The Department for the Study of Religion (DSR) is delighted to introduce its newest faculty member, associate professor Ronald Charles, who joins us from St. Francis Xavier University. Hailing from Haiti, Ronald completed his PhD in the DSR in 2014, a path that began in 1997 at Toronto Baptist Seminary (MDiv) and took in an MTS from U of T’s Wycliffe College along the way. His academic interests include religions of Mediterranean antiquity, Jewish studies, diaspora studies, and religions of the Americas and Turtle Island. Ronald’s approach includes the study of Black communities of biblical interpretation, and he is co-organizer of the upcoming conference “Haiti and Decolonization in Biblical and Religious Studies: Christian Origins, Liberation Theologies, and Vodou.”
Before you came to the DSR, you had begun a PhD with the Toronto School of Theology – what prompted you to switch?
I took some courses taught by people associated with the (then) Centre for the Study of Religion, including one with John Marshall, who encouraged me to consider the CSR. I had begun to realize that I wanted to study religion as a human phenomenon, to develop my own understanding and learning rather than be confined to seminary teaching.
How have your academic pursuits developed over time?
They come from my own journey and my own interests. I say journey, because I've travelled extensively and lived in different countries, so movements, spaces, geography have always been very interesting to me. Diaspora studies have been important to me, in trying to understand my own self but also trying to understand the places in the ancient world that I was reading about. That interest came together with the biblical field in my dissertation where I looked at Paul in the context of diaspora politics and movements, questions of identity. This is connected, too, with my interest in social justice, in history from below. My latest book, The Silencing of Slaves in early Jewish and Christian Writings, asks how would it be to conceive earliest Christianity differently if we were to pay attention not to the major figures like Jesus, like Paul, but textualized characters like slaves. They are there, yet they are not there – mostly they don’t speak, they come and go. What would it mean to actually pay attention to them?
As you go forward now at U of T, what are your plans?
I still sometimes pinch myself – am I really here? This is a great opportunity I have, a great gift. I also continue to think of those scholars who do not have positions where they can be excellent in the way that a university here allows one to be.
I see myself as a teacher first. I teach because I am in love – I love what I do and the areas I’m interested in. Of course, I am a researcher but that, too, comes down to being a teacher and a student myself. I want to learn because I realize there is so much I don't know but also so I can share what I do know with others. I am working on two monographs now – one in English and one in French – and editing two volumes – and I also have seven chapters to write this year for different book projects. There is plenty to do!
You will be teaching method and theory in the academic study of religion for the incoming MA class next year. What is it about the topic that attracts you?
It's really thinking about what is it that we're doing, what do we think we're doing, what has been done, what has been said, where can we go in terms of thinking of what we're doing in a way that is rigorous. So, that's really what it is, basic questions, the foundations. When you enter any field, it’s important to know what the conversations have been like before you got there.
At the undergraduate level, you are giving the student ways to approach the field and to see what has been done. By doing that, you are enabling the student to become a scholar in the making. At the master’s level, there is engagement with the great thinkers of the past – reading their work, thinking critically about it and understanding what has gone before. You are preparing the student to act as a kind of scientist, going into the field and analysing data. And then when you get to the PhD level it becomes about what are you yourself saying, because you've been listening to this conversation for a while and have a good grasp on what has been, and is being, said. Now you are invited to say something yourself. What you’re saying is not necessarily new in the sense that no one has said it before, but maybe you’re saying it in a way that is nudging the conversation forward or maybe in a different direction or with a different nuance.
From what areas does the study of religion draw for working on this most human of phenomena?
Something I enjoy very much about our field is its interdisciplinarity. We use tools from sociology, from anthropology, from psychology, from history, from literary criticism, from classics, from so many areas. In order for us to zoom in on what we want to do, we figure out how are we going to use these tools in order to advance our own intellectual endeavour. If you look at the DSR, you can see how scholars come at questions from different methodologies, but they are all interested in particular fundamental, foundational questions related to religion. I like the fact that we are not forced to stay within one specific box, that we can use different tools to help us achieve what we want to do.
Ronald is also a talented violinist. While he was a PhD student at the DSR, he gave a guest performance at one of the Tea at Two events organized by graduate administrator Fereshteh Hashemi. We are happy to announce that, when circumstances permit, Ronald has agreed to play for us again. In fall 2022, he will be teaching the new undergraduate offering, RLG231 “Religion and Music: From Bach to Kanye West,” which gives a global perspective on how music is at the core of religious narratives, rituals, beliefs, and cultural performances.
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