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Dr. E. Allen Richardson, Religious Studies

A Global View

East Meets West: Cedar Crest Professor Is Introducing a New Generation of Students to the Wonders, and Realities, of the Middle East

Dr. Allen Richardson

When you arrive at the door of Dr. Allen Richardson's campus office in Curtis Hall, you can't help but need a moment to search out the professor amongst his things.  As your eyes wander about the room, they quickly take in shelf after shelf stacked full of books and textbooks, some older with well-worn spines and titles faded, some fresh with glossy colorful dust jackets, and some that might even list their owner's name as author on the title page.  The space left on each shelf is occupied by photos and souvenirs of Dr. Richardson's travels to places and lands that many of us have only experienced through books like those that line the office's walls, and are certainly far and away different from life at 100 College Drive, Allentown, PA.  

Recently, when Exchange sat down in Dr. Richardson's office for this article, the professor, who has been teaching religious studies at Cedar Crest since 1984, proudly showed-off the latest addition to his collection of foreign wonders.  There, draped across a chair also doing its part to contain his personal library, was a black t-shirt exclaiming "Ya'alla Cedar Crest!"above a picture of a pyramid with palm tree and camel nearby.

"Oh but you have to turn it over,"says Richardson.  "The best part is the back."

The back of the shirt lists the top 16 memories and enlightening moments that 29 Cedar Crest students took away from a once-in-a-lifetime journey on the Nile in Egypt led by Dr. Richardson this past January.  Among the memories: 

"I can break down Egyptian history on 5 fingers;"

"I bought something for 20 pounds that was originally quoted at 400 pounds;"

"I crawled through a tiny, narrow tunnel in stale air to the top of the Great Pyramid;"

"Pigeon was offered on a fast food menu;"and

"I'm really grateful for U.S. traffic laws."

Admittedly, quite a few things on the list would make most scratch their heads in confusion.  "Since you weren't on the trip some of them may not make any sense. Let me know if you need any clarifications,"says Melinda Yoder '08, a biodiversity and conservation biology graduate who made the Egyptian journey and helped get the shirts made.  Clearly, you had to be there, but for Dr. Richardson that's precisely the point.

"This t-shirt is a metaphor for exactly why I wanted to organize this trip to Egypt and why I hope the College can offer more like it in the future,"says Richardson.  "The students who went didn't just go sight-seeing, though the sights were pretty amazing; they got to experience and immerse themselves in a completely different culture from their own, and it's something they will never ever forget."

The nine-day Egyptian Kingdom tour was offered in conjunction with a special topics course, "A Journey on the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Religion, Art and Culture,"which met three times in the Fall 2007 semester to prepare for the trip and discuss the academic themes that would frame the tour and coursework.  As Dr. Richardson explains, those themes emerged by looking at Egypt's past, and also how western culture's perceptions of that past have affected Egypt's present.

"There is a big difference between Egyptology and ‘Egyptmania,'"says Richardson.  ‘Egyptmania' is a popular fascination with ancient Egypt that is almost a religious movement.  But it has very little to do with historical accuracy or with the actual nature of ancient Egyptian religion. One goal of the course and travel experience was to foster a better understanding of Egyptian religion, art and culture that moved beyond the stereotypes we frequently encounter in American popular culture – the idea, for example, that ancient Egyptians couldn't possibly have been sophisticated enough on their own to have the skill that could produce the great pyramids  or make major advances in surgical procedures.

"On another level, as Americans living in a secular society,  we may not be able to grasp what it means to live in a religious society like Islamic Egypt.  Exposing students to it first-hand could help mitigate some of the cultural stereotypes that we encounter in media reports about Islamic societies."

The goals of the course reflect the overarching themes of Dr. Richardson's academic focus and teaching career.  As an undergraduate student at Syracuse, he took a class in the History of Religions – a technical name for a discipline that was originally called the Scientific Study of Religion and that emphasizes the objective study of religious phenomena and human religious behavior.  The course excited a personal fascination with the cultural manifestations of religion and of Hinduism in particular.  His interest eventually led to a trip to India to study Hinduism first-hand.

"Travel changes your mind and your life,"says Richardson.  "If the aim of academic life is learning, then how better to learn about a subject than by immersing yourself in it."

As Dr. Richardson made the transition from student to professor, his research and expertise became more sharply focused on studying the transplantation of mainstream Asian religions to the United States.

"I am an Historian of Religion.  Historians of Religion do not emphasize comparative studies as much as the benefits of studying religious expression in its own, unique cultural context.  Although the name of the discipline suggests the study of the history of each tradition, Historians of Religions are more concerned with the practice of the faith and its inner most experiences of the sacred."

In this context, he explains, there are important topics to explore when a religion such as Hinduism is brought here through immigration and tries to establish itself in the framework of American society.

