Karen Carr poses for a portrait on Main Hall Green.
Portrait on Main Hall Green: Karen Carr (Photo by Danny Damiani)

About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member each time — same questions, different answers.


Karen Carr, the McNaughton Rosebush Professor of Liberal Studies and professor of religious studies, has explored the history of Christian thought and modern Western religious traditions in Lawrence classrooms for 35 years.

She has taught courses on 19th- and 20th-century religious thought, philosophy of religion, and comparative religion, among others, and done so with a blend of serious scholarship and insightful wit, bringing complex topics into meaningful debate and discourse.

She has been awarded two of Lawrence’s highest teaching honorsthe Award for Excellent Teaching in 2006 and the Young Teacher Award in 1989. When receiving the 2006 award, then-President Jill Beck saluted her “ability to take the most difficult ideas and make them come alive, without ever oversimplifying them.”

Learn about major and minor available in Religious Studies

Carr earned a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College and a master’s and Ph.D. from Stanford University.

We caught up with her to talk about interests in and out of the classroom.

In the classroom

Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?

That I’m irreverent about everything, not just religion. Irreverence does not entail disrespect; a certain lightness is key when dealing with weighty, serious issues, lest their sheer weightiness prove overwhelming. I’ve been studying and thinking about religion for over four decades; without a sense of humor, I’d be dead.

Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?

I still love and exult in the high that comes from teaching a good class. There are few things more satisfyingor more gratifyingthan sharing one’s enthusiasms with others. It’s a privilege to teach the engaged and thoughtful people that most Lawrence students are.

Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional or spiritual) that took you by surprise?

I never expected to spend so much time thinking about evil, sin, and death. Actually, that’s not true. I never expected to be paid to spend so much time thinking about evil, sin, and death!

Out of the classroom

This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing?  

Probably one of my two favorite past jobs, after teaching: working as a waitress in a diner or as a reference librarian. Not necessarily (but maybe) in that order.

Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?

Oh, there are so many! I love Main Hall Green, the third floor of the library, the Café at the Warch Center (pre-Covid). But my favorite spot is probably my (inevitably cluttered) office, where most of my books are and where I’ve had terrific conversations with students and colleagues.

One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both? 

Book: Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death, for its analysis of selfhood and the many ways people screw up the task of being a person.

Recording: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, for its heartbreaking bleakness.

Film: The Grapes of Wrath (1940), for its beauty.