Graduate Theological Union

Beyond Berkeley: Religion and Cultural Exchange

Mt Putuo Buddha

Berkeley and the greater Bay Area are well-known for their diversity of cultures and religions. It’s one of the reasons the Graduate Theological Union is the perfect place to study a faith tradition other than your own or different religions side-by-side.

   Courtney Bruntz, Photo by Quentin Lueninghoener

“At GTU we intentionally cultivate
lifestyles learning about other
traditions. Then we move to
other parts of the
country where the work
must continue.”

– Courtney Bruntz, Ph.D. Student

Courtney Bruntz came to the GTU unsure of exactly what direction she would take. “At that point I was really interested in interreligious work, but thought at some point I would focus solely on Buddhism and the religions of Asia. GTU was a really good place to start that process because of all the different member schools and centers of distinction.”

Bruntz’s journey beyond her Lutheran upbringing in Nebraska began at the age of 19 when her sister got married. Her brother-in-law is a third generation Japanese American. She recalls that her brother-in-law’s grandmother kept initiating conversations on the wedding being interreligious and intercultural. “I hadn’t thought about the intersection of two cultures and faith traditions until then. That experience shaped my initial years at college.”

In her junior year, she went to study abroad in China and Japan. “It was my first time in China. Growing up, I was told that religion wasn’t really practiced there. But what I saw was much different.”

Connecting with lived religions in Asia led her to a job for a year after graduation teaching conversational English to freshman and sophomore English majors at Huazhong Normal University in Hubei province. She deferred beginning her Masters at the GTU for the opportunity.

“I had students from all across the country, including Tibet. Some were Muslim. Many were practicing Buddhists. Some weren’t religious at all. Others had converted to Christianity. It furthered my interest in studying religions of Asia.”
After completing her Masters in 2009, she stayed to pursue a Ph.D. in the Buddhist Studies track of Cultural and Historical Studies of Religion, because of the relationships she developed and the vast resources at the GTU and UC Berkeley.

Next spring, Bruntz will teach Women in Chinese Islam as a Newhall Fellow. Xinjiang province, which primarily borders Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and India, has a large population of Muslim Chinese. In the past few years, this area has been in the media because of ethnically and religiously charged riots. “Those stories need to be nuanced with other stories of Muslims in China,” she says. “In general, it’s a pertinent time to talk about Islam and China. Focusing on women makes it really interesting because there’s a lot of activism by Muslim women there.”

Bruntz returned to Omaha following two years of coursework. She notes how much more culturally diverse it is than when she left. Interesting exchanges happen when people ask her about studies and she talks about her Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies. “They reply, ‘There’s Asians in Nebraska.’ Now I’m seen as an expert on everything Asian. I serve as a bridge for people who now have neighbors from different countries.” She also observes that people ease into crossing cultural boundaries through food. Bruntz will be accompanied by a local food writer while completing fieldwork in China in May.

Mount Putuo, Photo by NovHeaven on PanoramioThe topic of her dissertation is religious tourism at Mount Putuo – a sacred Buddhist mountain in China’s Zhejiang Province. Her focus on diverse communities and how they affect people and places is a lived interest not just an academic one. “We think we’re so educated and multicultural living in the Bay Area. But even among the diversity of the Bay Area there is still room for learning. At GTU we intentionally cultivate lifestyles learning about other traditions. Then we move to other parts of the country where the work must continue. We are agents of these conversations and experiences.”