First of all could you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to come to UVa and pursue the type of degree that you did?
Well, I did my MA at the University of Helsinki, and we don’t have an actual Tibetan Studies department there, so I was just in the department of Asian and African Studies doing Indology, but anyway focusing on Tibetan Buddhism. I didn’t have an adviser that knew that much about TibetanStudies—so he encouraged me to go do a Ph.D. somewhere else. Then, we hosted a Sanskrit conference in Helsinki in 2003 and I asked many scholars there where should I go, and almost everybody told me to go to UVa!
Why is that?
Apparently UVa has got a good reputation of having a really good department, and it is the biggest department for Tibetan Studies. Eventually I applied especially because I was interested in David Germano’s research, since I was also interested in Tantra and Dzokchen. I didn’t even apply anywhere else!
Once you were admitted, are there any particular memories that stand out from your time here?
Yes. When I first arrived, I was looking at the course offerings, and thought, “There are more seminars than I can actually take! This is incredible!” During all my studies before that at the University of Helsinki, they didn’t offer almost any courses apart from elementary language courses, Introduction to Asian religions, and maybe Introduction to Asian history, if you’re lucky. Most of my studies, I had to do by myself, just reading books and writing essays. I was really excited to be here and actually participate in advanced spoken and literary Tibetan courses, and Sanskrit translation. They make everybody work like crazy, but somehow it was really worth it for me, because at the time of finishing my MA, I worked in Finland for one year as I was finishing and one year after I finished. I worked as a school teacher, teaching ten and eleven year old kids, and forgetting my languages. I kind of loved it but, I thought “This is not really what I was trained to do!” (laughs) And I was working really hard! So I was really excited to come here and continue my studies, and be paid to do that! (laughs) The quality of education was really what stood out here. Everybody was so hard working and the quality of the language instruction and the seminars was really impressive to me.
I know you’ve attended local conferences, such as the regional American Academy of Religion conference in Nashville. Tell us a bit about your experiences presenting at conferences. Has it helped to shape your path and if so, how?
The first conference I participated in was IATS, 2013.
International Association of Tibetan Studies. It’s the major conference every four years in the field of Tibetan Studies. That was in Mongolia. It was great to attend, and I had no idea there’d be about 700 speakers!
Wow! And how many attendees?
Well, 700 attendees, and almost everybody gave a presentation, simultaneous sessions going on, all day for a week. I’d been to some conferences before that but I’d never presented. I guess I felt like I didn’t have anything original to say before that, but at that point, I’d been working on my dissertation for years, and was already writing it, so it was really exciting to have something new to offer. So, my presentation was about my dissertation topic, and it was really well received. Hardly surprising, because I’d been working for years and years already up until that point, so I was well prepared! (laughs) It was really helpful to give that presentation. It helped me to understand what is essential in my work, what’s interesting to people, and how to present things like this, and how to narrow your focus into what’s relevant. So it’s really useful especially at the time when you’re writing your dissertation. That’s a good time to do conference presentations. I highly recommend it!
If my memory serves, your dissertation is about a Tibetan scholastic figure not unlike Longchenpa, but more accessible? Is that a fair characterization?
Rindzin Gödem. He’s not really a scholastic figure, more of a wandering visionary yogi. He’s a treasure revealer, a tertön. He did not write for intellectuals, like Longchenpa. He did not write to a sophisticated, educated audience. He wrote for practitioners, people heavily steeped in ritual and contemplative practice. I argue that in the centuries after Gödem’s revelation, he was more influential because those in the Nyingma audience were more into practice and ritual. They were not very into scholasticism, especially in the 14th century. Nyingma scholasticism only really took fire after Mipham, in the premodern period. And then, Longchenpa became more popular, and is now more famous and widely read. In the centuries after these two Dzokchen authors flourished, Rindzin Gödem was more popular and more widely read.
You and I have talked in the past a bit about the importance of respect in practice environments—receiving traditional textual transmissions from Lamas, and preliminary practices (Ngöndro) in order to do field work. Do you have any practical advice for new scholars in Tibetan Buddhism concerning this issue?
