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Comprehensive Exam

Department of Religious Studies


Religious Studies | Comprehensive ExamSenior majors take an essay examination relating to the principal areas of interest in religious studies. One full day or two half-days are allowed for writing. The written part of the examination becomes the basis for the oral part, a conversation held soon afterward between the Department faculty and the student.

The purpose of the comprehensive examination is to deepen students' engagement with religious studies as they review and integrate the matters they have dealt with in their courses and fill the most important gaps in their preparation by additional study.  Questions posed in the examination give students opportunities to articulate and develop further their understanding of religious facts and issues.  

The examination is conducted in four major areas:

1. Approaches to the study of religion

  • What methods of inquiry are most helpful in attempting to understand the distinctive character of a particular religious tradition?
  • What are the most important generic structures of human religiousness that can be seen in all (or most) examples of religious life? What are the most helpful explanations for the existence of these structures?
  • How would you define the relationship between "religion" and "culture"?  Is religion a "part" or a "dimension" of culture?
  • Does it make sense to view religion as an expression of culture?  Can culture be viewed as an expression of religion?

2. Textual and historical studies

  • What does a reader need to know (about historical context, literary form, theology, and the phenomenology of religion, for example) to read sacred texts intelligently?
  • What makes an event or series of events "formative" for a religious tradition?  What are the most formative events in the history of Christianity, for example?
  • How are the different branches of religious traditions constituted?  What divides them?

3. Comparative Studies

  • What differences of belief and practice between religious traditions are most significant for students of religion to take into account?  What is their significance?
  • What questions or categories might help one to make comparisons among two or more religious traditions?  What are good rationales for a comparative project?  What are the most significant limitations or hazards in comparing religious data?
  • Some argue:  "Religious traditions are so different from each other that comparison itself is impossible.  To compare is inevitably to generalize and to distort."  How do you respond?  Is comparison possible? Can it be done?  How, if at all, can it be done well?  What good can come from comparison?

4. Argument

In this section of the comprehensive exam you will address a question in or about religion from the perspective of a major religious thinker or theorist of religion whom you have chosen in advance. (You may, alternatively, choose a major movement in religious studies that would be represented by several key thinkers.) Your thinker or movement will have systematically engaged many of the major topics of religious thought (e.g., ultimate reality, the constitution of humanity and the world, the problem of evil, the nature of salvation or enlightenment, religious community) and/or the major aspects of the phenomenon of religion (e.g. the nature of religious experience, the logic of religious concepts, the history or sociology of religion, relations between religion and culture). The goal of this exercise is to give you an in-depth appreciation of the strengths and limitations of one powerful way of approaching a wide range of religious issues, indeed a way of organizing the whole field that ideally should be taken into account by any serious participant in religious reflection or theory of religion.

Well in advance of the exam - normally by the end of the preceding semester - you will have consulted with Religious Studies faculty and received approval of a bibliography of three of the most significant works by your thinker (or in your movement) and three secondary sources that are most helpful in illuminating issues associated with your thinker (or movement).


The Paper Option

Instead of preparing to answer a 2-hour essay question at the prescribed time of the written comprehensive exam, submit by the Friday before the week of the exam a 15-20 page paper on your chosen major religious thinker or theorist of religion. Alternatively, your topic may be a movement rather than a single thinker.

The paper should (1) situate the thinker (or movement) historically and intellectually; (2) present the main arguments of key texts, with appreciation of what they purport to offer for our understanding of religion today; and (3) evaluate the thinker's (or movement's) relative strengths and weaknesses according to other scholars and your own perspective.

For a model of this kind of approach, you might look at the way Daniel Pals presents and assesses thinkers in his Eight Theories of Religion.

The paper will be evaluated in terms of both content and expression. All standard scholarly rules (e.g., regarding the handling of sources) apply.

You are required to make significant use of at least three primary works by your thinker and three works of secondary scholarship about your thinker. These will be approved in advance by Religious Studies faculty.

You are welcome to consult with faculty and with your fellow students as you work on the paper.