"The practice of the religion inevitably changes.  Hindu temples here are different from those in India.  The questions become even more compelling when we begin to look at what happens when this new cultural variation of Hinduism is introduced back to its roots through the dynamic forces of globalization."

In fact, two of Dr. Richardson's books on the subject, "Strangers in This Land: Pluralism and the Response to Diversity in the United States"(Pilgrim Press, 1988) and "East Comes West: Asian Religions and Cultures in North America"(Pilgrim Press, 1985) were among the first to examine the transplantation of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam to the United States following significant changes in U.S. immigration law in 1965, and Dr. Richardson is frequently called upon by the media to lend his expertise in the area.  "Strangers in This Land"was also used by students in the Pluralism Project at Harvard University as they engaged in first-hand research in this growing phenomenon. Richardson lectured at Harvard shortly after the publication of the book.

"I believe that this work not only has considerable benefit for the study of religious diversity, but also for the improvement of the quality of life wherever religious plurality exists.  Ironically, in 1979 my doctoral dissertation focused on a Hindu devotional sect that was relatively unknown in the United States.  Now, a little over twenty years later, the same sect (the Vallabha Sampradya) constructed a multi- million dollar temple outside of Pottsville, less than an hour from the College."

Dr. Richardson often takes his Cedar Crest students to visit the temple and witness how Hinduism exists in America today.

Furthermore, that kind of exponential growth has led McFarland Press to call upon Dr. Richardson to revise "Strangers in this Land,"a project that he is currently undertaking.

Simultaneously, he is also working on another book project, though this time not as author.  Richardson has been charged with the task of editing and annotating the sole copy of a travel journal written in 1849.  The journal, written by Sarah Breath who was in her early twenties, describes her four- month journey from Boston to Urmia, Persia (present day Iran) in the company of her husband Edward, who worked for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions as a printer in Urmia until his death in 1861.

"There has been a renewed interest in 19th century travel and missionary journals as a genre, especially those that describe trips to the Middle East,"says Richardson.  "Their observations provide some of the most revealing accounts about the nature of colonialism.  In cities like Constantinople (modern Istanbul) Protestant missionaries found themselves in a confusing world in which the policies of the Ottoman Empire, which recognized religious plurality, were at odds with their own, more theologically exclusive, orientation.  Some of the same issues inform our own present day situation."

Richardson says that editing the book, which is scheduled to be published later this year by Gorgias Press, has been a challenge and has taken him a bit out of his field, but the chance to be a part of making it available to the public and academics is exciting.  

"Her writing is beautiful and poetic as she talks about watching the sultan go to prayer in Constantinople and as she describes traveling by mule caravan through the mountains in northwestern Turkey.  As a professor at a women's college, the fact that the journal is written from a woman's perspective is especially meaningful."

He even incorporated the idea of a journal into the requirements for the Egypt course.  Students kept a travel journal of the trip with daily entries emphasizing observation of both the antiquities and of modern Egyptian society and culture.

Encouraging Cedar Crest students to explore other cultures through travel is something Dr. Richardson feels fits perfectly with the College's overall mission as a liberal arts institution.

"Cedar Crest is a college that is really dedicated to fostering social awareness, ethics and appreciation of global diversity.  Traveling abroad in an academic framework is one of the best ways to translate that mission from an ideal to a reality for our students.  The preparation, the trip and the follow-up of reflection and academic research make the whole thing come full circle."

That is why Dr. Richardson is currently recruiting students for another course featuring a travel component.  This time he will lead students to India to learn more about Hinduism's roots and its growth in America – the place where he himself strengthened his knowledge of Hinduism as an undergraduate.  

As planning for this next adventure continues, Dr. Richardson is hopeful that more students will become interested, and the enthusiasm of the students who traveled to Egypt is only helping that cause.  He acknowledges, though, that it is difficult for some students to be able to take the class even though they are very interested and it fits with their areas of academic study.

"The students are responsible for the costs associated with the trip itself.  While the rates are very reasonable through the tour company that we use, it is still unaffordable for some students.  I'd like to explore the possibilities of creating a scholarship or finding other funding that would allow these outstanding students to sign-on for such an amazing opportunity."

Fact File

Who: E. Allen Richardson, Ph.D. – Professor of Religious Studies, Chaplain

Education: Ph.D., University of Arizona
M.Div., Union Theological Seminary
A.B., Syracuse University

CCC Faculty since: 1992 (Full-time), 1984 (Adjunct)

Academic interests: Religious Pluralism in the U.S., Asian Religions, South Asian Diaspora, Devotional Hinduism

Courses taught: death and dying, ancient near eastern religions and cultures, introduction to religion and culture, Hinduism in America, Buddhism in America, Islam in America, psychology and religion, religions of south and east Asia, spirituality and wellness.

Last Updated: 4/1/09