Person of the Week: Professor Roshan Abraham

Professor Roshan Abraham kicked off Thinking About Religion, a sixty person class, by showing a deeply uncomfortable interview to his students. It was an interview of Reza Aslan, the author of an academic book about Jesus entitled Zealot. The interviewer was incessantly questioning Aslan’s ability to write objectively about Christianity, given that he is a Muslim. That interview raises some important questions, like can a person who isn’t Christian objectively study Christianity? Can a person who is Christian objectively study Christianity? What does it even mean to study a religion objectively? It was the most fascinating hour of class I had ever had in my life, and I was dying for more.

I went up to Professor Abraham after class and asked how I could declare a major in Religious Studies, and showed up to his office hours the next day. I ended up going to every office hours, for the entire duration, for the rest of that semester. I had so many questions from class, and the more questions he answered, the more questions I had to ask. I ended up spending four hours in his office every week, talking about Religious Studies, his research, my academics, my interests, what I ultimately want to do, what I think of college, and everything else in life.

Roshan Abraham is hands down the best mentor and teacher I have ever had. I don’t think I’m alone in this assessment: he has profoundly and positively affected the lives of an astounding amount of his students, especially mine. This, in part, can be attributed to Religious Studies, which is one of his two disciplines. He says that “teaching a Religious Studies course is dangerous.” Every student that walks into the classroom already has opinions about religion, as well as their own person religious beliefs. Those preconceived notions, and the centrality of those notions to people’s identity, is what makes Religious Studies so “dangerous.”

However, Professor Abraham did not begin his academic career in Religious Studies. He was born in India, moved to the U.S. when he was three, and grew up on the Kansas side of Kansas City. Both of his parents went to seminary school, and his dad was a minister in a German Protestant Peace Church. As an undergrad, Abraham studied Classical Languages and English. He wrote his honors thesis on imperial literature in India. He then got his PhD in Classical Studies, where he stumbled upon the biography Apollonious of Tyana, who has a distinctly similar story to that of Jesus. Many early Christians wrote about Apollonious, typically casting him as a magician. This discovery was Abraham’s gateway into Early Christianity, and ultimately, Religious Studies.

At WashU Abraham designed the curriculum of the aforementioned introductory Religious Studies course, Thinking About Religion. Abraham’s goal in this class is to encourage students to study religion as they would study any other human phenomenon. He wants them to reflect on their experiences and assumptions, and hopefully challenge those experiences and assumptions by looking at data that might contradict their preconceived notions of religious experience.

He says that the goal isn’t to challenge anyone’s personal beliefs. In fact, he starts every course with an explanation of the distinction between the academic and confessional approaches to the study of religion. The confessional approach is studying religion from a religious perspective. The academic approach is studying religion from an academic perspective, which generally requires that religious or non-religious beliefs be bracketed. This distinction is important in order to be cognizant of biases and not let them affect scholarly work.

An important piece of the study of religion, as Abraham puts it, is that “we find out that the things that religion does can be found in other phenomena.” Many of the examples he gave in class are unconventional, like studying Baseball like a religion, or the Star Trek “fandom.” He also would incorporate what students brought to him into class. For example, I saw a Daily Show segment on exorcisms, so we watched it in class before discussing demonology and the exorcism accounts we had read.

Abraham would like to do his next research more in the field of Religious Studies. Religious Studies is very preoccupied with categories, and he would like to study the use of the categories “human” and “divine” in the centuries surrounding the nascent phase of Christianity. He’s also interested in exploring religious motifs in modern storytelling, particularly in Comic Books, and how these stories address contemporary concerns in the same ways that religious stories have in the past.

While Abraham loves teaching, he loves interacting with students even more. Being an advisor is his favorite part of his job. Before he even got to his first day of work at WashU, two students had emailed him asking him to advise their theses. His fellow faculty members had warned him against taking on too much, especially in his first year when he was getting used to a new environment. But he agreed to advise both students without hesitation. His commitment to advising stems from his personal experience, as when he was a student his advisors were perpetually available to him for anything that he needed.

He encourages his students to not be afraid of wherever their interests take them. While he wants students to be realistic about whatever their expectations for their chosen paths will be, he also doesn’t want them to hesitate to pursue their interests. He encourages this pursuit even if it’s extremely different from their initial path. His biggest piece of advice to students: “follow your interests.”

I have taken his advice to heart. That class convinced me to be a Religious Studies major and changed the way I think about the world. My WashU experience has been entirely shaped by his mentorship and friendship. For that, I am forever grateful.