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Faculty profile: Juli Gittinger keeps faith by sharing world religions

Dr. Juli Gittinger, lecturer of religion in the Department of Philosophy, Religion and Liberal Studies.

Dr. Juli Gittinger—known affectionately as Dr. G to her students—likes to joke that she doesn’t have a life.

What she really means is her life is nonstop.

Gittinger’s world is a hodgepodge of interesting facts and ceaseless activity, much like the religions she teaches. A Midwesterner growing up in a blended family, she now plays the “crazy aunt” to nine nieces and nephews.

She’s many scholarly things too: artist, lecturer, researcher, avid reader, traveler, author—and a leader in thought. 

“It’s true; I don’t have a life,” Gittinger said. “I’m single. I don’t have kids. And, I actually like writing. So, it’s not a hardship for me to come to campus. I’m here seven days a week. I discipline myself to write every single day.”

Gittinger was always interested in religion. Raised Methodist, she would chat about Islam with Muslim cab drivers in Chicago. Her first degree was in art and printmaking, and she created religious scenes. In her 30s, she went back again-and-again to school—in St. Louis, Missouri; Boulder, Colorado; London and Montreal—earning another bachelor’s, two masters and a Ph.D. All subjects were about Hinduism or Islam.

Along the way, Gittinger became Bahá'í, one of the youngest religions in the world that started in modern-day Iran in the 1800s. It teaches all religions are stepping stones towards the same truth—an appropriate haven for someone who finds all faiths fascinating.

“I considered Judaism and studied Hebrew for a while,” Gittinger said. “I looked at Sikhism, and there are things about Buddhism I love. But I realized Bahá'í says all of them are cool. You can look at all those texts, and it’s perfectly fine. It’s a very ecumenical religion.”

Gittinger also discovered she liked teaching. She taught as an undergraduate, then as a visiting professor at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. She came to Georgia College in 2015 and is one of three faculty who teach religion in the Department of Philosophy, Religion and Liberal Studies (PALS).

Gittinger with students.

It’s a niche that suits her. Gittinger’s corner office at Beeson has gigantic windows that flood her workspace with sunlight. The walls are adorned with print works of women dressed in religious garb, as colorful as Gittinger’s rose-tinted hair. Beaded strings of Indian elephants hang from the bookshelf. And, of course, there are books everywhere.

Despite a heavy teaching load, Gittinger published her first book last year and awaits her second, coming out later this year. She also has two unfinished novels and another education book already in mind. She’s writing the forward to a friend’s volume and co-editing it.  Plus, Gittinger’s working on several book chapters and other academic articles.

She’s interested in how religions deal with gender, how they mix with technology and—in the case of Hindus and Islam—how they deal with each other.

“This is great news about one of our faculty,” said Dr. Eric Tenbus, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “A second book in two years is really a monumental feat in the humanities. I’ve rarely seen it.”

Dr. Sunita Manian, chair of PALS, praised Gittinger’s “incredible intellectual prowess,” saying she manages “to be more prolific than anyone else in the department. We value her highly as a colleague.”

Gittinger’s writings are garnering national attention, as well. In March, Gittinger appeared before 25 security and intelligence analysts at the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C. to talk about Hindu nationalism, and how the Internet’s being used “as a weapon to control discourse and propaganda.” She’s been invited to speak at the annual American Academy of Religion in November. In addition, professors across the country use Gittinger’s books and chapters to teach.

She gets her ideas in the night. Or on the treadmill. Or when reading.

At Georgia College, Gittinger teaches about world religions, religion and the media, religion and human rights, religion and the body—and even religion and science fiction. Next spring, she plans to teach a class on mystical traditions.

Gittinger melds science fiction with religious millennialism or apocalyptic topics like climate change. Many students admit taking her class to fulfill a requirement or fit their schedule. But they end up liking it and learning something too.

Perhaps it’s the way Gittinger weaves today’s news into coursework. She wants students to understand contemporary issues. Civil unrest is spreading worldwide, and Hindu nationalism allows Gittinger to write about the subject “with a little distance, because it’s really the same conversation.”

Religion students often keep in touch with Gittinger, long after graduation. They’ve gone on to work in public relations, NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) or international trade—wherever it’s useful to understand multiple creeds and cultures.

Alumni also send Gittinger news from India and articles they find on Hinduism. They haven’t forgotten her instruction, which shows Gittinger the impact she’s made.

And she’s not done yet.

In the future, Gittinger wants to collaborate with the art department, mixing that discipline with religion. Once travel restrictions are lifted in Turkey, she’d also like to take religious-minded students abroad.

“Religion rounds them out, culturally. These are students, who’ve had limited exposure to other religions,” Gittinger said.

“So, especially in the kind of political climate the U.S. is in,” she said, “I feel like I’m on the frontlines, trying to teach important things.”

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