Dr. Eric Bugyis, lecturer in religious studies for IAS, is on a fool’s errand.
He could have been a doctor. In his first month of medical school and with his whole future planned out ahead of him, he had what he now describes as “one of those 3am ‘what am I doing with my life?’” epiphanies.
It had started innocently enough – he was just taking a few religion classes alongside his pre-med curriculum – when suddenly, as he puts it, “I was kind of converted to the humanities. [Those] questions were just so much more interesting to me than what we were doing in my science classes.” He called his parents, withdrew from medical school, and went on to earn his both his M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies at Yale.
Now, as a religious studies scholar, he says, “We’re asking questions that are never exhausted. It’s not like you’re going to figure out what it means to be human.”
Actually, that’s the fun part. A full-time lecturer at UW Tacoma since 2014, Dr. Bugyis is teaching part-time this year in order to research twentieth century Catholic radicalism and social justice, examining how European political influences and anarchist thought combined with individuals’ religious convictions to produce heroic and innovative efforts to relieve social problems like homelessness and food insecurity. Specifically, he is looking at the development of alternative, egalitarian communities designed to remove the distinction between persons in need and those serving them – a deliberate modification of the traditional Catholic service model, and an approach that still seems radical today.
This research grew out of a course Dr. Bugyis currently teaches at UWT, Christian Thought and Ethical Practice (TRELIG 345), which focuses on how Christian beliefs manifest in the face of contemporary ethical problems. Structured around social and political issues like homelessness, race, gender, and disability, the course is designed to “look at what people do first, and then look at what people think about what they do.” With this in mind, Dr. Bugyis offers a service learning option to his students. No matter their background or beliefs, students are encouraged to interrogate their pre-existing perspectives and engage with the broader community in practical ways.
UWT’s institutional commitments to both diversity and community engagement dovetail neatly with the hopes and goals Dr. Bugyis has for his students. When asked about diversity and representation in religious studies as an academic discipline, Dr. Bugyis is enthusiastic. “There’s no study of religion that’s not inherently diverse,” he says, “because you’re always dealing with diverse populations, not just between different religious traditions, but within religious traditions.” The Intro to Religious Studies (TRELIG 105) course he teaches does not take a “World Religions ‘menu’ approach, where you’ve got the Buddhists in this column and Hindus in this column and Jews in another column… what we find is that religions don’t fit so easily into these categories,” he says. “The study of religion is a great site to engage diverse perspectives. That’s something that I’ve found, in the classroom, to be really rich.”
Reflecting on his experiences teaching UWT students, Dr. Bugyis notes the diversity of the student body itself. “We have students that are working full-time and have families, they are coming from pretty diverse corners and pockets of the region to this place. When you’re just trying to survive, sometimes you’re just focusing on taking care of yourself and that’s what you’ve gotta do… The hope is that the classroom is a space where we can all kind of pick our heads up for a moment from the particular row that we’re hoeing in life and see one another and, in seeing one another, think in a broader way about the human condition.”
Being led to a broader understanding and appreciation of others is essential to responsible civic engagement. Religious communities and commitments continue to be politically relevant, particularly in issues of social justice, because society’s needs outpace the work of the public sector. And this is where religious studies comes in.
“Ultimately,” Dr. Bugyis says, “what we end up doing is building up the community. That’s the hope.”