Academic Programs 

  Thinking about Religion in the 21st Century   (TH-520)
Winter/Spring 2005

This course will provide anyone interested in the dynamic of religion in the modern world the opportunity to explore a select set of themes surrounding pluralism, modernity, and congregational life. 


Meeting Day, Time and Dates: 
This course will be held at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Farmington, Connecticut on Mondays from 6:30-9:30 p.m. on Jan, 24 and 31, Feb, 7, 14, and 28, March 7, 14, and 21 and April 4 and 11. The final session will be at Hartford Seminary.

Heidi Hadsell
Professor of Social Ethics 

Contact Information:

(860) 509-9502


Course Syllabus

Aims of the course:

1.   To introduce students to some of the main issues surrounding religion in the 21st century;

2.   To encourage students to think about these questions in an interdisciplinary way and from different vantage points;

3.   To enable students to cultivate critical thinking and the skill to present material to others.

Learning Outcomes:

1.   At the end of the course students will have an understanding of a sample of issues surrounding religion in the 21st century;

2.  At the end of the course students will have appreciated the range of perspectives from which these questions can be analyzed;

3.  At the end of the course students will have cultivated their evaluative skills sufficiently to make an informed presentation on these questions.

Course Assessment:

Short one page summaries of the reading that is set for each week

A presentation to be made in the last session which will be based on an eight-page research paper on a topic to be agreed with Professor Hadsell 

Required Reading(s): partial list

Life Abundant by Sallie McFague (2001) 

Detailed weekly breakdown

January 24 - Introduction and the Church in Society Today – Heidi Hadsell, Professor of Social Ethics

Overview of course -- religion and society, public theology, interfaith understanding. We will examine the role of religion, the nature of modernity, stewardship, sorting out the labels – secularism, pluralism, liberalism, fundamentalism. What the future may hold.

READING: Life Abundant - Sallie McFague

January 31 - Concepts of God – Ian Markham, Professor of Theology and Ethics

One of the most fundamental concepts in religion is our understanding of God.  In this session we look at the classical idea of God, which is found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and compare it with more modern accounts of God.  We look at the question: how do we decide which account is right?

READING: Peter Vardy, The Puzzle of God (Fount Collins).  Chapters 1 to 5

February 7 - Social Ministry – Carl Dudley, Professor Emeritus of Church and Community

We will explore the theology of faith-based social ministry:  In this interactive session we will explore how faith-based social ministries can express congregational identity in particular social locations.  We will take special note of role of leadership in conflict during the mobilization of ministry, especially in changing communities. 


1. Be familiar with one book on reserve in the Hartford Seminary library or available at the Hartford Seminary bookstore: 


2. As background for the discussion of this book, read on line:

Church in Society

“Doctrine as Guide to Social Witness,” by George Hunsinger

Church in the World

“Searching for Faith’s Social Reality,” by Lewis S. Mudge 

February 14 - Theology and Popular Culture – Kelton Cobb, Professor of Theology and Ethics

This session will consider some key theological concepts that are useful in interpreting popular culture.  We will look at artifacts that are not ordinarily considered religious--from art, movies, and fiction--and investigate what kinds of religious insights, longings, or dead-ends they may be expressing. 

READING:  Thomas Hibbs, Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld (Spence Publishing, 1999).  Read pp.3-53, 101-183.

February 28 - Theology of Engagement – Ian Markham, Professor of Theology and Ethics

In this session, we look at the Christian tradition of engagement with the ‘other’.  How and on what basis does the tradition assimilate an insight from another tradition?  Examples of engagement include feminist theology, Islam, and secularism.

READING: Ian Markham, Theology of Engagement (Oxford: Blackwell 2003)  Introduction, Chapter one, and Chapter two

March 7 - Islam in America – Professor Jane Smith, Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations 

Who are our Muslim neighbors? As the number of Muslims who now live in America continues to grow, and as Islam remains highly visible on the international scene, many Americans are wondering who these people are and what they have to contribute to our society. We will look at immigrant and African Muslims, their beliefs and practices, and their growing visibility as active participants in the social, political and cultural life of America.

READING: Asma Gull Hasan, Why I Am a Muslim. An American Odyssey, chapters 1-2, 5-6. Available in the Hartford Seminary bookstore and library, and in the library of First Church of Christ in Farmington.

March 14 - Judaism – Professor Yehezkel Landau, Faculty Associate in Interfaith Relations

This presentation will address how Jews, as a covenanted people, are called to consecrate both time and space.  The session will focus on the Sabbath and annual festivals, as well as on how the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem are integral to Jewish identity. 

READINGS: Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg and The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

March 21 – U.S. Congregations – Cynthia Woolever, Professor of the Sociology of Religious Organizations

What do 300,000 worshipers have to say about the American religious landscape? A lot of things you might not expect. Find out what people in the pew think about their faith and their local congregation. Learn how churches who aspire to improve, identify the unique islands of strength on which to build a positive future. Dr. Woolever relates surprising answers from a landmark survey of 2,000 congregations.

READING: A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations.   

April 4 - Challenges Facing the Church Today – Scott Thumma, Professor of the Sociology of Religion

This week will be a brief introduction to four major challenges facing religious life in the modern world: the Internet, homosexuality, global Pentecostalism, and individualism. 

The readings for this week include:

Internet & Religion  - Religion and the Internet, Scott Thumma

Pentecostalism Globally – The Spirit Bade Me Go: Pentecostalism and Global Religion, Margaret Poloma

Homosexuality in the Denominations - "It's Not About Civil Rights, It's About Holiness" Contradictory Institutional Logics in the United Methodist Church's Homosexuality Struggle, Amanda Udis-Kessler

Religious Individualism  - Individualism and the Crisis of Civic Membership, Robert Bellah, et al.

April 11 - Student presentations, final reflections – Heidi Hadsell, at Hartford Seminary

Presentations from students. What we have learned from the religious experience so far.  And where do we go from here?

Hartford Seminary  77 Sherman Street  Hartford, CT  06105   860-509-9500