The UMKC Center for Religious Studies
    University of Missouri-Kansas City

    Comprehensive Examination Questions


    These are questions which have appeared on comprehensive examinations in the past. While they will not be the same questions asked on upcoming examinations, they will give students a sense of the kinds of questions one can expect to encounter. In reviewing these questions, though, we encourage students to bear in mind two very important factors:
    (a) It is essential that you respond to the question as it has been posed; no matter how brilliant an answer, if it does not respond to the question asked, it is of very little value.
    (b) All questions require critical analysis and engagement. This does not mean simply listing or describing the various theological or methodological positions of scholars from the reading list. Reading lists are constructed, in part, precisely because scholars represent very different--often mutually exclusive--methodologies and theoretical positionings. Students are expected to stake out their own position with reference to the question, and then defend their choice of that position.
    Examination 1: History and Methods in the Study of Religion
    • One might say that there are two broad, general ways of studying religion--using diachronic approaches and using synchronic approaches. From your exam list, select two scholars who have studied religion with a diachronic approach and two who have studied religion with a synchronic approach. Then, write an essay in which you critically compare and contrast their approaches, arguing for the value and the limitations of each. In responding, be sure to use concrete examples to support your position.
    • Several authors on your list have argued for the primacy of psychological aspects for an adequate understanding of religion; others have argued for the primacy of sociological aspects. Select two authors from each camp, and, then, write a critical essay in which you evaluate their arguments. In your essay, use concrete examples to support your position.
    • In his essay, "Comparative Religion: Whither--and Why?," Wilfred Cantwell Smith argued that "no statement [by a scholar] about a religion is valid unless it can be acknowledged by that religion's believers." Write a critical essay in which you evaluate this methodological proposition. Should this proposition be observed in all cases and instances? If so, why? If not, when would you contest it and why? In responding, use concrete examples to support your argument.
    • Write a brief critical history of the category "religion" as it has been used in the West since the Enlightenment. What was the situation (socio-economic, cultural-historical, intellectual) in which it first gained currency? How was the category used? How--and why--has the usage and, perhaps, the referent changed?
    • Over the years, many studies have been published which promise to provide a "history of Christianity." In what ways, if any, would this history be different if authors took seriously the challenges offered by women's and gender studies? In responding, use the work of at least two traditional historians and two modern scholars of women's history and/or gender studies to build your argument.
    • You have read two recent studies of Galileo--Pietro Redondi's Galileo Heretic and Mario Biagogli's Galileo Courtier. Write a critical essay comparing, contrasting, and evaluating the methodological approaches used by these two authors. What sources of data do they use? How do they use these sources? Is one study better than the other? If so, why? What lessons can a historian of Christianity glean from these studies?
    • In their work, most historians rely on written documents for information about the past. Recently, however, some historians have begun to develop methods of using oral history in order to better understand the past. Select two studies which employ oral history and critically evaluate their results. What is gained (or what is lost) by introducing oral histories into the mix? What methodological cautions should historians take in using oral sources? What ways, if any, do these differ from those taken when using written sources?
    • An old saw has it that "religion must be caught, not taught." Do you agree with this viewpoint? If so, why? If not, why not? In presenting your answer, use scholars from your reading list to support your position. In addition, present the positions of at least two scholars whose positions you disagree with.
    • One of the primary tensions in the field of religious studies as it is currently constituted concerns the treatment of religion as a phenomenon sui generis. Some scholars argue that the "idea of the holy" cannot be excluded from the study of religion; others assert that the "religiousness of religion" obscures more important issues that ought to be under consideration. Drawing on the theorists you have read, discuss the respective positions in this debate and develop your own stance relative to it. In doing so, be sure to support your position with concrete examples and careful argumentation.
    • Ritual practices are found in almost all religions. Select three major scholars of religion who have written on ritual and present a critical evaluation of their respective views on the roles ritual plays. Finally, locate your own understanding of ritual in relation to these scholars, using concrete examples of religious rituals to illustrate your position.
