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KHK Fellow Interview: "The most rewarding year"

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End of March 2020, the second funding phase of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg "Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe" will come to an end. This research project undoubtlessly has have an impact on the Center for Religious Studies (CERES) for almost ten years since it has been the biggest project with an international reach. It is time to look both back- and forward and to give word to the visiting fellows of the Kolleg. As a start, the first interview is given by the 100th fellow of the KHK, who is Caleb Simmons, currently Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Arizona. He spent his year at the Kolleg from October 2016 to September 2017.

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How did the KHK Bochum draw your attention for the first time? And why did you apply for it?

I first heard about the KHK and the fellowship at the International Association for the History of Religion (IAHR) in Erfurt. I approached the table to speak with the managing editor of the KHK’s journal Entangled Religions, who told be all about the Kolleg and the fellowship. I knew immediately that this would be the perfect place for me to be. So, I started working on my application immediately (even though I wasn’t supposed to go on sabbatical for two more years). The application process was easy, particularly because the topic for the year that I was applying (transcendence and immanence) so closely aligned with my own interests (theories of sovereignty in India).

How was your research stay in Bochum? And what was your research project about?

My research stay in Bochum was one of the most rewarding years of my life. Bochum is a wonderful little city that is well-connected to other larger metropolitan and university cities throughout the region. My partner and I thoroughly enjoyed living in Bochum, and we both miss it horribly. Additionally, the KHK has such a vibrant academic culture with lectures and research workshops and conferences happening almost daily; I found my own research steadily becoming more interesting and rigorous through the constant flow of high-level discussion taking place at every turn. Through these interactions my research project evolved into a study of the ways that Indian sovereignty was articulated through religious idioms during the incipient years of British colonialism.

Why is your research topic important for an understanding of religious dynamics and religious contacts?

My research closely examines how religion serves as a dynamic site through which meaning is constructed and negotiated. This is particularly true in moments of change and contact with outside worldviews, beliefs, and practices. My work focuses on the intersection of these moments and how the dynamic (though often perceived and evoked as unchanging or eternal) nature of religion provides an idiom through Indian kings and their courts employed religious language and history to ground their precarious sovereignty in the face of burgeoning British colonial hegemony.

Compared to other institutions of advanced research, what characterizes the KHK Bochum?

The most striking characteristic of the KHK Bochum is the intellectual ferment. This is fostered at the many events, but most importantly in the Monday meetings. It is an absolutely brilliant model to have all fellows and faculty meet for a continued and sustained discussion of one larger theoretical topic. Those discussions set the tone for the entire year. This, however, is complemented by an immense about of freedom to travel, conduct research, and write. It is a perfect balance of structured group work and individual free-space. The model is extremely effective and led all of the fellows from my cohort to produce great quality work.

What impact did your affiliation with the KHK Bochum have on your own research process?

I credit the KHK Bochum with helping me think about my topic more broadly. It is a difficult process to move from writing for a doctoral dissertation or thesis to engaging a wider audience through theoretical connections. KHK Bochum forces scholars to “translate” their work into language that Religious Studies scholars from other fields can find intelligible. The process is extremely beneficial for everyone involved.

A short look into the future: Given the fact that the KHK Bochum is temporary, what and how should scholars deal with the history of religions in about ten years?

Wow. This is a hard one to answer, but, to be perfectly honest, I think that the KHK Bochum was ahead of the curve and that in about ten years scholarship will be tending toward the broader goal of the KHK, that is, thinking beyond borders. By this, I don’t just mean national borders but thinking about religion across regions, traditions, race, ethnicity, historical periods, etc. in order to see how contact both highlights and forces religious traditions to change. They must be dynamic. With this, the study of religion must continue to be more inter/multi-disciplinary, and scholarship will continue to place different media in conversation with one another to get a fuller picture of how religion functions and how it is articulated by practitioners.