For profiles of new professors
joining the St. Norbert community this fall, check out
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New professor brings world religions expertise to campus
Mara Brecht (Religious Studies), one of the fresh faces among the faculty this fall, discusses with Kim Sullivan ’95 her scholarly experience and why she’s excited to be joining the St. Norbert community.
How did you become interested in theology?
I was raised in a big, traditional Catholic family, so faith was an important part of our family life. And I’ve always sort of had an interest in, as I like to say, questions about the things that are bigger than us. When I was at Oberlin College, I just found myself taking a lot of religion classes. So I would say it sort of organically came about – just stuff I liked to think about and study.
What is your scholarly background?
I went to Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. I majored in religion and history. After Oberlin, I went straight to Harvard Divinity School and got a master’s in theological studies there. Straight from HDS I went to Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, for my doctorate. And I was there as a full-time student for five years.
Why St. Norbert College?
I had decided in my time of study at Fordham, a Jesuit university, that when I got on the job market, I wanted to be at a Catholic school. I didn’t really have a familiarity with the Norbertines outside of studying Christian history. But I was really excited, especially by being at a place that I think is kind of held in the hands of an order. At Fordham, the Jesuit ethos certainly, I think, permeated how people treated one another, professors with students and hopefully most of the time students with students. And I look forward to seeing that at St. Norbert College and seeing how the Norbertine ethos holds the community together.
What will your research interests bring to St. Norbert?
My dissertation was about how to think about Christians … myself as a Christian … the Christian community, being shaped by encountering Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews. It’s epistemological, so I was dealing with beliefs and how we understand our beliefs. I claim to know this about God while a Muslim claims to know something else. When I talk to that Muslim, how does his or her idea of God change my own beliefs? The position that I was hired for here is specifically to bring my expertise of world religions, other religious traditions, to the table at St. Norbert.
Did the in-depth analysis of other religions make you question your own faith, or did it solidify it?
Going into this research project, I thought finding out somebody believes something that conflicts with what you believe should in principle make you less likely to believe what you believe. After interviewing a group of women that had been engaging in interreligious dialogue for 10 years, spending time with them for two years, doing a lot of research, reading, philosophy, epistemology and studies in religious diversity, the conclusion I came to was that, in fact, engaging with a religious “other” and learning what they believe strengthens your own belief.
Which classes are you most excited to teach?
I’m excited for the Christianity and Cultural Diversity class, obviously, because it will be easy for me to get excited about every class. It’s my own passion and interest. But the Introduction to Theology class is a class I’ve taught before and it’s sort of like the bread-and-butter class. It’s the basics of theology. And I love that. I mean, that’s the sort of stuff that got me interested as a sophomore in college. It was fun for me to teach that class at Fordham. Students would come in and think, ‘Theology, I can’t believe I have to take this.’ I’m not saying I knocked the socks off of every student, but I definitely got some students who didn’t expect to get excited, excited. You know, I had a lot of kids from the college of business and they were accounting majors and comfortable with Excel and they’d come in and have to read stuff they weren’t familiar with and it was fun for them. And I loved that, too. I love having the opportunity to get students who thought they weren’t going to care, to care. So, cross my fingers, that I can do that here a little bit, too.
For profiles of all professors joining the St. Norbert community this fall, check out the new faculty directory.