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KHK Fellow Interview: "Substantial Impact"

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End of March 2020, the second funding phase of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg "Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe" will come to an end. This research project undoubtlessly has have an impact on the Center for Religious Studies (CERES) for almost ten years since it has been the biggest project with an international reach. It is time to look both back- and forward and to give word to the visiting fellows of the Kolleg. The seventh interview is with Stephen Berkwitz. He is full professor of Religious Studies with focus on Buddhism at Missouri State University. He is a passionate fan of Borussia Dortmund and was visiting research fellow in 2011 and 2017 at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg. While being in Bochum, he investigated among others the religious contact between the Buddhist and Portuguese seafarers and missionaries in Early Modern Times.

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How did the KHK Bochum draw your attention for the first time? How did you apply for it?

I first learned of the KHK Bochum when I was invited to participate in the opening conference on “Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe” in 2008 at Ruhr University Bochum. A couple of years later, I was encouraged by a colleague to undertake research at the KHK, and I did so for the first time in 2011. Later, when the fellowship procedures changed, I applied for a second, shorter fellowship in 2017.

How was your research stay in Bochum? And what was your research project about?

My research stays in Bochum were wonderful! It is rare for Religious Studies scholars based in the USA to receive the opportunity to reside in Europe and pursue research with a group of like-minded international scholars. My first project was on the Portuguese discovery of Buddhism across Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries. My second project was on notions of divine kingship in medieval Sri Lankan Buddhism.

Why are your research topic important for an understanding of religious dynamics and religious contacts?

I think that my two research projects contributed to an understanding of religious dynamics and religious contacts, since they focused on encounters between different religious communities and the resultant cultural and ideological changes that occurred. Examining the process by which Portuguese missionaries and civil servants learned and wrote about Buddhism in different parts of Asia helped me to see how Europeans first developed a comparative, and often negative, understanding of an Asian religious tradition. This history provides a backdrop for efforts by Buddhism to defend and reform their traditions in the early modern and modern periods. And the investigation into a notion of divine kingship in Buddhism offers a fine case by which Buddhist authors incorporated Hindu notions of royalty into their own visions of kingship. My research led me to argue for the existence of a gap between political rhetoric and cultural expressions across religious traditions.

Compared to other institutions of advanced research, what characterizes the KHK Bochum?

The KHK Bochum is unique in its interdisciplinary and international make-up of researchers who come together to explore certain dynamic themes found across various religious cultures and traditions. Rather than being grounded in an area studies model, the KHK Bochum succeeded in offering a site for high-quality research and conversation between scholars working in different fields. Also, to its great credit, the KHK Bochum produced an active series of publications and workshops to disseminate the research being done there.
 
What impact had your affiliation with the KHK Bochum on your own research process?

The impact of the KHK Bochum on my own research has been substantial, and this is demonstrated by my interest in returning when possible to collaborate with colleagues there. It has broadened the scope of my research so that I now pay more attention to scholars based in Europe. It has also led to my participation in several conferences and volumes, which are opportunities that I never would have had if I wasn’t affiliated with the KHK Bochum. I am now more likely to explore thematic studies in religion, while emphasizing the truly dynamic nature of religious identity and the encounters between religious communities. And I now seek out smaller conferences and workshops that operate around the model of disseminating research in the KHK Bochum. Specifically, I prefer to participate in conferences or workshops that are organized around a particular theme, with a small number of presenters who are in the audience for each paper that is being given.

A look into the future: Given the fact that the KHK Bochum is temporary, what and how should scholars deal with the history of religions in about ten years?

I would like to see the future of Religious Studies grow in the direction of the path laid out by the KHK Bochum. Cooperative research in international settings can only be helpful for the development of the field. I believe that it is necessary for scholars in Religious Studies to continue to theorize about the dynamic natures of their subject of study. Subjects such as demarcation, inclusion, gender, metaphor, tradition, purity, etc. remain important for scholars in the field. It would be good for scholars to come up with new subjects that invite interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research. Subjects such as discourse, power, sexuality, and others that are not limited to religion but rather show how aspects of religion are interwoven with other forms of social phenomena and relationships will be useful to investigate.