Stanford lectures, research examine sexuality, religion and the cosmos

Through a combination of guest lecturers, coursework and research, the "Religion and Gender Lecture Series" highlights how the study of gender and sexuality transforms the way scholars understand religious traditions, practices and beliefs.

Courtesy of Hester Gelber Collage of images from medieval manuscripts

In the classroom, Professor Hester Gelber uses images from medieval manuscripts to illustrate the game of medieval religious life as lived within the emerging Cosmic system.

Perspectives on the relationship between gender and religion come from sources as far apart as studies of medieval Christian interpretations of the body and modern efforts to achieve equality in Tibet.

That often tangled relationship is being explored at Stanford through a series of lectures, coursework and research.

Religion professor Hester Gelber's most recent research, for example, focuses on how medieval men and women perceived the rules and laws governing the divine cosmos and their place within it.

Her upcoming project, "With Justice and Mercy: The Medieval Retributive Cosmos," examines "the way in which the religious cosmic structure exacts justice and how people inhabit that cosmic structure," said Gelber.

And the Tibetan angle?  That comes from Rinchen Khando Choegyal, the director of the Tibetan Nuns Project and a former cabinet minister in the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. She has spent much of her life working toward gender equality.

Gelber has presented aspects of her research in the classroom.

Students in Gelber's class, "Sex, Body and Gender in Medieval Religion," discuss how the medieval understanding of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Eucharist, penance, mysticism and marriage were inextricably entwined with issues of gender and sexuality of the time.

"The big thing to explore in a class like this is the very diverse ways in which gender is displayed and acted and lived in various periods," said Gelber. "The significance attached to different kinds of religious formulations shows how people live gender through religion and how religion shapes and conditions their thinking about gender."

Earlier this quarter, the students also had the opportunity to meet the author of one of their course readings. 

As a part of this year's "Religion and Gender Lecture Series," author and Northwestern University history Professor Dyan Elliott came to Stanford to discuss her extensive work on medieval religion and gender.

The lecture series – co-sponsored by the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies, the Department of Religious Studies and the Clayman Institute for Gender Research –brings a variety of acclaimed speakers to Stanford.

The Stanford Humanities Center, The Center for Medieval and early Modern Studies, The Tibetan Studies Initiative and the Center for South Asia have also co-sponsored individual lectures in the series.

Elliott's visit gave Gelber's students the opportunity to gain a different and personal perspective on a subject they have been focusing on all quarter. 

She discussed how societal perceptions of the relationship between body and soul changed between the 12th and 13th centuries.

Although Elliott's research does not share Gelber's focus on cosmology, she "has been thinking about both the coercive and the shaping mechanisms within society that have been important for the formations of gender," said Gelber.

Gender Equality in Tibetan Buddhism

The next lecture in the five-part series will help connect the historical relationship to today's world. 

Many scholars believe that the interaction between gender and religion is as influential as ever – a fact that is highlighted when exploring the topic through the lens of Tibetan Buddhism.

Rinchen Khando Choegyal, the director of the Tibetan Nuns Project, will give a talk Thursday on her efforts to preserve Tibetan culture and language.

As the second woman in the history of Tibet to be elected as a cabinet minister in the Tibetan Government-In-Exile, a position she held from 1993-2001, and as one of the founding members of the Tibetan Women's Association, Choegyal has dedicated her career to working toward gender equality.

Choegyal's lecture on the gender aspects of Buddhism will examine how Tibetan Buddhism provides women with increasing opportunities for religious engagement.

"What makes the Tibetan tradition more interesting is that there are clear indications that religious authority is sometimes shared with women," said religious studies Professor Paul Harrison.

Harrison has dedicated his academic career to the study of Buddhist literature in history.

Choegyal's lecture also will focus on her involvement with the Tibetan Nuns Project, which has helped provide education and humanitarian aid to refugee Buddhist nuns.

"Buddhist women are playing a much stronger role as religious leaders," said Harrison. 

The lecture series runs through May.

Kelsey Geiser is an intern with the Human Experience, the Humanities web portal for Stanford University.