In the wake of Dr. Charles Reynolds’s passing on January 25, 2017 the Department decided to create an award in his honor. Because he stayed connected to many of his former students, we decided to honor two distinguished alumni/alumnae each year. The awards are handed out at the annual dinner for the Board of Visitors in the spring.
When I came to the University of Tennessee in 1983, I was a journalism major. I really enjoyed it, and eventually worked for The Daily Beacon. In fact, at one time or another I think I held just about every editorial staff position at the paper. Some of my fondest and most powerful memories as a college student involve working for the paper.
But some time during my sophomore year I took a world religions course to complete a general education requirement. I know it sounds cliché, but that course changed my life. It led to more courses in the Department of Religious Studies and in the summer before my senior year I changed my major.
While I benefitted greatly from all the faculty members who I had as teachers, I owe a special debt of gratitude to the late, great Stan Lusby. He was a tremendous mentor, convincing me that I was smart enough to pursue graduate work in Religious Studies if that’s what I wanted to do. When I was floundering after graduation, looking for a job and living with (off of) a friend, Stan worked his magic and got me into the MA program at Miami of Ohio—with a graduate assistantship to boot (there’s an interesting story here). That was the fall of 1987. The next fall I was on my way to the University of Chicago, where I earned by PhD and met the love of my life (she’s my wife, by the way).
When I finished my doctoral work in 1997, I was fortunate to land a tenure-track job at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania. I eventually became department chair (there’s an interesting story here too), and that helped me to land the Department Head position in Philosophy and Religion at Western Kentucky University in 2007. And next month, I begin another new job, this time as Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Indiana University—Kokomo.
Along the way I became involved in the Society for Values in Higher Education (Stan nominated me for membership; another thing for which I am incredibly grateful), and I now serve as Executive Director of that organization. I have had the good fortune to present my work broadly and have five books to my credit: Mediating the Culture Wars: Dialogical Virtues in Multicultural Education (Hampton Press, 2003), Judge and Be Judged: Moral Reflection in an Age of Relativism and Fundamentalism (Lexington Books, 2006), Game Day and God: Football, Faith, and Politics in the American South (Mercer University Press, 2009), Violence in Southern Sport and Culture: Sacred Battles on the Gridiron (Springer, 2016), and Understanding Sport as a Religious Phenomenon: An Introduction (Bloomsbury, 2016), co-authored with D. Gregory Sapp. My next book, The End(s) of Religion: A History of How the Study of Religion Makes Religions Irrelevant (under contract with Bloomsbury), gets at questions that I really started to think about right here at UT.
While my research spans across the disciplines of philosophy and religious studies, focusing primarily on social ethics, political philosophy, comparative religion, cultural criticism, and issues in higher education, Religious Studies is my home. And I never forget that the wonderful professional life that I have experienced all started here, with the good work and commitment of dedicated teachers and mentors.
My tenure as an undergraduate student in the UT Religious Studies Department has been perhaps one of the most formative events of my life. Several life changing events led to my academic and personal interest in pursuing such a major, and my degree has informed my life’s journey ever since.
As a child growing up in the Atlanta suburbs in the late 1970’s, I learned that one of my favorite actors, Patrick Duffy, from the popular television hit Dallas, is Buddhist. From this, I developed an all-encompassing fascination with Buddhism. Then, tragically, in the early 1980’s my mother succumbed to a rather aggressive form of cancer. This life altering experience drove me into a deep existential crisis, which then propelled me even further into my exploration of Buddhism.
By the time I started the University of Tennessee in 1988, I was craving an intellectually stimulating major, and was also looking for a way to salve my personal existential dilemmas. It was not until two years later, though, in the spring of 1990, that I discovered the marvelous Religious Studies Department when I took Religious Myth, Symbol, and Ritual with the great Stan Lusby. Shortly thereafter, I took Varieties of Religious Communities with Professors Rosalind Hackett and Charles Reynolds. I was sold after taking these courses, and I knew that Religious Studies was the path I needed to pursue.
