Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Rome: A Crossroad of Religion

So here's the course catalogue blurb from the Rome class:

"ROME: A CROSSROAD OF RELIGIONS

"Description

"Utilizing the history, arts, architecture and geography of Rome--at the crossroads between Europe and the Mediterranean and rapidly becoming increasingly diverse in every respect--this course will address central issues in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, while also bringing forth the unique perspective of the Waldensian minority in Italy. Through lectures, discussions and numerous site visits, this course will offer an interdisciplinary introduction to Rome, the chance to meet with diverse scholars, religious leaders and communities, the experience to study with students from Europe and other US seminaries, and the opportunity to engage with pressing theological and ethical issues from cross-cultural and inter-faith perspectives. This course is co-sponsored by Starr King School for the Ministry, the Waldensian Theological Seminary and the Melancthon Ecumenical Center. ... The course will occur at the Waldensian Seminary in Rome, Italy, and will be co-taught by Gabriella Lettini and the Faculty of Waldensian Theological Seminary and guest scholars from Rome, Italy. [15 max enrollment; Auditors excluded] Class meets 1/04/08-1/18/08."

Rev. Dr. Lettini is my advisor, and an amazing scholar and professor. An addendum to her bio on Starr King's website: she is now the president of the American Waldensian Society, not just the Veep.

The class was divided into three focus areas of study that came together for common programs. The boundaries of these areas were porous, with students encouraged to cross over and in between groups for lectures and field trips of particular interest.
Track 1 looked at History and Archaeology (I took this track, so when I refer directly to my class experiences it is safe to assume that they are either within this umbrella or are common courses), Track 2 focussed on Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue (more on that tricky little distinction later), and Track 3 examined the "Resurgence of God" and Secularism.

Students came from Starr King and from PSR in California, from Union in New York City, from Union PSCE in Richmond VA, from New Brunswick (New Jersey), and from Wake Forest University. There were around forty of us, mostly Protestant Christian, mostly female-identified, mostly straight, mostly between 25 and 35 (at a guess) and mostly white. A number of my classmates had just finished their first semesters of seminary education.

The bulk of classtime occurred at La Facoltà Valdese di Teologia, the Waldensian Seminary in Rome.
View Larger Map The Facoltà occupies a good corner of a city block right between Vatican City and the beautiful public park of the Villa Borghese. It also is very close to the sublime Castel Sant'Angelo, and the hideous Pallazo Giustizia. The Facoltà has a large library and a beautiful, tall central room where many of our classes and meetings took place. We started each day with a student-led worship service as a way of highlighting our different faith traditions and practices. Shams and Perry led a Sufi service that culminated in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer in the original Aramaic. I led a service, about which I will write more in a future post. Our Waldensian hosts led several services, as did other American students.

We would then have afternoon classes, either learning as a group, traveling on a field trip, or splitting into our different areas of focus. We typically had a group lunch at a restaurant near the Facoltà. Lunch would be followed by free time or common lectures.

I feel it is important here to raise up the incredible graciousness and hospitality of our hosts, their school, and the guest lecturers they gave us the privelege of learning from. All the lessons were given in English, all of our requests and needs were accommodated, and all our needs were provided for. In addition, we had the privilege of learning alongside students at the Facoltà, students from Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Switzerland.

A lot of the American seminarian intra-class bonding seemed to result from a fish-out-of-water, culture shock sort of feeling; or maybe a better way to put it would be to say that friendships were founded on the common ground of the shared experience in a culture with standards and norms other than USAmerican cultural norms and standards. I am a fan of friendship, and bonding through shared experience is inevitable, but at times it felt that Italian culture served as a foil, a monolithic(-ally perceived) Other that had no merit or function of its own but served only to remind USAmerican culture students of what they were by throwing it into sharp relief. Yeah, it's exactly what Foucault points out about the importance of queer sexual practices and bodies (they let dominant culture know what it is by displaying what it is not), but why reinvent the wheel? The insight has been made (and widely disseminated), so run with it, I says. At any rate, this dynamic was doubtlessly not particular to our group, and would also be evident at other times during the class.

The professors for the course came mostly from Italy and Switzerland, by way of Berkeley, Harvard, and Rome. There were also lectures by professors travelling with the groups from their schools.

Dr. Diane Lipsett lectured on the new synthesis emerging between historical sociologists and New Testament scholars, given that the books of the New Testament offer some of the few primary sources from antiquity that are concerned with non-elite lives, bodies, and movements. Her lecture was titled "Family and Gender in the Early Church," a title which, she explained, was from an entire semester-long class, and therefore difficult to sum up in 90 minutes. Nevertheless, it was one of the best lectures I've had the pleasure of attending--in a later post I will share my notes from the lecture.

Dr. Craig Atwood, who taught me much about his Moravian faith during a walk to the Vatican Museum, gave a lecture titled "A 17th Century Vision of Ecumenism, Peace, and Justice: Comenius' Plan for the Reform of Church and Society," which sounded rad but sadly overlapped with Prof. Lipsett's lecture. (Both Prof. Lipsett and Prof. Atwood teach at Wake Forest.)

Dr. Francois Bovon, of Harvard, gave a series of intensely focussed lectures on the letters of Paul and Clement.

Dr. Martin Wallraff, of Basel Uni and also the Melancthon Center, was the primary lecturer in the History and Archaeology focus, and led us on several outstanding tours--he had a remarkable gift for teasing out the strands of antiquity from the city's modern fabric, and for transmitting the vibrance and vitality of early Jesus-followers in Rome.

Dr. Lettini, whose CV I have linked to above, gave several screenings of movies set in Rome and dealing with the city's multi-layered, intersexional character. Her screenings, though, were all seemingly exiled, scheduled to begin at 9 pm. Most people were exhausted by this time, and the screenings were very sparsely attended. To my chagrin, I only went to one--but man, am I glad I did. It was the last film screened, La Finestra di Fronte, or Facing Windows, directed by Ferzen Ozpetek. It is a powerful movie that I highly recommend, and that I will write more about in a later post.

Hopefully this post has set the scene for the structure and makeup of the course. In subsequent posts I will elaborate on thoughts and themes that still resonate with me after the close of the temporal part of this class, and post some of the photographs I took as I journeyed through the city of Rome.

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