Friday, September 21, 2007

New Professor Uses Religion as Way to Explore World

By Courtney Westlake

Dr. David Bertaina has found that more can be learned from the study of religion than most people think, from understanding wars and historical events to comprehending and appreciating differences between various cultures.

Bertaina, a new professor to the University of Illinois at Springfield this fall, is the history department's first specialist in comparative religion. He received his Ph.D. in Semitic Languages and Literatures from the Catholic University of America in 2007 and previously taught courses on Islam at California State University in Chico.

Bertaina said he has always held a fascination with history, especially with both of his parents being teachers, and first studied traditional Western history. As he then began to study Christianity’s presence in the Middle East, he also became interested in languages in that particular area of the world.

“For my doctorate, I studied many Middle Eastern languages: Arabic, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic and Greek,” he said. “Plus some French and German had to be done for all of the reading. So I had an opportunity to delve into the literature and appreciate the historical development of the cultures.”

The history and literature of the medieval Middle East with an emphasis on Christian-Muslim dialogs is now Bertaina’s forte. Through extensive research on these subjects, Bertaina said he found his professional interest begin to expand into personal interests in other cultural aspects of the Middle East, primarily music.

“From the languages, I had an appreciation for the way of life and how they express themselves,” he said. “Expression relies on language, art and music, and I gained an appreciation for the many forms of music. It’s a way to look back into time.”

Bertaina is teaching two classes this semester. One of them is an online course on Islamic history. The other, called “Scriptures and World Religions,” teaches religion from the historical perspective and examines how religion developed in history, he said.

Bertaina said he hopes his students develop an understanding and appreciation for religion on a deeper level: each religion’s history, scriptures, culture and the way its followers view the world.

“I want my students to take away from my classes an understanding of a particular religious tradition – each religious tradition in its own right,” he said. “Every religion has a world view that is how they identify themselves and look at the world based upon their identity as a religious person, so it’s important to step into this religious world view.”

While UIS doesn’t have a specific religion department, Bertaina anticipates filling that void in the department of history.

“The University of Illinois at Springfield was interested in having someone in comparative religion because they saw a need for not only studying politics, but also the fact that religion is a reason and driving force behind politics today, behind issues of culture and behind issues of cultural wars,” Bertaina said. “(I want) to communicate to the students the complexity of each individual religious tradition, and also how they interact with one another and with other areas, such as the area of intellectual life or literature or gender issues.”