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Suzanne Bessenger

Image of Suzanne BessengerAssociate Professor of Religious Studies, Chair of the Religious Studies Department
B.A., Mills College; M.A., Ph.D. University of Virginia

I became fascinated with the academic study of religion as an undergraduate at Mills College in Oakland, California, where I designed a major in Anthropology and Asian studies, immersed myself in the study of Tibetan Buddhism in India, Nepal, and Tibet with the School for International Training (SIT), and explored the intersections of Buddhism and social justice movements in a senior thesis on the “Free Tibet” movement in the Bay Area.

Following graduation, I traversed Buddhist and Hindu pilgrimage sites in northern India and Nepal, and lived at Dolma Ling Nunnery in Himachal Pradesh, India. I went on to earn a Masters and Doctorate in the History of Religions at the University of Virginia, where I focused on Buddhist Studies, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, as well as Hinduism and Chinese religions.

During graduate school I studied Tibetan intensively at Tibet University in Lhasa, Tibet for one year, and received a Fulbright-Hayes fellowship to spend another year conducting research among Tibetan exile communities in India and Nepal.

My research focuses on the 14th century Tibetan saint Sönam Peldren and her husband Rinchen Pel, and most recently culminated in the book Echoes of Enlightenment: The Lives of Sönam Peldren (Oxford, 2016).

At Randolph College I impart my passion for understanding the role of religion and religious thought on our individual and collective identities with courses on the history and auto/biographical literature of Buddhism, death and dying, gender and religion, the history and visual culture of Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhist culture, and Chinese religions.

In moments of repose, I love playing board games with my family, swimming, and hiking Virginia’s beautiful terrain.

Gordon Steffey

Image of Gordon SteffeyBarbara Boyle Lemon ’57 and William J. Lemon Professor of Religion and Philosophy
B.A., St. Olaf College; M.Div., Yale University; M.A., Ph.D., University of Virginia

My commitment to the study of religion was born in the old city of Jerusalem and reared in an ecumenical monastery in the Saône-et-Loire department of the Bourgogne region of France.

I have shared hot chocolate with the late Frère Roger of Taizé and blood cake with a Miao shaman in Guizhou province, China. I have rubbed the elephant’s back at Wannian Temple on Mount Emei Shan in Sichuan province and surveyed the Dead Sea from amid the ruins atop Mount Masada.

These experiences aren’t incidental to what/how I teach.

Religious Studies is a discipline for travellers, for those resolved to fathom lands near and fear and break bread with strangers in pursuit of insight. It is a discipline especially for those who welcome dislocation and the crumbling of old securities. I encourage my students to take to the road and tutor them in the arts of traveling well.

My teaching interests are sweeping and include the study of religious autobiography, Abrahamic apocalypticism, spiritual exercises, text criticism and historical Jesus research, religion in film, women and gender in late antiquity, classical and Continental philosophy, and modern religious thought. My cross-disciplinary scholarship has been published in Critical MuslimEast-West Affairs, and elsewhere.

When at rest, I may be found solving dilemmas terrestrial and otherwise in the company of friends, cultivating cosmic consciousness, plotting the founding of the philosophical commune Platonopolis, and cheering on Chelsea FC.

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