It’s a really important issue. It’s a curious time these days, because all the secrets are out already. Not every transmission has been published, but as far as topics go, somebody has already written and published about all types of secret tantric practice. There are already books on most aspects of tantra and Dzokchen. But people should definitely be aware, if you are a scholar and want to go out in the field and research some esoteric topic, people will not help you unless you, first of all, have the empowerment. Nobody will help you translate a text if you don’t have the empowerment. And if it’s some kind of higher and more secret text, you will also have to have completed the preliminary practices. You have to basically be a practitioner of that particular system, or people won’t help you read those texts. I mean, you might be able to find somebody who will, but that person will definitely not be some kind of prominent figure in the tradition that you’d want to study with. This is a really serious issue. We are often not told this in academia. We are just kind of sent off into the field with the plan to study a tantra or some esoteric practice system, and then the person will find out the hard way that nobody you’d actually want to work with will help you! Unless you already have connections, unless you are already a practitioner, and you already have a Lama. My advice would be, if you’re not a Buddhist, if you’re not already connected to a Lama and practice tradition, if you haven’t already done a little practice and don’t know that side of the tradition, it might not be the best idea to choose a really esoteric topic. I mean, you’re just going to make your life really difficult. I didn’t really know I was going to have to do Ngöndro, and wait for the empowerment for two years (laughs), things like that! I kind of knew it, but not really. But it’s all OK, because I was not in a hurry, and I wanted to do Ngöndro and practice the tradition. But if you’re not willing to go through all this or don’t already have the necessary background, then maybe focus on a philosophical text, or a topic that does not have all these types of complications.
What were your educational experiences like prior to UVa and what shaped your path in deciding to enroll?
I got my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and my Master’s degree at Union Seminary in the City of New York (MA Hons. RS and STM respectively). Both places were incredibly exciting and formative for me and in many ways, my current work continues to build on the intersection of interests I learned at both institutions. I fell in love with theology at Edinburgh – they taught me to love reading difficult primary texts, to value gracious and nuanced writing, and they trained me in the ways of Karl Barth! Anyone taught theology through reading a lot of Barth so early on never really lets that go. Barth is so creative – always taking something you thought you already knew, flipping it around, and showing you its complexities. I still find that I approach my own theological work that way and that returning to his writing continues to inspire and motivate what I do. Union Seminary is an extremely dynamic place – they taught me to seek out voices that can be marginalized in mainstream theology and not to be afraid of digging deep into the big ethical questions of our time. Living in community there and taking classes with professors like James Cone really challenged me to develop my theological voice and to take responsibility for my theological perspective. Union taught me that good theology is grounded in real, personal, existential questions – writing a paper is not just a writing exercise but is an opportunity to wrestle with ideas, traditions, contexts, ethics, and to find a way to put that wrestling match on the page. In fact, now I think about it some more, this really came together for me in a class with Peter Ochs during my first year here at UVA. He encouraged us to write our papers from a place of honest questioning. It sounds so simple, but ever since that class I’ve tried to take that seriously. I think it makes writing papers harder, but I also think that it results in work that is more honest and in the end, more fruitful.
What is special about your track within the department? Do you have specific memories that are especially exciting to recall?
I am in the Theology, Ethics, and Culture track. What’s special about it, I think, is that it combines the chance to really focus on areas that you care about (for me, theology), but to also build in other courses that can help you be a better scholar – and with some great professors. So, for example, I loved taking courses with Paul Jones on Calvin’s Institutes, on the work of Karl Barth, on Theories of the Atonement, and I also had the opportunity to study Political Theology with Charles Mathewes and Phenomenology with Kevin Hart, among others. One of the things I love about our program is that you are surrounded by really brilliant people – professors and fellow graduate students – who work hard and who are just really, really smart. That’s true in other Universities too, no doubt, but what I think is unique about our program is you get that brilliance, but that it is not in a cut-throat atmosphere. People here like each other and we recognize that when our fellow students do well, it reflects well on all of us. Getting a grad degree is a massive investment of your time. These things matter!
