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KHK Fellow Interview: "New Ground to the Study of Religions"

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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. The sixth interview is with the Vasilios Makrides, professor at the University of Erfurt for Orthodox Christianity. As a scholar of religious studies, he is one among few in the German-speaking hemisphere who focuses on the cultural and religious history of Orthodox Christianity in Greece, the Balkans, and Russia.

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

By living, working, teaching and researching in Germany, I always tried to be informed of developments pertaining to religious studies in general and to the neighboring disciplines and areas of research, especially if there was a major research program like the KHK at a German University. I also knew its director, Prof. Dr. Volkhard Krech, in advance, so I visited its website and became familiar with the overall contours of this research program. I had the chance not to apply for a fellowship, but to be invited by its director to join the KHK for one year (two semesters) in Bochum – in certain cases and for specific reasons, the director has namely the right to do so. His argument for inviting me was that the KHK needed a specialist in Orthodox Christianity, which had historically developed between Europe and Asia, and this is why he thought of me. Of course, I had no objections, and I accepted the offer without a second thought.

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

My research stay in Bochum was a very rewarding one in many respects – and not only academically. The KHK was not isolated as an institution, but based at that time within the huge university complex, so I had opportunity to be somehow “in touch” with the entire academic community there and watch the everyday university routine, as well. I also lived nearby, so the distance to the KHK was quite short. The infrastructure of the KHK was all in all very good, so I received the support I needed without complications. All this made my integration into the new academic environment quite easy. Needless to say, I also had the opportunity to occasionally travel around by visiting Bochum and other places and cities in the greater area, something that I had not done before. As a whole, I have only good memories from my stay in Bochum. My research topic at the KHK concerned the closeness between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, both historically and at present, in facing the West and what was and is still perceived as “modern Western challenges”.

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

By studying the relations between Orthodox Christianity and Islam from this angle, one is necessarily confronted with issues of religious contacts and religious dynamics. First, multifaceted contacts between the two religious cultures were unavoidable because of historical and geographical reasons at the juncture of the two continents, Asia and Europe. Second, these contacts were characterized not only by problems, tensions and conflicts, but also by novel and unexpected moments, which revealed an unusual dynamic in their mutual relations. More specifically, both religions had historically and still have problems with the West, thus it is interesting to see how this opposition brought them somehow together in a variety of uncommon and unforeseen ways. It is about an unusual “alliance” with many facets and far-reaching consequences that need closer examination and evaluation.

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

I am familiar to some extent with other institutions of advanced research in Germany and abroad, and I happened to know pretty well such an institution in my home university, namely the Max Weber Institute for Advanced Cultural and Social Sciences in Erfurt. They all have common and different features, also depending on the nature of the Institute, namely whether they are permanent or temporary. What I found particularly exciting at the KHK were the regular plenary sessions every Monday, which gave the opportunity only to meet other fellows, but also to engage in fruitful discussions, which were continued over dinner later on. In addition, the KHK gave fellows the opportunity to take initiatives and organize various activities (e.g., an international workshop), as well as enough freedom to do their research according to their specific needs.

What impact had your affiliation with the KHK Bochum on your own research process? Did the research and theoretical work conducted on the KHK influenced your research? And if so how?

Given the rich variety of scholars and opportunities, the KHK helped me to contextualize my research and take more into account interdisciplinary perspectives, especially in the context of a Euro-Asiatic history of religions. I already profited from the theoretical work developed at the KHK, especially by Volkhard Krech’s papers on religious dynamics and evolution, and I hope to delve more deeply in such issues in the future.

A 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?

In my view, the KHK broke new ground and made vital contributions to the study of religions from an interdisciplinary perspective. This is a trend that will be intensified even more in the years to come. My prediction is namely that the future study of religions will become even more interdisciplinary, especially through the stronger and decisive integration of perspectives from the natural sciences to the study of religions. This should not occasion any surprise. In fact, the entire academic and institutionalized study of religions since the 19th century went through various phases of theoretical and methodological development. Naturally, this is something that will happen in the future as well, so we have to remain open to new ideas, perspectives, methods and opportunities. This is the main and perennial challenge facing scholars of religions, because they have always come from different backgrounds and had usually problems of communication among them. We thus need to integrate all these different perspectives into a more meaningful frame that will hopefully help us to better grasp and understand religious phenomena.