    • Comparison has been at the heart of the academic study of religion for centuries. From your reading, select two examples of what you take to be proper and useful forms of comparison that one or more scholars has pursued and two examples of what you take to be improper or unhelpful forms of comparison. Carefully elucidate the comparative methods you approve of and those you disapprove of, while providing a critical evaluation of these. Be careful to identify precisely what elements, aspects, or situations determine the validity or invalidity of a given form or method of comparison.
    • The definition of "religion" has long been a source of contention among scholars. Select three major figures who have attempted to define this categorical term. Critically compare and contrast these definition, evaluating their respective merits and demerits. Use concrete examples to illustrate your argument. Finally, present and justify your own operative definition of "religion" or, alternatively, present an argument why no such definition is possible and/or desirable.
    • Marshall Sahlins has written that "There is no such thing as an immaculate perception." What did Sahlins intend in proffering this witty one-liner? What major methodological presupposition(s) or position(s) is he implicitly challenging? Do you agree or disagree with his argument? If so, why? If not, why not? In responding, use concrete examples to support your own position.
    • "Religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men [and women] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic." Clifford Geertz's famous definition of religion has provoked much comment, both positive and negative, over the years. Write a succinct essay evaluating the adequacy of this definition using at least two religions with which you are familiar as concrete test cases.
    • Pierre Bourdieu has written that there is no room for empathy in the social scientific study of religion. Do you agree or disagree with his position? Why? In responding, use the work of at least two different scholars and evaluate their critical approaches. To what extent (and when) is it useful to adopt an emic (insider's) perspective and to what extent (and when) is it important to adopt an etic (outsider's) perspective?
    • Write a critical evaluation of the method employed by Mircea Eliade in his book Patterns in Comparative Religion. What are the strengths or advantages of this method? What are weaknesses or limitations? Be as specific as possible in responding.
    Examination 2: Comparative Studies in Religion
    • Compare and contrast the respective functions of the Torah, the Vedas, the Bible, and the Qu'ran in the Jewish, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim religious traditions. What types of authoritative interpreters of these sacred texts are found in each tradition? How has their authority been created, sustained, and contested within each tradition?
    • Select any common form of religious praxis (e.g., prayer, meditation, fasting, pilgrimage) and compare and contrast a specific instance of this practice as found in three different religious traditions. What is gained by focussing on the shared elements among these cases and what is lost? Or, conversely, what is gained and what is lost by paying attention to the significance of the differences among the three examples you have chosen?
    • Is there a specifically religious state of mind which is universal in nature? Or, to put this another way, is there an emotional or affective state that is uniquely religious and irreducible to anything else? In answering this question, use concrete examples to support your position. In addition, indicate fully and clearly how your position is supported by the work of at least three important scholars in the psychology, sociology, and/or phenomenology of religion. At the same time, indicate how and why position differs from those of three major scholars from your exam list.
    • Write a critical essay evaluating the theoretical positions of those scholars on your list who may be characterized as advocates of perennial philosophy. What is the evidence for their position(s)? In your own comparative study of religion, where do you come down on the issues involved? And why? Use concrete examples to support your argument.
    • Using the work of Richard Shweder, Catherine Lutz, Rudolph Otto, and other scholars you are familiar with, write a critical essay on religious emotion(s). In the essay, present and evaluate the positions of the "essentialists" and the "social constructionists" on emotion-and, specifically, on whether there is such a thing as a universal religious emotion.
    • Some scholars have made much of the differences between oral narratives and written texts; others have suggested that the line between these is less than meets the eye at first glance. Utilizing your knowledge of sacred narratives and texts from around the world, select two narratives or texts (or two sets of narratives or texts) from two different religions and describe the oral and literate aspects of these as found in the history and practices of the respective religious communities.
