J-term Course Digs into Religious Inheritance of the 1960s and '70s

January 12, 2012 — "Cool." "Groovy." "Hip." "Heavy." "Square." Such words are among the better-known legacies of the 1960s and '70s that today we take for granted (along with things like civil rights and women's equality).

But the era also created a number of other, less obvious, legacies, as students learned in a University of Virginia January Term course on "Religion in the 60's and 70's," taught by religious studies professor Heather Warren of the College of Arts & Sciences.

For instance, the "centering prayer groups" at many American churches, as well as the  "mindfulness" classes offered at the U.Va. Medical Center, come right out of Asian practices of meditation, primarily Buddhist and Hindu, first popularized in America in the 1960s, Warren explained in an interview. The turn toward Asian religion often came in reaction to Protestant traditions feeling too dogmatic, she said.

Warren's J-Term course, new this year, grew out of her long experience teaching a course on American religious history from 1865 to the present, which includes three lectures on key developments of the 1960s and '70s, she said.

She grew up in a music-loving family, and learned from her father, a pastor, that "If you want to find out what people believe, find out what they sing. People sing their faith. They sing their values," said Warren, who was once a professional violist.

So music plays a significant role in her course. Along with listening to recordings and studying song lyrics from the era, she brings her guitar to class, and often leads the students in songs of the era, like "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and "Blowing in the Wind" (both written by Bob Dylan).

"Music touches people at an emotional and intuitive level," she noted. "Music brings people together. It unites them when they are singing or listening to music together." 

And music played a major role in the era, which witnessed the first outdoor concerts, like Woodstock, that drew tens of thousands of people.

The course started with a look at America in the 1950s. Much of what happened in the 1960s and '70s was in response to previous generation's problems, fourth-year student Teresa Reynolds said. The problems of the '50s included "loveless marriages, church without true devotion, segregation, a war fought by the young, sexism, nuclear war – lots had changed in the brief period after World War II," said Reynolds, a non-traditional student who has returned to college after raising three children.

The 1960s, especially the Civil Rights Movement, "put emphasis on the individual as being valuable, created in the image of God," Warren said. That premise called people to pursue self-realization or self-actualization and to push away repressive social structures – like segregation and sexism – that constrict individual freedom and potential.

The era's emphasis on the individual led to a "stress on consciousness – learning to think with your conscience, be more conscientious," Reynolds said, explaining one of her key takeaways from the course. As an example, she said, in 1965 the Roman Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council, commonly called Vatican II, acknowledged that conscience can conflict with church teaching on some moral issues.

In the '60s and '70s, people imbibed two differing messages about the power of the individual, Warren explained. On the one hand, individuals, gathered into popular movements, effected the rise of civil rights and women's equality, as well as the peace movement and anti-war protests that played an important role in ending America's participation in the Vietnam War.

On the other hand, the birth of the nuclear age meant, for the first time in history, the entire world could be destroyed by nuclear weapons with the press of a button by a single world leader. Control of humanity's destiny was in the hands of a very small group of men.

"How do you live meaningfully with the shadow of annihilation looming?" was a question that many struggled with in that era, Warren said. "This was a period when people were seriously asking, 'What is the meaning of life? How do I make my life meaningful, not just to me, but in the broader sense? And how do I carry that out?' Typically those answers come from religion." 

"The '60s and '70s were a time when people saw doubt and questioning not as the opposite of faith, but as the companion to true faith," she said.

Peace and justice are the two issues at the heart of all the momentous changes of the era, Warren said. People sought peace – both inward peace and peace in the world – to counter all the turmoil of the period – the Vietnam War, the birth of the nuclear age, the rise of the Cold War. Peace is what meditation is about, and what many of the era's songs were about. And peace and justice are always linked; you can't have one without the other, she said.

— By Brevy Cannon

Media Contact

H. Brevy Cannon

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications