Connecting the Dots

By Makena Schoene
Blog & Social Media Coordinator, Student Editor, The Drake Community Press

Education is all about connecting subjects and material to real life. For Professor Tim Knepper, the director of The Comparison Project at Drake University, connecting the dots between the classroom and the religious communities of Des Moines is an important teaching point for his students. Professor Knepper and his philosophy students have studied and engaged with these communities of faith over the past year, all with the hope of bringing the unique stories of Iowa’s diverse society to light.

La Grangeville, New York
What style/ genre of music do you like most? Alternative rock with odd time signatures.

MS: What drew you to the study of philosophy?

TK: I am drawn as much to the academic study of religion as I am to philosophy.  Let’s say both are the product of a curiosity about things that matter most.  It was eye opening to learn about the diversity of the world’s religions, not to mention the diversity and history of my own.  And philosophy is the discipline that thinks most rigorously and critically about everything, religion included.  Philosophy of religion just came naturally to me, especially when the net of religion is cast widely.

MS: What inspired you to create a book about the religions of Des Moines?

TK: Having moved to the Midwest from the East Coast, I was so astounded by the diversity of religion that my inspiration is simply that which drives my teaching and research in general – education.  If there is a second inspiration, it is that of pride – not my own pride but the pride that I think Iowa should feel for its religious diversity and the way in which this diversity is a product of welcoming the refugee and immigrant “other.”

MS: What has been the hardest part of this publication process?

TK: I don’t know that any of it has been easy!  It was hard to choose only 15 communities.  It was hard to foster and maintain a relationship with 15 communities simultaneously.  It was hard to turn these communities over to student researchers.  It was hard to edit the heartfelt research of these students.  It was hard to find a balance between the unique personality of each community and general “facts” about their religion.  But I believe the hardest part of the project for me was the best part of the project overall – turning the research over to students, who in many cases would go on to develop special connections with their communities that in some cases I no longer had.

MS: What has been your favorite part of this project?

TK: As mentioned before, seeing my students develop special connections with their communities.  Seeing my students’ eyes opened by the study of “lived religion.”  Seeing the communities take pride in the project and in how their communities were being represented in pictures and words.

MS: What has it been like collaborating closely with your students on the written content for this project?  

TK: It’s been like a dot connector.  My students could see the practices and people of the community they were immersed in.  And my students could read about that religion.  But sometimes they couldn’t connect the dots – to see the connections between the religious tradition in general and their religious community in particular.  The lived practice of some community never enacts the beliefs and principles of its religion in simple 1-1 fashion.  Nevertheless, it is sometimes only possible to understand the lived practice of some community by means of the general beliefs and principles of its religion.

MS: What faith, religion or belief system do you adhere to? How has working on this project opened your eyes to other cultures?

TK: I was raised Christian and continue to identify with and belong to a Christian church.  So, my body is Christian.  But my mind is more and more Buddhist insofar as I find more and more meaning in the Buddhist notion of “emptiness” (which is not sheer emptiness but rather impermanence). I hope I won’t sound arrogant in saying that my eyes were already opened to other cultures.  But I definitely learned a whole lot more about every culture that is represented in the book.

MS: After this project has been completed, what are your next steps? Any new projects in the works?

TK: I am always looking ahead!  Locally, The Comparison Project has a number of things in the works – an interfaith, digital-storytelling “camp” for high school students, a “meet my religious neighbor” series of open houses, a centralized online hub for information by and about local religious communities.  Globally, TCP is looking into raising money to support postdocs and mini-conferences.  Personally, I am also working with a team of scholars to write the first-ever undergraduate textbook in global philosophy of religion.  I also continue to plug away at a genealogy of ineffability in the twentieth-century philosophy of religion, as well as a comparison of ineffability in a sixth-century Christian mystic, second-century Indian Buddhist sutra, and third-century BCE Chinese Daoist classic.


Follow Professor Knepper and The Comparison project on social media!
Twitter: @KnepperTim , @DrakeComparison
Facebook: Tim Knepper , Comparison Project of Drake University


Photo courtesy of The Comparison Project