    • Many of the "classic" comparative studies of religion largely ignored the roles of women and failed to consider issues related to gender. Select two such works from your list and write a critical essay on how they would be different if these two areas were taken into consideration. In responding, use concrete examples to support your argument.
    • Some scholars of comparative religions have sought for universals or the essence of religion. Other scholars have argued that religious phenomena must be understood in their cultural and historical specificity. Select one or more scholars from each camp and present a concise summary of their positions and methodological assumptions. Then, present a critical evaluation of these positions while presenting your own ideas concerning the goal of comparative studies of religion.
    • Write a critical essay on the comparative study of religious conversion. How should "conversion" be defined and why should it be defined that way? What approaches (psychological, sociological, historical, etc.) are necessary in order to understand conversion? In responding, use concrete examples to make your argument and discuss at least three different approaches.
    • In the inaugural issue of the journal, History of Religions, Mircea Eliade wrote,
    • "Like it or not, the scholar has not finished his work when he has reconstructed the history of a religious form or brought out its sociological, economical, or political contexts. In addition, he must understand the meaning-that is, identify and elucidate the situations and positions that have informed or made possible its appearance of triumph at a particular historical moment."

    Write a critical essay on Eliade's understanding of the hermeneutical role of the scholar of religion. After presenting Eliade's position, locate yourself within the discursive field of responses to it. In what ways-and why-do you agree with Eliade? In what ways-and why- do you differ from his position. In responding, use concrete examples to support your argument.

    • Robert Bellah states that while religion my have served the American nation well over the past two hundred years, it is less well suited for a globalizing society. He argues that the emergence of an international civil religion would benefit the entire world. Explain Bellah's concept of "civil religion" in a clear and concise fashion, then write an essay in which you critically evaluate his suggested extension of civil religion into the international sphere. Given what you know of the situation around the world in the late 20th and the turn of the 21st century, is this idea viable? Likely? Desirable? In responding, locate Bellah's view in relation to the work of other scholars you have read.Using the work of at least three (3) scholars, write a critical essay on the utility of terms such as "scripture," "holy book," and "sacred narratives" in the comparative study of religions. In your essay, use concrete examples from at least three (3) religions, as well as from oral as well as literate traditions, in order to make your case.
    • What are we to make of (i.e., what is the significance of) "patterns" or similarities discernable in religions around the world and over the centuries? In the comparative study of religions, are the similarities or differences more important? In responding, critically evaluate the theories of at least three (3) scholars on these issues and locate your own position in relation to them. Use concrete examples in presenting your position.
    Examination 3: Special Areas
    • In the inaugural issue of the journal, History of Religions, Mircea Eliade wrote, "Like it or not, the scholar has not finished his work when he has reconstructed the history of a religious form or brought out its sociological, economical, or political contexts. In addition, he must understand the meaning-that is, identify and elucidate the situations and positions that have informed or made possible its appearance of triumph at a particular historical moment." Write a critical essay on the early centuries of the common era in the Near East in which you accept Eliade's challenge to elucidate the "meaning" of Christianity for persons at that time. In responding, use specific examples to support your argument.
    • Write a critical essay exploring (comparing and contrasting) the generation and uses of sacred narrative texts in Jewish and Christian communities of the early common era in the Near East. What were the significant similarities and differences? What difference did the differences make? How did a community's uses of sacred narratives and texts affect its collective identity in this religiously plural world? In responding, use concrete examples to support your argument.
    • In both scholarly and professional circles, a popular theoretical shibboleth from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s was "secularization." Discuss the phenomenon of secularization as understood by at least two scholars, paying particular attention to those aspects that make it a compelling explanation in the face of the perceived situation in North America in the post-war period. Then, critique the theory, discussing its theoretical and practical shortcomings.
    • Over the centuries, American culture has been characterized by religious and ethnic diversity. Write a critical essay in which you analyze the interplay between religious differences and ethnic differences in two or more specific social,historical, and political contexts in American history. In responding, address the following issues, as well as others you think are relevant: What ways do religion and ethnicity help to determine a collective identity and in what ways do they mark out difference(s)? Does this interplay change over time? Do other factors affect the interplay between religion and ethnicity? If so, what are they and why do they do so?
