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Meet the Faculty

Suzanne Bessenger

Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
B.A. Mills College; M.A., Ph.D. University of Virginia
(e-mail)

I got bit by the Religious Studies bug early on. While an undergraduate at Mills College, a small women's college in Oakland in my home state of California, I participated in a “Tibetan Studies” study abroad program. I lived in Tibetan exile communities in northern India and Nepal, traveled through south-western Tibet, and conducted research at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center in Nepal. I ended up returning to Asia for many extended stays over the next twelve years. During one of these journeys I came across iconography of the Hindu-Buddhist hybrid goddess Dorje Phakmo, easily recognizable by the small boar's head protruding from her neck. Later I was introduced to a rare biography of an historical Tibetan nomadic woman named Sonam Peldren who, although uneducated and not affiliated with any religious teachers or institutions, claimed she was a human incarnation of that goddess. My translation and analysis of that biography became the subject of my dissertation, “Echoes of Enlightenment: The Life and Legacy of Sonam Peldren”, which I completed for my doctorate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

My immediate research projects include preparing a full-length translation of Sonam Peldren's biography and revising my dissertation research for publication. An additional project is an examination of the contemporary living tradition that takes Sonam Peldren as its inspiration, a project I began when I recorded the songs and rituals of a small group of refugee Tibetan nuns from an eastern Tibetan nunnery believed to be located on the site of Sonam Peldren's miraculous death. I also hope to publish a critical edition of Sonam Peldren's biography in standard Tibetan script for distribution among communities of her followers, as the women I interviewed expressed a longing for this incredibly rare text to be made more widely available in a legible script.

In my classes on Asian religions, I try to provide an interpretive framework, presenting students with a variety of materials—video, novels, and translations of primary texts—rather than conclusions. I also am convinced that when students have the opportunity to compare their “classroom knowledge” of a religion with its practice in a lived context, they develop a deeper appreciation for the multidimensional and dynamic nature of religion and religious beliefs. I therefore require students in my Asian religions courses to visit religious centers during the semester and to rigorously analyze and integrate their studies and fieldwork in writing. With this hands-on approach to learning, students use and develop their own analytical skills rather than merely memorizing content.

In my free time I like to explore the James River, wander through thrift stores, play super heroes with my 4-year-old (I'm Wonder Woman, of course), watch my 14-year-old skate on our backyard skate ramp, and tackle home repair projects which I am entirely unqualified to perform on our 1920's American four-square.

Gordon Steffey

Chair of Religious Studies, Associate Professor of Religious Studies
B.A., St. Olaf College; M.Div., Yale University; M.A., Ph.D., University of Virginia
(e-mail)

My passion for the study of religion was born in the old city of Jerusalem and reared in an ecumenical monastery in the Saône-et-Loire department of the Bourgogne region of France. I have shared hot chocolate with the late Frère Roger of Taizé and blood cake with a Miao shaman in Guizhou province, China. I have rubbed the elephant’s back at Wannian Temple on Mount Emei Shan in Sichuan province and surveyed the Dead Sea from amid the ruins atop Mount Masada. Travel, international and domestic, with all the thrill and trouble it implies, is the gate to self-knowledge and to the knowledge of religions. The 11th century Muslim polymath al-Ghazali writes, “I have ever bravely embarked on this open sea, throwing aside all craven caution; I have poked into every dark recess, I have made an assault on every problem, I have plunged into every abyss, I have scrutinized every creed of every sect, I have tried to lay bare the inmost doctrines of every community.” Religious Studies is a discipline for travelers, for those resolved to fathom every abyss in pursuit of insight, and for those who welcome dislocation and the crumbling of old securities. I encourage my students to take to the road and equip them to travel well.

My teaching interests are sweeping and include the study of religious autobiography, Abrahamic apocalypticism, spiritual exercises, text criticism and historical Jesus research, religion in film, women and gender in late antiquity, classical and Continental philosophy, and modern religious thought. With an article on evangelicals forthcoming in Critical Muslim, I am now returning to my work on classical theory and constructions of the sage.

When at rest, I may be found solving dilemmas terrestrial and otherwise in the company of friends, cultivating cosmic consciousness, plotting the founding of the philosophical commune Platonopolis, and cheering on Chelsea FC.