Students enrolled in St. Anne’s-Belfield’s Comparative Religion Senior Seminar study world religions that are over 1,000 years old. And yet, these traditions continue to influence our contemporary world. Instructor Bob Clark, who serves as the director of Religious Life at the School, provides students the opportunity to visit modern places of worship and speak with religious leaders, proving that religion is not just the study of the past, but an exploration of the present.
During the year-long Senior Seminar, students explore Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The opportunity to learn about so many faiths was the reason student Jeremy C. ’21 chose the course.
“I really wanted to learn about the various religions of the world in order to help better form my own thoughts, feelings, and outlook on life, and what a spiritually meaningful life looks like.” — Jeremy C. ’21
And while each tradition is unique, students like Jeremy learn these faiths also have a lot in common.
“The neat boxes that put religions into different categories start to break down when you actually look closely,” Clark says. “There’s pluralism and so much connection across traditions.”
While the course usually includes a field trip component to religious centers around Central Virginia, the pandemic meant Clark had to get creative. This year, instead of visiting the facilities, the class conducted Zoom-based interviews with religious leaders across the country, including a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Texas, a student in Princeton University’s Masters of Divinity Program (who is also a St. Anne’s-Belfield alumnus), and the executive director of the Brody Jewish Center at the University of Virginia. Students were also able to reflect on religious life at their own institution, when they interviewed Clark, who has spent 23 years at the School, teaching some form of world religions. Each of these Zoom talks featured a student-led interview, a text study led by the religious leader, and an open question-and-answer session.
“Being able to connect with religious leaders from across the country and ask them questions really helped our class connect with the religions we had been reading about on a whole new level,” Jeremy says.
After interviewing religious leaders, the class set out to create a digital publication, called “World Religions in Contemporary Voices,” to showcase their experience in the class. The project put learning in the hands of the students, a major goal of these Senior Seminars at the School. Some students conducted each interview session, while another group acted as editors-in-chief of the digital publication, writing the content, acquiring photos, and working on the layout.
Because the topic of religion requires an understanding of other subjects, such as history, literature, and art, a course like this is key in preparing seniors for a college setting. But perhaps even more valuable is the chance for students to learn something about themselves.
“A course like this really enhances the senior-year experience,” Clark says. “We are providing an opportunity for seniors to explore their self-understanding, who they are, and how they relate to the world in relationship to so many spiritual teachings.”
As for Jeremy, he says the most important thing he took away from the class was to stay open in mind and heart.
“My hope is that this lesson will help me to continue into the future with a better ability to appreciate the value in different faiths, as well as different views and ideas,” he says.