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Department ofReligious Studies


Faculty Updates Spring 2020

Catch up with David DeCosse, David Gray, Lynn Hillberg, Margaret McLean, Joe Morris and what's happening in GPPM, Michelle Mueller, Thao Nguyen, S.J., Eugene Schlesinger, and Sally Vance-Trembath

David DeCosse

David DeCosse was the American respondent at a Catholic theological conference at the University of Vienna on February 28-29 based on the theme, "Between Fundamentalism and Secularism: The Contribution of a Multi-Cultural and Multi-Religious Europe for Today's Church and World." A book of papers from the conference including DeCosse's response is forthcoming. Working with Professor Sigrid Muller of the University of Vienna, DeCosse also co-authored a piece on the conference called "Refugees, Religion, and Secularism," that appeared in the international Catholic newspaper La Croix on March 23.

In another matter, DeCosse teamed up with Anthony Mejia '20 (Psychology, Philosophy) to co-author an essay entitled "The Amazon Synod, Indigenous Rights, and a Problematic Papal Bull" that appeared in La Croix on February 21. The article discusses the call by indigenous peoples for the Vatican to revoke the papal bull that helped launch Spanish colonization of indigenous lands in what has come to be called the Americas.

David Gray

David Gray has been very busy during the Winter and Spring quarters. In addition to his usual duties as chair, the department was fortunate enough during Winter quarter to be able to hire two new tenure track faculty members, in the areas of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and Islam in South Asia. Following the conclusion of these searches, most of his time was consumed by the transition to online learning in the Spring. In spite of these challenges, Gray still managed to publish an article, "The Visualization of the Secret: Atiśa’s Contribution to the Internalization of Tantric Sexual Practices" which was published in March in the journal Religions.

Lynn Hillberg

On March 17th, the first day of Shelter in Place, I began a personal COVID-19 tradition: posting a Shelter-in-Place daily report on Instagram. Below are the highlights: some work-related, some whimsical, some both! This offers the best glimpse into my life during this challenging and unprecedented quarter, a quarter during which I very much missed seeing all of you. March 17th was the Shelter-in-Place Order: Day 1. On May 26th, I posted Day 71. I find myself wondering how high these numbers will go. Wishing everyone a safe, healthy, and rejuvenating summer!

Day 1:  Home office set up, including a suet-and-birdseed-covered pine cone hanging outside my window.  C'mon, chickadees, I'm relying on you to entertain me.

Day 1: Home office set up, including a suet-and-birdseed-covered pine cone hanging outside my window. C'mon, chickadees, I'm relying on you to entertain me.

Day 2:  This is Esmerelda.  She sits next to my work desk and makes sure that I take breaks every 20 minutes.

Day 2: This is Esmerelda. She sits next to my work desk and makes sure that I take breaks every 20 minutes.

Day 9:  My printer arrived!  Excited!!! Intimidated.

Day 9: My printer arrived! Excited!!! Intimidated.

Day 11:  The chickadees found the birdseed pine cone!

Day 11: The chickadees found the birdseed pine cone!

Day 16 Part 1:  Lo-tech video production studio.  #OnlineTeaching

Day 16 Part 1: Lo-tech video production studio. #OnlineTeaching

Day 16 Part 2:  The result.

Day 16 Part 2: The result.

Day 21:  Ummm... This new passion for cooking may have its drawbacks.

Day 21: Ummm... This new passion for cooking may have its drawbacks.

Day 22: 'nohenge.

Day 22: 'nohenge.


Margaret McLean

“Now what?” I find myself trying to answer this question over-and-over. More often than not, I shrug my shoulders and get back to work while sheltering in place. Bored I am not as I have taken my Ethics in the Health Professions course online and work with local hospitals and the medical association on creating fair and transparent policies about scarce resource allocation.

