Carma H. Khatib, BA ’16

Leslie N. Laurie BA ’18 ~

Ben L. O'Callaghan, III, BA ’14

Victor Xavier Rodriguez, MA ’79

Sarah A. Silverman, BA ’17

Heather M. Young, BA ’94

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Support the Department

Gifts to the Department of Religion allow us to provide support for faculty and student research and travel, graduate student fellowships, and academic enrichment activities including guest speakers, visiting faculty, and symposia. Each gift, no matter how large or small, makes a positive impact on our educational mission and furthers our standing as one of the nation's preeminent liberal arts colleges at one of the world's preeminent universities.

You can make your gift to the department in a number of ways:

  • By mailing your check, made out to The George Washington University and with Department of Religion in the memo line, to:

The George Washington University

PO BOx 98131

Washington, DC 20077-9756

  • By phone by calling the GW Annual Fund at 1-800-789-2611.

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