Vance Bohman and Dr. Alonzo Gaskill, Department of Religion
The intent of this project is to produce an encyclopedia of the symbols of the major religions of the world, providing information regarding their origin, as well as their use historically, and how that use has changed over time, including their adoption by other faiths. This will be the first time the symbols of all of the major world religions will be covered in a single publication, and will contain much more detail than many currently existing encyclopedias.
In terms of our research methods, we are almost universally using primary sources, eliminating misinterpretations from outside the faith. We also have been researching detailed descriptions of ritual acts and vestments, liturgies, ceremonies of marriage, death, coming of age etc. in order to gain a better understanding of how these symbols were used historically, and how that use has changed over time, including their current uses among modern members of the various faiths.
One of the most interesting and in my mind valuable contributions of this project is that it details the nuanced differences in the use of a symbol as it is adopted by another faith, and then follows the development of that symbol in both religions. It is certainly expected also, that certain symbols are held in common with many faiths, and have been from time immemorial. In such instances where the origin of the symbol is not known, there is still much to be gained from understanding how it is and was used, particularly relative to other religions with a similar history. Humanity is hardly conducive to controlled laboratory research, but when we can control for a single variable, such as an ancient symbol and then analyze the differences in belief and usage that surround that variable, we can learn much about a given religion.
One of the most difficult aspects of this project stems from our decision to use the most reliable sources available in the form of primary documents. The problem is that most of these religions have existed for centuries upon centuries, and primary documents are in some cases difficult to find due to the non-prolific nature of the religions themselves, and when they are available, they are frequently not in English. This necessitates either finding an English translation, or an individual who is willing to help us translate it. Clearly the first option is the best, but is not always possible.
Another dilemma we face is the sheer volume of symbols and their myriad uses over time. It covers buildings, architecture, images in sculpture, painting, or mosaic, clothing of clergy and lay members, icons, ritual instruments, ritual acts, places, people, even words. Clearly this is a daunting, but also a very rewarding task.
In our research, we began with Judaism, both because it is one of the earliest religions, but also because the development of Judaism has tremendous implications for the emergence and development of Christianity and Islam, who together comprise the world three large monotheistic religions. We are working on symbols as far back as Solomon’s Temple, and as current (and ancient) as the Star of David. However, it is likely that it will be some time before we even complete the research to be done on Judaism alone. As we specified in our research proposal, this project is one that will likely take quite some time, probably a decade or so, assuming that time and funding remain at the same levels we are currently working with.
I am grateful that ORCA was willing to help me gain research and writing experience that I would not otherwise have had, and afforded me the opportunity to begin work on this project. While perhaps the tangible results of my work will be a long time coming, I feel that I have grown in my own abilities, and having now graduated feel more confidant in my abilities as I approach graduate school.