Will Sweetman

Having taken my first steps in the academic study of religion as an undergraduate at Lancaster University, I now teach at the University of Otago, which could not be further away—12,000 miles or 19,000 km—from where I began. And yet the two institutions share a great deal. The Department of Religious Studies was established at Lancaster in 1967, with Ninian Smart as the first professor. In the same year, Albert Moore introduced the Phenomenology of Religion at Otago. Moore had received a doctorate in Biblical Studies from Manchester, and subsequently spent a year studying Theology in Göttingen and another studying History of Religions at the University of Chicago under Mircea Eliade and Paul Tillich.

There were personal connections, too, between the new departments. In 1971, Smart came to Otago at Moore’s invitation for a term as a De Carle lecturer. Smart arrived in the midst of a student protest. “It made me feel at home, for Lancaster specializes in pointless yet soul-stirring confrontations,” he told the Times Higher. He became advisor to both the student leaders—his drinking companions in the Captain Cook hotel—and the university administrators. To the latter he recommended “masterly inaction, which was how we dealt with a mutiny or two in army times gone by.”

Smart also offered his advice to the members of the fledgling New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions, when he attended its first conference at Otago in August 1971: “it was gratifying to see how well a controversial but important subject was progressing in New Zealand.” Smart had such a good time—“I loved every moment in Otago, even the public lectures”—that he was to return in 1980, and again in 1993.

Despite—or perhaps precisely because of—its remote setting, Otago has always looked outward and personal connections have had lasting influence on the shape of religious studies here. To take one example: Harold Turner had been chaplain at Otago before spending a decade teaching theology and religious studies in West Africa where, with his colleague Andew Walls, he pioneered the study of African Independent Churches. It was through Moore’s friendship with Turner that another scholar of West Africa, Hans-Jürgen Greschat, then recently appointed as Professor für Religionsgeschichte at Marburg, was invited to spend the 1974 academic year at Otago. As well as teaching, Greschat conducted research on Māori religion (published as Mana und Tapu in 1980). When Moore retired in 1992, he was succeeded by another scholar of Christianity in West Africa, Elizabeth Isichei. The South Pacific is perhaps an unlikely place for scholarship on Africa, but there are deep parallels between both the practice and the study of religion in these regions, emerging from their shared history of colonisation and Christianisation. These have recently been highlighted in the work of another Africanist, James Cox, who followed Smart as a De Carle lecturer at Otago in 2012.

As we enter our second half-century of the academic study of religion at Otago, much has changed. New opportunities and new methods beckon. But as a historian, and someone with more than a passing interest in the history of the study of religion, I find some satisfaction in tracing the continuities too. Ben Schonthal has brought another dimension of the Chicago tradition—that of Bruce Lincoln and Wendy Doniger rather than Eliade and Tillich—to Otago. And while John Shaver has added evolutionary, psychological, and scientific perspectives to our work, his work on ritual stratification in Fiji represents a continuation of Moore’s interests in Christianity in the Pacific.