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Michelle Molina

The John and Rosemary Croghan Chair, Associate Professor in Catholic Studies, Director of Graduate Studies

J. Michelle Molina (PhD, University of Chicago, 2004) studies the Society of Jesus in the early modern period. She explores Jesuit spirituality in an effort to understand how individuals – both elite and commoner – approached and experienced religious transformation. In particular, she has been interested in examining the impact of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises – a meditative retreat geared toward self-reform – on early modern global expansion. Molina’s book,  To Overcome Oneself: The Jesuit Ethic and the Spirit of Global Expansion is published with University of California Press. The book examines the impact that this Jesuit program of radical self-reflexivity had on the formation of early modern selves in Europe and New Spain. She offers a novel retelling of the emergence of the Western concept of a “modern self” by demonstrating how the struggle to forge and overcome selves was enmeshed in early modern Catholic missionary expansion. 

Momentarily emerging from the early modern period to bear witness to events in her own era, Molina has explained what it might mean that the new pope is a Jesuit.  She has observed that it is best to situate this  Jesuit pope in relation to the modes of self-formation found in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and, importantly, that this Catholic imperative to “know thyself” indicates that Pope Francis is well versed in what has been termed “philosophy as a way of life.”

Molina is now researching the life of a young Swedish Lutheran who, inspired by Voltaire, took up life as a merchant to learn more about the world and to find “true religion” based upon reason.  When he boarded a ship to Corsica in 1769, his travelling companions were 200 Mexican Jesuits recently expelled from the Americas.  In close confines with these members of the Society of Jesus for the duration of his five-week journey, Thjülen chose to convert to Catholicism and, shortly after arriving in Italy, he became a Jesuit.  This case study has Molina thinking about global movement in terms of religious relationships, positing that we might think about conversion in terms of the intersubjective bonds that propel the movement of both people and ideas into new terrain -- often uncomfortable terrain -- which, in turn, leads to unexpected attachments and novel experiments with cultural formations in new locales.”

The courses she teaches are varied, ranging from graduate courses on embodiment, materiality and affect, to upper-division undergraduate seminars on Christianity and colonialism, the history of the concept of “religious tolerance,” and a freshman seminar on philosophy and religion in the films of Woody Allen. In all of these courses, students walk away with a deeper understanding of the variety of methodological tools that can be utilized to understand the history of religion. 

Selected Works


To Overcome Oneself: The Jesuit Ethic and Spirit of Global Expansion, 1520–1767 (University of California Press, 2013)

Co-edited with Donald Swearer, Rethinking the Human (Harvard University Press, 2010)


"Father of My Soul: Reason and Affect in a Shipboard Conversion Narrative," Journal of Jesuit Studies 2:4 (2015) pp. 641-658.

"An Ambivalent Philosophy of the Concrete," in Rethinking the Human (HUP, 2010)

Co-authored with Ulrike Strasser, "The Global Currency of Female Sanctity: A Seventeenth-Century Mexican Mystic and her Jesuit Biographers from the Spanish and German Empires," Women, Religion and the Atlantic World, 1600-1800, eds. Danna Kostroum and Lisa Vollendorf (University of Toronto Press, 2009)

"Technologies of the Self: The Letters of Eighteenth-Century Mexican Jesuit Spiritual Daughters," History of Religions (May 2008)

"True Lies: Athanasius Kircher's China Illustrata and the Life Story of a Mexican Mystic," Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, ed. Paula Findlen, (New York: Routledge, 2004).

"Spirituality and Colonial Governmentality: The Jesuit Spiritual Exercises in Europe and Abroad," Postcolonial Moves: Medieval through Modern, eds. Patricia Ingham and Michelle Warren (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

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