Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Norman Girardot, Professor of Comparative Religions: Re-creating the human community

Norman Girardot and Woofie

Ask Norman Girardot if today's students are as curious as previous generations, and the Distinguished University Professor of Comparative Religions is likely to launch into a lengthy treatise that neatly weaves together threads as seemingly disparate as print-bound literacy and the soul-crushing threat of globalism.

But in Girardot's unorthodox and brilliant mind, it all makes sense. Fortunately, it makes sense to his students as well, who seek the professor's appreciation of the sacred, the sublime, and the strange to open a portal into a world of creativity unbound.

Over the course of a colorful career at Lehigh, Girardot has introduced a series of what he calls "exceedingly strange, yet curiously refreshing" courses, exhibitions, and events that, among other peculiar manifestations, resulted in the levitation of the Rauch Business School, the creation of a controversial and well-publicized course and event devoted to the cult of Elvis, and the construction (with celebrated outsider artist Mr. Imagination) of Lehigh's Millennial Folk Arch and Outsider Art Park.

Most recently, Girardot co-created the all-university program ArtsLehigh, which links arts, learning, and life.

Now, he's finding that his passion for awakening the inner artist and spiritual soul of his students tidily dovetails with a 21st century resurgence in the appreciation of creativity in traditional education.

"There was a tendency throughout the 20th century to relegate the arts to the realm of entertainment and recreation," he says. "These are obviously important aspects of human life but, in higher education -- which was conceived in the rational and secularizing spirit of the enlightenment -- it wasn't seen as central or important to the 'serious' business of life."

Girardot feels it's increasingly incumbent on human beings to rediscover the blessed importance of curiosity and an educated imagination as the primary engine of human creativity.

"There must be, in other words, a new kind of liberal arts that puts an emphasis on, and creates an environment for, creativity in education," he says. "And one of the best ways to do this is to encourage the aesthetic or arts aspects of all that we do within our various academic disciplines. Most of all, we must stock young minds with the wild and infinite possibilities of creation, and then try those dreams out in the real world."

It is, at heart, the best way to confront and deal with the immense problems of a post-9/11 world, he says.

"We need a new liberal arts that fosters a kind of artistic entrepreneurship of the imagination," Girardot says. "We need a creativity that is dedicated to the common purpose of re-creating the human community."

Girardot's credentials as a serious scholar of Chinese religious tradition -- particularly Daoism -- as well as popular religious movements are confirmed by a lifetime of accomplishment, and the attendant international awards and accolades that honor it.

And he believes that his training as a scholar of comparative religions has forced him to keep his curiosity active and his imagination well-stocked with the strangeness of the human world.

"It's interesting," he says, "how everyone woke up to the power of religion in the wake of 9/11. We tended to trivialize it in the secular sphere, relegating it to little-read sections of the newspaper and such. Then, we all woke up and realized that perhaps, after all, economics isn't the most important thing in the world. And when you say that, what you're basically saying is that the most powerful tool in the world -- for good or evil -- really lies within your imagination. And this, this kind of applied romanticism is, of course, the source of all that is truly creative."

Recognizing the potential to harness that power and apply it to the most pressing issues of our time is "the most important thing we can do as educators," he says.

"We need to cultivate imagination and creativity for a common purpose," he says. "That's the way to touch the deepest aspect of human nature, what education should be, and what the 21st century demands."

--Linda Harbrecht

Dr. Akudo Anyanwu Ikemba '97: A wake-up call for Africa and the world

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Inauguration 2007

Posted on Wednesday, September 05, 2007

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