TCU Daily Skiff Tuesday, April 20, 2004
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Religion professor fascinated by stars, myths
When Julius Tsai joined the religion department this year, he brought much of his world experience to TCU.

By Elizabeth Bassett
Staff Reporter


When Julius Tsai was a boy, his family lived near the San Gabriel mountains in California. He would go hiking regularly, and his mother kept coffee cans for him to fill with the rocks he would collect.

“You could find fool’s gold and quartz,” he said. “I’d basically be staring at the trail the entire time. You know how crows and magpies are attracted to shiny things? I thought I would find gold and jewels out there.”

Once in high school, though, Tsai became attracted to brighter objects. He became interested in the stars and attended an astronomy camp near Madrid, Spain.

“We would go out and lie on this hill and look up at the constellations,” he said.

He was fascinated by the stars and the myths that explained their patterns, and entered Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania as an astronomy student. He quickly found that astronomy wasn’t exactly what he wanted.

“As I went on in college, I found that what I was really attracted to was the mythical qualities,” he said. “You have to ask, ‘What is it about this that really fascinates me?’”

Tsai found what really fascinates him when he got a minor in religion to accompany his history major. He went on to get a master’s of divinity in theology from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate in religious studies from Stanford University. In the fall of 2003, Tsai became the newest professor in the religion department.

“We use science the same way people used myths,” Tsai said. “We’re looking for an account of the origins of everything.”

Tsai’s origins are in San Francisco, where he was born. He grew up in California, England and Germany. His father is a professor who specialized in studying the Bible as literature, and his teaching positions at various universities allowed his family to see the world.

Moving around as a child was beneficial, Tsai said.

“It gives you good insight and good skills for when you’re on your own,” he said.

Eventually he returned to the United States for college. Once he started his doctorate, he traveled out of the country again.

While Tsai was working on his dissertation, which he finished in December, he spent time in Taipei, Taiwan and California. Tsai moved to Fort Worth in July with his wife, Anny Chuan, who is pursuing a graduate degree in education at TCU.

“We kind of just vaguely knew Fort Worth was in Texas,” Chuan said.

When they moved to Texas, though, both were pleasantly surprised by how pretty the city was and how friendly the people are.

When he’s not teaching one of his two world religion classes or his upper-level class on Daoism and Chinese religion, Tsai enjoys running or reading.

“Our life is pretty quiet right now,” he said, “In anticipation of a time of great busyness.” He and his wife are expecting their first child, whose due date is April 23. “Things are deceptively normal.”

The religion department participated in the preparations and held a baby shower for Tsai and Chuan.

“I’ve found everyone in the department very welcoming, very warm and very intelligent,” he said. “It’s a good department for scholars.”

But he admits that his first semester, fall 2003, was “rough.” He was putting the finishing touches on his dissertation, and it was his first semester teaching at TCU.

“The first semester here was really stressful for him,” Chuan said. “I’m glad that stage has already passed.”

Tsai has settled into his teaching now, though.

“If you can make someone stop and think for a while in a class, then you’ve done a good job,” Tsai said of his teaching.

He noted that religion class can often rock the foundations of a student’s personal beliefs and faith.

When he was in college, he had professors who worked to make a student question his or her view of the world. The professors were always careful to help a student reshape his or her ideas and not be left confused or stranded.

“Through their entire person, they showed us how to take apart our disillusions and then put together something more enduring,” he said. “Everything about the way I perceived religion had changed.”

The evolution of his views was like a scuba class he took in college: The students did a lot of work on land, but once in the water it was completely different, he said.

Daryl Schmidt, chairman of the religion department, said Tsai is helping his students grow just as he was helped through college.

“All indications from student responses are he has a very accepting personality,” Schmidt said. “There’s nothing judgmental about him, and he’s genuinely interested in helping students understand the phenomena of religion.

 
 
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