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International vows: Don Browning examines marriage through a global lens
By Elaine Justice | Emory Law | May 31, 2016 11:05:00 AM

Don Browning looks serene as he contemplates the view from his corner office in Gambrell Hall. But this is a man who has kept a lively pace during an academic career spanning almost four decades, and after talking with him, it’s clear he relishes every moment.

“We’re having a fine time,” says Browning of his and wife Carol’s two months at Emory, where Browning is serving as Woodruff Visiting Professor of Interdisciplinary Religious Studies in the new Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion (CISR). His role, he says, is a kind of moderator/catalyst for the center’s two-year project on “Sex, Marriage and Family in the Religions of the Book.”

He and the CISR senior fellows are engaged in weekly seminars examining everything from medieval Christian, Jewish and Islamic perspectives on marriage, to the role of community and the state in regulating sexuality, marriage and reproduction. Growing out of their conversations will be a series of research projects and books, some individual, some collaborative, that will begin to shed light on these complex and timely issues.

Browning brings impeccable credentials to his Emory role, having just wrapped up a decade-long interdisciplinary project at the University of Chicago on marriage and family that produced a dozen books and was funded by three different grants from the Lilly Endowment for a total of $4 million.

But a “been there, done that” attitude is far from Browning’s thinking these days. He speaks excitedly about a discussion at that day’s seminar on “fixed duration marriage” among Shiite Muslims in Iran, in which the prospective partners create a marriage contract that dissolves after a specified period of time.

“There’s a whole contractual understanding of marriage in Islam and Judaism that just isn’t present to the same degree in the Christian tradition as we know it today,” Browning says, clearly relishing the chance to broaden the window on marriage and family issues.

While the Chicago project focused on religion and the American family debate, Emory faculty are examining sex, marriage and family through the lenses of Christianity, Judaism and Islam—three world religions with their origins in Hebrew scripture. There is also a Hindu perspective, brought by Paul Courtright of Asian studies, and Cynthia Patterson of the history department is sharing her expertise on the family in Greek culture.

“This is definitely a broadening conversation, but basically we’re looking at the primary forces that have shaped today’s institutions,” Browning says. “To do that, we have every right to understand and evaluate where we came from.”

A native of Missouri, Browning was raised in the Disciples of Christ tradition, so the University of Chicago Divinity School seemed a natural, given his interest in theology.

“But I always had the idea of getting a Ph.D.,” he says. “At one time, I wanted to be the dean of a small college because I wanted to see how the different disciplines related to each other. I’m still primarily interested in that.” He admits with a smile, “I’m very happy it didn’t happen. It’s a lot more fun to think about being a dean than to actually do it.”

Grappling with the intersections of disciplines, taking ideas from theory to practical terms is what Browning’s work has been about. He began his academic career as a professor of religion and psychological studies. His book, Generative Man: Society and the Good Man in Philip Rieff, Norman Brown, Erich Fromm, and Erik Erikson, was a 1975 finalist for National Book Award in Philosophy and Religion. But Browning soon expanded his studies to include religious ethics and the social sciences, encompassing disciplines from evolutionary psychology to economic theory. 
But for all his love of theory and the interconnectedness of academic disciplines, Browning sees concrete issues as the best means to focus on the theoretical.

Why marriage and family? “In the 1980s, I began to feel there was a major cultural conversation that needed to happen on family issues,” Browning says. “Up to that point, much of the conversation had been from the vantage point of conservative Christians and some liberal Catholics and Protestants. But I felt there wasn’t a good body of scholarship out there. I saw the discussion coming and wanted to make a contribution to it.

“That discussion is here,” he continues, “only now it’s becoming global. There is no way to leave out the events of Sept. 11 and the impact they are having on these issues. At our first meeting after Sept. 11, we spent time discussing the implications for our work. We want to make sure our research doesn’t become about terrorism or just war, but at the same time we have to ask what some Islamic objections to Western life and polity have to do with sex, marriage and family, and come to understand what is being said among these religious traditions.

“Our national discussion on sex, marriage and family has become a world discussion,” Browning says. “I expect it to continue indefinitely.”