A Representative of Religion

The Religious Studies program on UCI’s campus is severely overlooked.  Most of the faculty is interdisciplinary, with applicable courses crosslisted under “R.S.” One of these faculty members is Dr. Joseph McKenna, a lecturer from the Department of History & Program in Religious Studies, who is not only a wonderful instructor, but also a mentor to my many projects and laborious questions throughout my college career. His classes are of the most unique sort, and so I sat down with him to discuss his interests, as well as background, in the religious studies field.

Colleen Bromberger: What do you teach here on campus?

Joseph McKenna: My Ph.D. is in religious studies and I’ve taught what I call ‘the history of religious ideas’ in Southern California universities since 1992. I’ve been teaching in UCI’s history department and UCI’s religious studies program since 1999.

CB: Where are you originally from?

JM: I’m originally from Texas, where I did undergraduate work and began graduate studies at Rice University in Houston. I then moved hither and yon, doing more graduate work in England and on the East Coast of the U.S.A.

CB: What made you interested in religious studies?

JM: I was an English major in college, and after taking a couple religion classes, I became a double major. I began graduate studies in English but switched to religion. I suppose I was drawn to religion because it was a ‘meaty’ topic and somewhat controversial in academics. I still love literature. I’m a Shakespeare devotee, reading and viewing the plays regularly, and I follow a bit of Shakespeare scholarship, but only as an amateur.

CB: What is your area of focus?

JM: I typically teach Western religious ideas from early modernity to the present. For the history department, I’ve developed and taught courses in topics that, as I now consider it, were a bit taboo and frightening to me as a boy raised in the South. Courses like the history of the devil, the history of atheism and the rise of secularism in the modern world. 

The devil class meticulously traces the iterations of the devil idea through multiple religious traditions and exposes the ill effects of the idea of a devil. We also view the evolution of the devil in art, from 6th century to the present — a development that charts a movement from the horrific, to the heroic, to the hilarious.

The rise of modern atheism and secularism intrigues me too. For a thousand years prior to the year 1900 almost all intellectuals and scientists in the West, even notable geniuses, were theists. But by the year 2000 a majority of Western intellectuals, scientists and geniuses were either agnostic or atheist. How did that happen? It’s an interesting story that my students trace with primary sources.

CB: What classes are you teaching this spring?

JM: This spring I’m doing a course entitled ‘Inter-Religious Dialogue,’ and it provides a way to broach comparative religious ideas in a dialogical setting. Each week I raise a new provocative topic, including sexual morality, atheism, afterlife beliefs, science and religion, women’s role in religions, violence and religion and a few others.

CB: If you had to express the importance of religious studies for undergraduates, what would it be?

JM: Anyone with no exposure to religious ideas, and anyone whose sole exposure to religious ideas is their own devotional life, should find out what some of the many thousands of scholars in many academic disciplines have said, and are saying, about religion. 

Because religion has permeated the atmosphere of human existence, a thinking person should get exposed to various religious traditions as well as academic approaches to religion. UCI’s Religious Studies program has over 50 contributing faculty in numerous disciplines. Each discipline has various points of view when it comes to religion. But all are academic approaches to religion: they are not devotional or catechetical.

I think a university must offer more than accurate descriptions of religious phenomena and beliefs. A university must offer academic analysis of religion, too.