Because I have worked in clinical ethics and pandemic preparedness for years, I have spent hours responding to reporters and chatting on podcasts. One of the questions I am often asked is whether or not I saw the pandemic coming. My answer is a nuanced “Yes”—bird flu, swine flu, SARS, MERS were previews of SARS-CoV-2 but a novel viral outbreak in early 2020 was not expected and no one was prepared. Lack of PPE and ventilators vexed us at first; shortages of medications—both remdesivir for COVID-19 and routine medications for chronic illness—now plague us. What allocation criteria best protect the public’s health? What is owed to those communities disproportionately at risk of harm from the pandemic and its consequences? What does it mean to be a person for others and to care for the whole person in a time of pandemic and out-sized uncertainty? One of my colleagues frequently quips that, “Ethicists worry so you don’t have to.” Well, I worry plenty for all of us.

So, while others try to coax sourdough starter, teach their children at home, run errands for vulnerable neighbors, and cope with physical distancing, I am discovering the joys and pitfalls of online teaching and worrying, so that you don’t have to, while I run along the Bay, keeping 6 feet away from the omnipresent Canada geese, and listening to the music of birds and waves.

If you want to check out a conversation about pandemic, ethics, and faith, hop over to the Voices of Santa Clara podcast for an interview with me by Gavin Cosgrove, class of 2020 and Religious Studies minor.

Stay safe; be well.

GPPM Corner

Hearty congratulations to Prof. Catherine (Kitty) Murphy who moves to a new position at SCU in the Provost's office. While we are happy for Kitty, we in the GPPM office where she has been the Associate Director are sad to see her leave. Words cannot express adequately our gratitude to Kitty for all of her contributions to the GPPM program - her organizational gifts, generous service, institutional and GPPM program history (Kitty is a graduate of the GPPM), creative teaching and warm, supportive spirit. We wish her every blessing in her new position and are glad she is only an office away. Thank you, Kitty.

Beginning this Fall 2020, the GPPM will offer an emphasis in Youth and Young Adult Ministry. Students will take the 7 required courses that all students must take as the core of the program but 5 of the 8 electives in this emphasis will be geared toward youth and young adult ministry. This emphasis will only be offered on campus at this time.

Michelle Mueller

Adjunct Lecturer Michelle Mueller has been appointed a 2020 Faculty Fellow of the Center for Arts and Humanities for her project on the Adam-God Doctrine and Heavenly Parents in Mormonism. She continues her project and will be mentoring student fellows in the Fall.

Thao Nguyen, SJ; Ph.D

Thao Nguyen, S.J.

March 2020 became an unforgettable month for me. I received news that my petition for tenure was approved on March 20, right after Governor Newsom issued the shelter-in-place order for the whole state of California on March 19. This indeed has prevented me from celebrating the good news with my family members, colleagues, and friends. Nevertheless, I see myself in the situations of my students who will graduate this June but won't be able to celebrate their graduation the way they had planned. In the midst of chaos and darkness, I have seen light and I will probably never forget the month of March.

Eugene Schlesinger

Eugene Schlesinger

The last several weeks have been a wild ride, the likes of which I hope to never take again! At the end of February, I flew through a blizzard to present my paper, "Mysticism and Sacrifice in Henri de Lubac" at the International Conference on Collaborative Philosophy, Theology and Ministry at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, NY. On the return journey, I noticed a good deal more facemasks on the plane and in the airport. Just over a week later, we got the news that in-person classes were being suspended.

Like the rest of the University community, what followed was a bit of scrambling to finish out the quarter and begin planning for a very different spring quarter than the one I'd assumed would happen. 

I had the good fortune to have this be my three class quarter. Through consultation with my students, I settled on a mix of asynchronous and synchronous formats, depending on time zones and needs. Spring Break was dedicated to grading essays from the winter and recording lectures for my TESP 50 - Catholic Theology: Foundations class for the spring. Along the way, I did a podcast interview on live-streamed liturgies and spiritual communion for the Systematically Podcast.