Being a Religious Studies major was much more than just being a student, it was a source of identity and pride. Some of the most formative courses I took during this time were African Religions and the Anthropology of Religions with Rosalind Hackett, Buddhism and Women & Religion with Miriam Levering, Hinduism and Sanskrit with James Fitzgerald, and Islam with Rosalind Gwynne. My twin sister, Elizabeth Fraley, who was also a Religious Studies major, and I were often affectionately known as the “Sanskrit sisters” because we would spend all day on the 5th floor in an empty room of McClung tower working through our translations of Sanskrit shlokas. We would then migrate across the hall in the late afternoon to Rosalind Hackett’s office to work as Undergraduate Research and Teaching Assistants. Professor Hackett’s office was considered by many RS students to be the “axis mundi” of the department, as it served as the nerve center where students would congregate to discuss exciting and challenging new ideas they had learned from their classes.
After graduation from UT, I went on to pursue a Masters’ degree at Harvard Divinity School, with a focus on Tibetan Buddhism. My plan was to pursue my PhD in Tibetan Buddhist studies, but as I began to study the horrendous plight of the Tibetan people at the hands of a brutal regime, I became more and more interested in International Human Rights. After graduation from Harvard, this led me to move to California to study International Human Rights Law as a law student at the University of San Francisco School of Law. During this time, I also pursued a lifelong interest in maritime history by studying Maritime and Admiralty Law. Also, having been influenced by Rosalind Gwynne’s Islam course, I delved more deeply into the study of Islamic Jurisprudence during these years.
After law school, I realized that the practice of law did not interestor satisfy me in the same way that I had enjoyed as a law student. However, I increasingly became intrigued by spirits of another kind, ones that no less straddle the world between the sacred and profane, namely, distilled spirits. Thus, in order to contemplate my career path, I quit my job working in the library of a large labor and employment law firm, and traveled through Morocco, Spain, and Mexico for inspiration. Within a year I was working at a distillery, Germain-Robin, which was started by an 11th generation Cognac maker who had come to California in the early 1980’s to make high quality brandy without the restraints of rigid French laws. This, too, was a turning point in my life, and would shape my future career.
I currently run a consulting firm called Nosing Services out of Berkeley, CA, where I am a Master Blender and international and domestic consultant for major industry and craft distillers. I am also the Director of Research for the American Distilling Institute (ADI), Lead Judge for the ADI Craft Spirits Judging Competition, creator of the American Craft Whiskey Aroma Wheel, and teach classes on Spirits Maturation and Blending, and Advanced Sensory Analysis. In addition, I serve on the faculty of the Distilled Spirits Epicenter’s “Moonshine University” in Louisville, KY.
Even though I ultimately chose to take on a different career path from traditional academia, I have found that the skills I honed and the knowledge I gained in the Religious Studies program have served me well. In my professional life, these skills have helped me to develop a cross-cultural and critical approach to my work, as I’ve studied culturally diverse blending traditions from around the world. Also, courses such as African Religions have helped me when I travel to work with international clients, such as in rum distilleries in countries like Haiti or Belize. By having studied such syncretistic Afro-Atlantic religions like Vodun, which is practiced in Haiti, I can better understand the complex history of local drinking customs and various beliefs about the spiritual meaning of alcohol.
On a personal level, the cross-disciplinary approach, critical thinking, and research skills I first acquired as a Religious Studies major and later honed in graduate school and law school continue to be of service in life as well. Because the RS curriculum touches on such diverse topics as the intersection of religion with art, music, science, literature, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, history, environmental issues, sociology, human rights, medical ethics, economics, law, business, etc., I have gained breadth in many subjects. Many of these topics I continue to pursue. In turn, this has led to an increased quality of life, the awareness to become an engaged citizen, and a much deeper understanding of the world and of the times in which we live.