by NOELLE WRIGHT
TOWER editor

Holly-Headshot_300x450.jpgEntering the colorful office of religious studies and philosophy professor Holly Hillgardner, one immediately notices the vibrant pillows and papers strewn across the couch and the variety of books lining shelves across the wall.

One book stands out: a poster book by Sanjay Patel featuring graphic illustrations of Hindu deities, charming and curiously powerful. Hillgardner presents this book with an bright smile and begins pointing out the traditional elements in the cute modern images- the mouse beside a wide-eyed Ganesha, Shiva beneath the foot of the wild-looking Kali.

Hillgardner began her study of religion within the Christian tradition, receiving her MTS from Brite Divinity School, a theological seminary in Houston Texas with ties to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). However, after experiencing a yoga class, she developed an interest in Hinduism as well.

“It changed my life,” says Hillgardner, who went on to study primary Hindu texts in India and became a teacher of Yoga herself. She teaches a weekly Yoga class at Bethany in addition to her formal classes, and her enthusiasm shows as she gestures to the poster book and cheerfully asks passing students, “Who’s your favorite Hindu god or goddess?”

Hillgardner started her career in education as a teacher of English Literature, and has an enthusiasm for women’s studies and women’s activism. She sees her current position as professor of religious studies and philosophy as a way to unite diverse interests and continue asking questions. "It's an interdisciplinary way of looking at life.”

This semester, Hillgardner is teaching Introduction to Religion, Philosohy of Religion, and Hinduism. In her Intro to Religion course, Hillgardner teaches students to study religion from several different approaches—as literature, history, theology and cultural tradition. Students are exposed to a more analytical and historical study of Christianity as well as an overview of other major world religions, allowing them to compare traditions and beliefs.

For many students, this is the first time they have studied religion outside of a Sunday school class, if at all. Often religious studies is ignored or de-emphasized in schools because it is a complex and potentially controversial topic, and the benefits aren’t always tangible. However, the relationship between religion and culture makes it highly significant to students in every discipline.

"I don't think religion can be reduced to culture," says Hillgardner. "But it also cannot be separated from culture. Very often, religion preserves culture."

In classes focused on the philosophy of religion, religious claims are examined critically. Students read and discuss writings that deal with the nature and existence of God, religious experience, scripture, and the relationship between religions and between religion and the modern world. However, Hillgardner assures that the purpose of challenging beliefs is not necessarily to dismantle them. Very often, it is a creative process, introducing new ideas and ways of looking at religion.

So, can the faith of a devout religious adherent stand up to objective criticism? Hillgardner says yes. “To question is part of the practice,” she insists. People of faith need examples of those who can look at religion from both perspectives and come out stronger.

In her own studies, Hillgardner has considered the way varying religious traditions interact and the comparisons between them, particularly Hinduism and Christianity. Recalling her own introduction to yoga during a difficult time in her life, she explains that the practice taught her to pray in a new way that was able to strengthen her spiritually. For Hillgardner, the lines between religious traditions are no longer clearly drawn, and the ideal student is one who understands and values diversity.

Hilgardner is a visiting Renner Scholar at Bethany College for the 2012-2013 school year. In addition to her regular classes, she leads a yoga class alongside Prof. Brandon Lamson Thursdays at 4 p.m. in the Renner Art Gallery.

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