In what ways have you connected with the academy outside of UVa, that might not be evident in your CV? What have been some of your favorite experiences in travel for academic work, field study, conference presentations; studying, teaching, or working on other school campuses?
I’m a total conference geek and I get really inspired by the work of other scholars. I love the annual AAR conference – I go early and leave late and completely fill up my schedule with sessions and talks. I really enjoy going to sessions that border my own studies but are beyond my day-to-day work: sessions on queer theory, liberation theologies, womanist and mujerista theologies. I really loved the sessions last year on the conversation between the disciplines of religious studies and theology. Last summer I also attended the annual Barth conference at Princeton for the first time and I loved it. I had the opportunity to present a paper related to my dissertation, and just being there for the other sessions and conversations reminded me why I love what I do and really acted like a catalyst for my own research. I have also presented papers at an SST conference in the UK (Society for the Study of Theology), at Duke (we have built great friendships between the grad students in our departments), and here at UVA at our annual TEC conference (Theology, Ethics, and Culture). I’ve also been teaching theology this semester at Mary Washington which has been a great experience. The students are smart and being in the classroom gives me such a high. Oh, and I’ll let you in on UVA’s best kept secret: every year I go to the presentations by the DMPs (undergraduate Distinguished Majors Program) at the end of the spring semester. If you care about teaching and about religious studies as a discipline, it is always truly encouraging to see such great work by up and coming scholars being supported and recognized in the department.
How has the mentoring of undergraduates and newer scholars been part of your path? What challenges have arisen and how have you overcome them? For those determined to pursue Religious Studies as a vocation, what advice might you offer?
Mentoring undergraduate scholars has been a very significant part of my experience at UVA. Obviously, we have great opportunities as Teaching Assistants in our program and I learned a great deal in that environment. I’ve also developed some long-term mentoring relationships with younger scholars. There is a still a lack of women in our field and so many of the students I connect with are young women. Being from the UK and growing up as an atheist and then becoming a part of the church as a young person myself, I really connect with students who are trying to find out how to balance their own ideas and commitments with the things that we are reading – both atheists (and non-religious people) and committed Christians can have a hard time working out how their own ideas and background interacts with their study of theology. I like to address that head on in the classes I teach, bringing in principles I learned in Scriptural Reasoning – that we all bring wells of wisdom to the classroom from our particular perspective; that we respect everyone as such; that our goal in the classroom is not to agree with one another; and that we find unity in our conversations by staying close to the text. I think it’s important that we help students become scholars who can fully integrate themselves in what they are studying. Sometimes this means setting some boundaries, especially in the classroom, but I think they need to be boundaries that still invite the whole person into the conversation, not asking them to leave a part of themselves at the door. Finding a way to invite students into the study of theology – whatever their personal background or beliefs are – is what really motivates me in my teaching.
As far as offering advice to those who are determined to study Religious Studies as a vocation, I would say that gathering advice from a lot of people is really wise. Make sure that you find a program and professors who really understand your interests and who will be great people for you to learn from. Everyone says this, but it is really important to find a department where you want to work with several professors, not just one. If you want to be a scholar, find somewhere that has good placement rates. If you want to get into an alternative career, make sure you are continuing to build that experience through your time in the PhD program. I would also say only do it if you’re sure it is what you love and if you are self-motivated and ready for a marathon: PhDs are hard work and take time and you need to know you can keep going even when things seem impossibly hard – not just intellectually, but also emotionally.
Outside of your own particular specialization, what contribution do you hope your dissertation will make? What audiences might it reach?
