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boisi center for religion and american public life

Photo of Erik Owens

Letter from the Interim Director

May 2017

At the Boisi Center we work hard to convene and sustain rigorous, civil, and constructive conversations about religion in public life, in pursuit of the common good of a religiously diverse society. We frequently bring exceptional scholarship into dialogue with engaged citizenship and the creative arts, to produce meaningful exchanges that inform, challenge, and inspire. It’s a collaborative effort, not just between our staff and the speakers, or between the speakers and the audience, but also between the Boisi Center and all the other academic units, institutes and centers that we work with. 

This academic year alone, in addition to our graduate student symposium, we organized and hosted twenty public events on campus and co-sponsored six others. In the process, we collaborated on at least one public event with seven of BC’s eight schools and colleges (and I’m sure we will work with the Woods College soon), ten departments or interdisciplinary programs, seven other BC institutes or centers, several graduate and undergraduate student organizations, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

Collaboration, for us, isn’t merely making a virtue of necessity (though it is that, too, given our limited resources); it’s integral to the work we do as interdisciplinary public scholars, and as scholars of religion and public life. In talking about this recently with colleagues who lead centers like ours at other universities around the world, it has become clear that many others feel the same way, and are eager to break out of the silos that usually prevent us from working together as institutions. 

As a result, I have begun to work on several projects with centers at other universities, and I am pleased to announce that the Boisi Center will be convening a summit of academic centers on religion and public life in advance of the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), which meets November 17-21 in Boston. We have invited leaders from fifty centers and institutes in North America, Europe and Africa, and will be joined by AAR senior staff and its next three presidents (who are elected three years in advance), plus members of the AAR’s Committee on the Public Understanding of Religion (which I chair). Participants will share best practices, discuss common ends, and hopefully make a plan for some sort of collaboration in the years ahead. Although the meeting is closed to the public, we will provide a report in our next newsletter. 

A number of other fall 2017 projects and events are taking shape as well. On October 11 we will host a high-profile conference marking the 50th anniversary of a seminal document in American Catholic higher education known as the Land O’Lakes Agreement, featuring the presidents of five Catholic colleges and universities. We’re co-sponsoring a multi-day conference on “Educating for Modern Democracy” (November 7-9), and we have several lectures, seminars, and evening events that we’ll announce later this summer.

Our popular lunch colloquia will continue with sessions on the new critiques of religious freedom; Islamic intellectual traditions; and the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation (noting, of course, that Martin Luther was both an Augustinian Catholic priest and a contemporary of Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola). 

University of Oklahoma professor Mara Willard will be in residence for the 2017-18 academic year as a visiting scholar, researching a book on communities of practice among Boston Catholics during the 2002 crisis in the Church.

Perhaps most importantly, this summer we welcome the Boisi Center’s new director, Mark Massa, S.J. a distinguished historian of twentieth-century Catholicism and former dean of BC’s School of Theology and Ministry. Mark and I have been in close contact this year and I expect the leadership transition to be seamless as we continue the Boisi Center’s work in the years to come. 

Finally, I note with sadness the departures of five (!) of our terrific staff members from this year. Undergraduate research assistants Ryan Duffy, Amelia Parker and Sylvia Waghorne are graduating; graduate research assistant Tom Fraatz will complete his dissertation this summer and receive his Ph.D. in Biblical Studies this fall; program coordinator Suzanne Hevelone, who earned her Ph.D. in our theology department several years ago, will start teaching in the beloved PULSE program here at BC. (See the back page for more about their next steps.) This crew has done an enormous amount of work this year to pull together our public events, web content and this newsletter, and I will miss them greatly. We’ll have a new crop of research assistants in the fall (along with veteran Omeed Alidadi, who returns from study abroad in Tajikistan), but it’s bittersweet to see a fun and productive staff move on to other positions.

Best wishes for a restful, productive and adventurous summer to all. 

~Erik Owens

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