    • Imagine that you have been assigned to teach a course on "The American Catholic Experience." How would you structure such a course? What major themes and topics would you cover? What theoretical issues would you highlight? Would you problematize the course title for your students or not? If so, why? If not, why not? Justify your reasons for designing your course as you would on both socio-historical and pedagogical grounds.
    • Assume that an annual Baptist convention is to be held in town and that you have been invited to address the assembled delegates. The theme of the convention is "Black Christians Rethinking Religion and Transformation." The leadership of this organization is primarily male and has been throughout its history. Given your study of black feminists, write a draft or outline of the speech you would deliver on the past, present, and future of the black church.
    • The nineteenth century in the United States saw the rise of "the cult of motherhood" and what Ann Douglas has called "the feminization of American culture," including religion. Compare and contrast the situation of white and black women in the religious sphere in 19th and 20th centuries. If there were/are significant differences, how are these to be explained?
    • Discuss the evolution of the civil right movement in the United States. What elements in the African American churches and the agenda of the civil rights movement resonated with the broader American religious community and why? What elements, if any, gave pause to certain segments of the American religious community at large? In tracing the evolution of the civil rights movement, draw on the insights of historians and sociologists of religions such as Weber, Durkheim, Berger, Bellah, Bainbridge, Frazier, Lincoln, and Marty.
    • Critically compare and contrast the efforts and impact of the ME-North, the ME South, the AME, the AME Zion, and the Colored Methodist-Episcopal churches during and after the Civil War. What roles did these groups play in creating a cultural space and identity for African Americans? In responding, be as specific as possible. Draft a syllabus for an upper-level history course entitled "African American Women," complete with the major topics to be discussed, assigned readings (books, articles, etc.), and assignments for the students. As part of this exercise, include a critical essay in which you do the following:
      1) explain the rationale behind your organization of the course;
      2) describe how and why you would include the subjects of African American theology, black feminism, and womanism inthe course (if you would not include one or more of these topics, explain why not);
      3) select 5-7 books that have played critical roles in influencing the field and contextualize them within the broader scope of American and African American history.
    • Islam is known as one of the world religions. In what sense(s) is it proper and useful to refer to Islam as a single tradition? In what sense(s) might it be proper and useful to speak of multiple and diverse "Islams"? In answering these questions, use specific examples from at least three different cultural spheres and different historical periods to mount your argument.
    • As a historian of religions, when would you say that Islam as a distinct religion came into being? In responding, first consider the major emic or insider position(s) on this question (i.e., how and why specific Muslim communities have answered this question as they have). Then, compare and contrast how and why two major non-Muslim scholars have reached their respective etic or outsider positions on this question. Finally, present the rationale for your own position. Are the approaches developed in women's and gender studies relevant to the academic study of Islam? If so, how and why? If not, why not? What specifically can we learn by employing such approaches? What are the limitations, if any, of utilizing modern Western categories and approaches to study Islamic cultures and communities? Critically analyze the work of at least three different scholars in order to illustrate and buttress your argument.
    • Two primary sources of information and "data" on the early biblical period are archaeological remains and texts of one sort or another. But the relationship between these is a vexed one and the source of great scholarly controversy. Is the Bible a reliable historical guide for use in interpreting archaeological finds? Or is archaeology a corrective or guide for interpreting--and appreciating--the Bible and its utility as a historical text? Select one or more examples of controversy surrounding the relationship of archaeology to biblical texts, present the respective positions through the work of at least two authors, and then, critically evaluate the positions.
    • In studying the ancient Near East, is it more important to pay attention to the similarities among the religion of the Israelites and other cultures and peoples in the area, or is it more important to pay attention to the differences? In answering this question, be sure to spell out clearly what is at stake. Use concrete examples to support your position.