My dissertation is about the way that Christians talk about sin and injustice. I work with an often overlooked part of Barth’s Church Dogmatics and social theorist Michel Foucault in order to think about the way that sin manifests in the contemporary world, particularly in light of personal participation in complex, large-scale injustices (such as white privilege, heteronormativity, income disparity etc.). I talk about things like the obscurity that we often have to our participation in large-scale systemic problems, the constantly evolving nature of injustice and sin, and the way that our participation – even in small and seemingly innocuous ways – forms us and forms our relationships with those around us. Basically, I think our language of sin needs to become much more complex if we want it to keep up with the ways that we have come to think about systemic issues and I think the church needs to find resources not just to think about sin in these more complex ways, but to find ways of talking about sin that encourage Christians and Christian communities to take seriously the ways that theology itself is implicated in these issues.
I think that my dissertation has something to say to theologians and Barth scholars – I draw heavily on Barth’s understanding of sin, which I think is much more complex than many people realize. I think my work speaks to those interested in theology as a discipline: what it is, what its limits are, how theology forms and is formed by culture as well as revelation, reason, and tradition. I am also part of a small (but growing) group of theologians who are interested in the intersection between theology and critical theory. Critical theory is often thought of as a very ‘secular’ discipline that is, well, very critical. But I think that the insights of those who have thought seriously about issues like class and power can offer theology some incredibly useful tools and perspectives for a theology that seeks a critical self-awareness in order to speak more faithfully and responsibly both within the academy and the church.
What are your next steps after defending your dissertation and graduating? If you could design your ideal job position or post-doctoral work, what would it be like?
I will be defending and graduating this year so this is question is very much on my mind right now! I find that I am someone who gains real energy from the classroom, so I’d love to teach somewhere that really valued their students and wanted faculty to invest in them. I also love my research and writing, so I’d also love to work somewhere that really values and encourages that side of everything too. I have also been very invested in leadership and teaching within the church during my time in Charlottesville, so I think I’d thrive in a seminary position. At the same time, I’ve really loved teaching at the University of Virginia and the University of Mary Washington, so I know that I would find work in liberal arts colleges or research-focused institutions that also put a high value on their teaching equally fulfilling. Wherever I am, I plan on continuing to gain experience teaching, working on several articles and papers that have had to sit on the back-burner during these last few months of my dissertation, and, no doubt, continuing to be a total conference geek.
(Gillian's student profile can be accessed here. -ed.)
Our own Prof. Vanessa Ochs served as the acting field producer for this PBS editon of "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly." We hope the first six minutes of interviews will be of particular interest, as they give a firsthand account of the issues many scholars of religion will be watching in 2016.
Included in the interviews are UVa professor Kathleen Flake and UVa alum, Rumee Ahmed, now at the University of British Columbia.
Our own Professor Nichole Flores has been named as the Religious Studies Mellon Humanities Fellow by The Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures (IHGC). Her fellowship project, Guadalupe in the Public Square: Aesthetic Solidarity and the Pursuit of Justice, is a monograph project examining how symbols can potentially inform the imaginative life of citizens toward shared ethical goals in an increasingly pluralistic societal context. Professor Flores joins the inaugural class of this fellowship, along with four other UVA faculty fellows. Further details are here.
We are very pleased to announce a three-year, $1 million grant awarded by the Henry Luce Foundation to the Virginia Center for the Study of Religion (VCSR). Details are here.
We have added a partial list of faculty books to the web site here, along with links to their publishers. This list is in beta and will be expanded over time.
The department is pleased to welcome Nichole Flores, who has begun teaching courses this Fall term. Dr. Flores is the 2015 recipient of the Catherine Mowry LaCugna Award for her essay, "Beyond Consumptive Solidarity: An Aesthetic Response to Modern Day Slavery." Further information on Dr. Flores may be found on her individual web site here, and her faculty page here.
Recently Professor Erik Braun gave the keynote lecture at the graduate symposium of the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, CA. Click here for more information.
Professor Karl Shuve, specialist in early and medieval Christianity, is interviewed in a recent article adressing the "Nashville Statment," which was written and signed by a number of prominent Evangelical Christians this past week. Professor Shuve responds, “This is not a document that is seriously interested with the witnesses of the Christian past, nor is it interested in engaging seriously with the issues underlying marriage and gender identities of the present.” Read the article here.