Faculty in Focus: Professor Ben Van Overmeire

As he walked briskly from Old Main to Buntrock Commons after class, Professor of Religion Ben Van Overmeire explained that he had a commitment involving international students and their transition into the college. Having been an international student himself, his desire to help others in similar situations was clearly evident. Born in Belgium, he left for the United States in 2007 in order to pursue his master’s in comparative literature at the State University of New York. Prior to that, he obtained a master’s in American studies from the University of Antwerp and a master’s in Germanic languages and literatures from Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He received his Ph.D. in literature from the University of California – San Diego, and was a lecturer there until his move to Northfield.

“I had never been to Minnesota until visiting St. Olaf,” he said. “Coming from California, I wasn’t used to the weather at all.”

The snow and the cold were different from life in California. However, the climate wasn’t the only thing that left a lasting impact on him.

“When applying for a position at St. Olaf, they had me do a test class,” he said. “I was immediately impressed with the students because they were committed to the material, which is not something that you always find.”

Another important factor that Van Overmeire emphasized was the sense of community at St. Olaf.

“Coming from a large university such as UC – San Diego, I really appreciated the feeling of warmth and welcome that I received from both the students and teachers here,” he said.

Currently, Van Overmeire teaches in the religion department. His classes include​ Comparative Scriptures, ​Introduction to Buddhism and ​Chinese ​and Japanese Religions.

According to Van Overmeire, teaching should inspire enthusiasm in both the teacher and the student, and the classroom should be full of energy transmitted from the teacher to the students.

Van Overmeire’s positive energy and enthusiasm are evident in the classroom – whether it be on the subject of Buddhist rituals or th​e T.V. show “B​reaking Bad,” he immediately electrifies students with both​ ​his knowledge and passion.

Van Overmeire showcases​ his broad knowledge about a variety of subjects on his website Zen Mirrors. The subjects found in his blog include literature and ecology, Zen Buddhism and classical Chinese. His most recent post is about the book ​“Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion and Exce​ss at San Francisco Zen Center” by Michael Downing, which includes his analysis of the book and its application to the Zen community in the United States.

Specializing in Buddhist texts, Overmeire approaches his research from an analytical point of view, often comparing texts with each other.

“My concern [is] with the rhetorical strategies of such texts, how they engage the reader, how they construct religious truths,” he writes on his website. “By comparing such texts across history, my ultimate goal is to render clearer the characteristics of modern Zen Buddhism.”

His topics of research also include examining the role of Buddhism and East Asian thought regarding the environmental crisis in the world today.

Aside from teaching, Van Overmeire enjoys playing competitive board games, “but not the typical kind that you play with your family.” Instead, he enjoys complicated games that require reason and strategy, such as Settlers of Catan and Dungeons and Dragons. Van Overmeire lives with his wife and cat and is currently enjoying the gradual shift from summer to fall weather.