My hope is that students recognize the need to figure out what we're doing here.

Stuart Young

Even from an early age, Professor Stuart Young, religious studies, grappled with big questions.

"There's nothing more fundamental to define what we are as human beings than religious impulse," he says. "From the time I was a kid, I have vague memories of questioning what we are as people and what I am…of having such questions pop up in my head and being interested in them."

A required college philosophy course introduced him to formal thought and led him to religious philosophy. But it was Buddhism and its material representations that resounded most for him.

"I became more interested in the social dimensions of Buddhism, the material manifestations of religiosity — temples, icons, images, dress, the way you situate yourself in the material world," Young says.

But it was the tiny silkworm that became the biggest star in his research. Young studies the silk industry's saturation in premodern Buddhist China — from its role as currency to the mandated cultivation of mulberry trees that feed silkworms. His current research explores how Buddhism and the silk industry influenced each other.

"Silk is the fabric of Chinese society in so many ways. It's so deeply infused and widespread in Chinese society, it becomes the background in which the Buddhist institutions developed in China," Young says. "But it's so deeply infused, no one talks about it. It's one of those things where you have to read between the lines of everything because it's only mentioned in passing."

Silkworms take a decidedly smaller role in Young's classroom. He emphasizes that religion is interwoven with politics, economics and social relations, and cannot be distilled. He also challenges students to deconstruct their thinking to discover their preconceptions about themselves and the world, and he asks them to seek their purpose by considering why they want a college education, why they want a job and money, and how they want to live in the world.

"Typically, people don't think much about things — they just move from one day to the next. I hope my students start to put thought into such questions. By examining different cultures, ancient and medieval and modern, they can see the ways others have tried to come to grips with such questions, and it will give them a perspective on their own preconceptions of the world. And then they can rebuild their thinking with a broader perspective. My hope is that students recognize the need to figure out what we're doing here."

Updated Sept. 30, 2016