Beyond belief

Belief isn’t just about religion. The city fathers of Baltimore are promoting a campaign of civic improvement called “Baltimore Believes.” Othello believes that his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful. Will the Phillies snag a wild card slot? “You’ve got to believe.”

This year the Penn Humanities Forum (PHF) has chosen the capacious topic “Belief” as its theme and organized a wide-ranging series of public programs that challenge the traditional idea that belief can only be discussed by theologians or anthropologists.

“Religious belief is only one part of it,” explains Penn Humanities Forum Co-Director and Professor of English Peter Stallybrass. “There are all sorts of things that we believe. What it means to trust someone is also a question of belief. The Latin word ‘credo’ [‘I believe’] becomes the root of our word ‘credit’.

“Belief is just part of everyday, ordinary life. We [want to] bring together the narrow question of religious belief and the broader questions that arise everyday.”

The sacred and the secular

This year’s program includes a South African human rights advocate talking about belief in democracy, a Penn physician talking about the role of the brain in mystical experience, a Hollywood producer and Penn alum talking about America’s secular religion—the movies, and, in the spring, performances of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” presented by Minnesota’s renowned Guthrie Theater Company.

Which is not to say that questions of religious belief were not an important factor in the choice of this year’s theme. “Certainly one of the reasons we chose belief is because of recent political events and the way that questions around belief have become so crucial,” said Stallybrass.

“Belief” is more than just a clothesline upon which a series of lectures can be hung. One of the magical things about interdisciplinary programs like the Penn Humanities Forum is that once a topic is announced all kinds of cross-campus connections materialize. Last year scholars associated with the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies examined different interpretations of the Scriptures comparing Jewish, Christian and Muslim texts.

“We found that there has been a lot of thought about belief already going on at Penn,” said Stallybrass.

Not just talk

Its public face is only the tip of the Penn Humanities Forum iceberg. From its home at 3619 Locust Walk, PHF brings together scholars for a weekly seminar based on the designated theme. Five highly competitive Mellon Fellowships are offered by PHF each year for graduate study. In addition, faculty fellows, regional fellows from nearby colleges and universities, and cultural fellows from Philadelphia’s museum community are invited to participate.

The Humanities Forum has a unique mission to seek out opportunities to work with the Philadelphia cultural community. “We have been able to pull in people on a national scale as well as an international scale,” said Stallybrass, “and that has been part of the brief at PHF. At the same time, it is connecting that with what is going on in Philadelphia as well as at Penn that is very important to us.”

Room for foolishness

If all this sounds terribly serious, the Forum has added a joker to the deck. This year, for the first time, PHF has invited undergraduates and graduate student groups to think outside the jack-in-the-box to create a campus-wide event celebrating the Feast of Fools.

Drawing on an ancient tradition that proclaims April Fool’s Day as the day when the fool, the jester, the trickster, the vulgarian and the powerless rule, PHF invites players (Elizabethean or not), jugglers, mimes and magicians to sign up to present their unique take on Folly on April 1, 2004.

For more information, contact associate director Jennifer Conway at

For more information about all Penn Humanities Forum programs, visit See “Editor’s Pick” for more on the opening lecture.

Originally published on September 18, 2003