Faculty Reading Recommendations

Carol Zaleski, Professor of World Religions

Carol Zaleski, Professor of World Religions

Carol Zaleski has been teaching philosophy of religion, world religions and Christian thought at Smith College since 1989. She is the author of Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times and The Life of the World to Come (both Oxford University Press). She has co-authored, with Philip Zaleski, Prayer: A History (Houghton Mifflin) and The Book of Heaven (Oxford), and is currently collaborating with him on a group biography of the Inklings (C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and their circle). Zaleski earned her B.A. from Wesleyan University and her M.A. and Ph.D. in the study of religion from Harvard University. For more information, see Professor Zaleski’s web page.

Here are Professor Zaleski's responses to our questions:

Q. What are three books in your field that you feel are most helpful/interesting for lay readers who want to learn more?

A. T.S. Eliot once said that there are two surpassingly great philosophical poems: the Divine Comedy and the Bhagavad Gita.  I agree with him; moreover I’m convinced that reading the scriptures and classics of the world’s religious traditions -- in translation if necessary, and with the help of commentaries – provides the foundation for a truly liberal education.

Nothing beats firsthand acquaintance with classic texts, but a number of general interpretive studies of religion have become classics in their own right.  Three come to mind:

  • The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), by the American philosopher-psychologist William James, is a spirited investigation of a broad range of religious states, from conversion to saintliness to mystical union. Ever the psychologist, James interprets religious experience naturalistically.  Never the reductionist, he defends the right of individuals to trust their own experience.  The Varieties is a child of its age in many respects, but it endures because of James’s generous, humane vision.
  • The Idea of the Holy (1917), is a pioneering comparative study by Rudolf Otto, the German philosopher and phenomenologist of religion who coined the term “numinous” to characterize the holy, in its primary meaning, as a “wholly other” mystery eliciting both fear and fascination.  The language of The Idea of the Holy can be forbidding (unless German idealist philosophy is your cup of tea), but the book goes a long way toward making sense of the most paradoxical aspects of religious literature and ritual practice.
  • Philosophy as a Way of Life (1995), by the French historian of ancient philosophy Pierre Hadot, makes available in English a series of essays in which Hadot maintains that ancient philosophy had as much to do with spiritual exercises as with logical arguments; hence that philosophy was – and to some extent still is or could be – one of the great religious traditions of humankind.  Hadot may be exaggerating somewhat; yet once his point is grasped it lights up vast regions of Asian as well as Western religious thought.

Q. What books have influenced your life?

  • The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (1957), by the Benedictine scholar-monk Jean Leclercq, introduced me to the humanistic literary traditions of medieval Christian monasticism and sparked my lifelong love of monastic culture, East and West.
  • The Idea of a University (1854) by the theologian John Henry Newman, one of the greatest English prose stylists, convinced me that there is nothing chimerical about the ideal of a liberal education and that all knowledge, however specialized,  forms a living whole.
  • The Crock of Gold (1913) by James Stephens is one of several fantastic and unsettling books that I read as a young teenager -- thanks to an adventurous grandmother (she also gave me Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Words).  When I first read it, I felt I had stumbled into another world – not just the Celtic other world of  Stephens and his friends “Æ” (George Russell) and W. B. Yeats, but the permanently enchanting other world of the literary imagination.

Q. What are you reading now?

A. I’m reading Richard McCarthy’s translation of al-Munqidh min al-dalal (The Deliverance from Error), the autobiography of the medieval Islamic scholar and mystic al-Ghazālī, and trying to decide whether to assign it to my philosophy of religion class next semester. On my walks to and from campus, I’m listening to Jane Austen's Mansfield Park on my iPod.