Religious studies professor and Director of the Spiritual Life Institute, Ian Werrett

Ian Werrett

If any of Ian Werrett's students ask him what religious tradition he follows, the associate professor of religious studies at Saint Martin's University always has a ready reply.

"I tell them to mind their own business," says Werrett. "That's my answer because what I do here is about the scholarship of religion. A person of faith would not ask the sorts of questions we would ask when dealing with the academics of religion."

"I want to talk about various religions as objectively as I can," explains Werrett, who is also director of SMU's Spiritual Life Institute, a summer program designed to explore the history, ethics and beliefs of the world's religions. "I want to shed some light and enable my students to be able to make up their own minds and decide if they want to make further exploration outside my classroom."

"I also want my students to be excited about religion," adds Werrett. "It's a fascinating thing to study."

Werrett should know. He has studied, spoken and written widely on the Dead Sea Scrolls. He has conducted research on ancient libraries and ritual purity; Jewish and biblical law and Second Temple Judaism; Christian art and art theory; religion and sports; and religion and violence. Under his direction this summer, the Spiritual Life Institute's annual, week-long, intensive learning program will host a group of students and theologians as they explore gnosticism, considered to be a heretical movement of the second-century Christian church.

Werrett traces his interest in religion to his high school days in San Jose, California, when he briefly joined a Christian, evangelical youth group called Young Life. His pursuit of religious studies fully blossomed soon after he arrived at Saint Martin's as an undergraduate student, even though his initial decision to attend the University had little to do with religion. "I met a girl and I followed her here," he says.

Then, one day in a religious studies class, Werrett and his classmates were introduced to the Dead Sea Scrolls through a lecture delivered by religious studies professor David Suter. "It was the coolest thing I ever heard," says Werrett, who earned his bachelor's degree in English with a minor in religious studies in 1996. He went on to earn a master's degree in biblical studies from Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., Canada, and a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Werrett's decision to return to Saint Martin's for his first post-Ph.D. job was fueled by the way faculty members treated him during his years as an undergraduate. "It quickly became a powerful place for me in terms of relationships with my professors," Werrett recalls. "It was the first time I actually felt like I was being taken seriously, that the ideas and thoughts I had were valued."

"It was the first place where people took me under their wing and said, 'That's a good idea you have. Let's talk about it, let's shape it.'"

"I want to give my students the same experience I had as a student here," says Werrett. "I want to give them that extra attention, keep my office door always open to them," That door remains open to any student who is willing, though perhaps reluctantly at first, to cross the threshold.

"I've had the full spectrum of students attending my religious studies classes, including self-professed atheists who tried to sabotage the class or try to control it in some way," Werrett says. "I remember one student who, by the end of the course, wrote me a letter saying had it not been for the approach I took in the class, it would have been the worst course of his life."

It may not be any of his students' business to ask about his faith, but Werrett does believe it's up to them to intellectually challenge him.

"They keep me accountable that way; they keep me on my toes," says Werrett. "I've also realized that if I expect something from them, I have to give something in return. I have to keep them engaged, entertained and interested. That's an in for me."

That is also, most definitely, his business.