I'm also teaching PLIT 202 - Christian Liturgy for the GPPM and TESP 122 - Good and Evil (Mostly Evil) via Zoom. Though I've found teaching on Zoom to be exhausting, these classes have been a lifeline for me. This is not at all how I'd hoped to debut Good and Evil, but it means the world to me to be able to have these regular, real-time interactions with students.

When the shelter in place order came in, I immediately went to my office and filled a suitcase with the books I thought I might need between then and April 10 (how young and naive I was to think it would be over by April 10!). 

One highlight for me was getting approval to work from my office for a couple of class sessions, when I needed resources there for what I had planned. I brought my suitcases again and took home a few more books!

I had great hopes of making significant progress on my current research project, a book on Henri de Lubac, but have wound up having to give myself permission to just make it through the quarter before I worry about that (fingers crossed for summer productivity!). I did however, publish a review of Putting God on the Map: Theology and Conceptual Mapping, edited by Erin Kidd and Jakob Karl Rinderknecht (Fortress Academic/Lexington, 2018) in the Spring issue of the Anglican Theological Review.

With the whole family at home, we've got an interesting mix of doing things together and also staying out of each other's way. It's a strange sort of charming when the kids and I retreat to our various corners for our Zoom school. Because we've got a mix of extraverts and introverts, we've had to find creative ways to help everyone take care of themselves. (For the last week or so, my self care has largely involved obsessively listening to Hayley Williams's new album Petals for Armor.)

We've invested in some yard games, and as soon as it's safe and legal to do so, we'd love to have some department people over to play! We've also been playing a fair amount of Dungeons and Dragons, both as a family and over the phone with friends.

Outdoor gamesI miss my office and seeing colleagues and students in the hallways in Kenna. I can't wait to see you in a non-screen-mediated way!
Professor Argyle P. Woodford while Eugune Schlesinger teaches Liturgy.Professor Argyle P. Woodford while I teach Liturgy.

Bobbie, beloved dog of Sally Vance-Trembath

Sally Vance-Trembath

I regularly teach the Introduction to the Christian Tradition and the Theology of Marriage. Those courses are meaningful and I flourish while teaching them. That said, my training and area of specialization is the study of the nature and mission of the Church, that is, Ecclesiology. That is the specific area of scholarship that inspired me to earn my doctorate and that continues to animate my work as a public theologian.

I become alternatively impatient and exasperated by people who claim that the institutional Church has proven itself to be unnecessary and perhaps even worthy of destruction. (My purpose here is not to address the leadership crisis; I have done so often elsewhere.)

Human persons search for meaning. That search, not our large brain capacity, is the distinctive feature that is the source of our humanity. The Church is one of the places that provide the human community with crisp, effective packages of meaning. These come in many forms. There are rituals, teachings, prayer forms, communities of care, etc. Churches serve the human search for meaning; they have been doing so for centuries and will continue to do so as long as there are human persons who long for ways to navigate our complex lives.

Scholars do well to love the discipline they study; I love studying the Church; that stance is rooted in my love for the Catholic Church. The Church is on my mind as we sit in the middle of this shadow time. One of the things I love about the Catholic Church is that it has had the courage to admit errors, recognize mistakes, and to re-imagine itself. It has done so more than once and most recently during Vatican II (1962- 65). One of the teachings that the Church revisited at that magnificent event was how we think about how God communicates with us. Vatican II reminded us that the way God is God is through relationships. We cease talking about God when we ignore that essential starting point.

When you re-think a grand principle like God’s character, all the teachings that flow from the prior teaching will have to be adjusted; some of them will actually require strong rejection. One such teaching is the prior claim that only humans participate in everlasting life. Colloquially put, “There are no dogs in heaven.” What an absurd claim. If post-mortal existence, everlasting life, that is, “heaven” is to fulfill the promise of both Scripture and of our constitutive human longings, we must be able to do there what we have done here: to flourish in relationships of goodness and joy. So, during this shadow time, which has been compounded for me by the death of my beloved dog, Bobbie, I turn to the comfort of knowing that because I know that I love her she will be a real part of life, long after I too have shed this particular body.