urn on the nightly news or scan the front page of the newspaper and chances are good you'll see a story that mentions religion. And whether that story is international or local in scope, chances are good that religion will be something other than Christianity. For schools that are preparing future church leaders, that reality poses a special challenge. What exactly do professional Christian ministers, educators, clergy, and others need to know about faith traditions other than their own?
Plenty, according to a growing number of seminaries and graduate theological schools. "Our philosophy is that pluralism is good if you understand it," said Dr. Robert Crick, professor of pastoral care and counseling at the Church of God Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee, and director of the denomination's chaplains' commission. "Our students need to hear what the rest of the world is saying."
For the past few years, Church of God Seminary has connected with New York Theological Seminary to offer its students a crosscultural immersion experience in NewYork City. This Pentecostal school, which draws most of its students from the South, has students stay with host families, do work with urban service agencies, and visit other religious congregations -- most interestingly, Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, a Jewish community where all three rabbis are Latino. This was particularly impressive for the Church of God group, which included several Latino students. "It was wonderful to have them go to a synagogue for the first time ever and meet a Latino rabbi," said Rabbi Daniel Brenner, director of Auburn Theological Seminary's Center for Multifaith Education in NewYork City, who helped organize the visit. "It broke so many stereotypes. They were really engaged and they felt very welcome."
Crick agrees. "These trips have impacted students in a big way. A few have really been changed through their experiences. "And that, Crick believes, helps these students develop into more competent religious leaders.
The Church of God Theological Seminary is just one of the schools that has instituted special conferences, new degree programs, faculty seminars, immersion trips to places with large non-Christian populations, and other innovative programs, to educate their students and faculty about other faith traditions, particularly Christianity's Abrahamic cousins, Islam and Judaism.
When educators like Crick recognize the need to understand more about other faith traditions even in the heart of the Bible Belt, perhaps it's no surprise that in the culturally and religiously diverse San Francisco Bay area, that recognition is magnified.
"I can't see how someone could be a responsible religious leader and be able to preach intelligently about what's going on the world today without this piece of formation," said Dr. Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé, professor of cultural studies and Islamic studies at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley and director of the school's Luce Project for Multi-religious Theological Education. "It's like a medical student saying, 'I don't need to know about this or that whole segment of medicine.'"
Many students seem to see it the same way. In 2001-02, just nine students at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley took courses in Islam. Three years later, that number jumped to 135.
"Students come to these courses with so much enthusiasm," he said. "It's not just, 'let's tack on some classes about Islam and that will take care of everything. 'We really work to get them out to worship with Muslim communities, to establish contacts and friendships and to see that these are real people. I hear over and over from students, 'I had no idea how many preconceptions I had.'"
Starr King, a Unitarian Universalist school and part of the Graduate Theological Union, has launched an interfaith emphasis within its master of divinity program where students will study Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the context of their connections and influences on each other. Down the road, the school plans to offer immersion trips for students to Istanbul and New Delhi. But in this first year of the program, Farajajé, who is currently based in Istanbul, will lead online classes that study how the interaction and development of the three traditions in the Spanish region of Andalusia can be studied in text, music, architecture, art, ecology, and other fields.
The approach is substantially different from the traditional way of looking at each religion in a discrete and distinct way. "There have been a lot of colonial notions in what we've been taught: 'This is what a "real" Christian or Hindu or Jew or Buddhist is,'" said Farajajé. "But more and more, we are being confronted with a world where people don't live that way."
Indeed, teaching emerging church professionals about other faith traditions has a practical, pastoral side."When a family is part Christian, part Jewish, and part Buddhist, we want ministers to know how to work with that," said Farajajé. But even before students ever get to a congregation of their own, many find themselves in situations where they can draw on their knowledge of other traditions. "I can't tell you the number of e-mails I've gotten from former students who really resisted taking the course but later wanted to let me know, 'I was doing my CPE [clinical pastoral education internship] at a hospital and found myself on a floor with this Muslim man. I came in and said, "As-salaam alaykum" [Arabic for "peace be upon you," the universal greeting among Muslims] and he started to cry, he was so happy and surprised I knew about Islam.' It makes ministry so much more powerful and allows people to be engaged in the world and acknowledge how we're all interconnected."
In addition to the practical benefits, studying other religious traditions also can provide unique academic and spiritual insights. "For instance, imagine an African American Christian studying Hagar in a theology course," said Farajaje. "How can her understanding be enriched by knowing the tradition of Hagar in Islam?"
Still, not all students see it that way. "One of the things I've often heard is, 'I'm afraid if I take that class I'm going to come out of it as a Hindu or as a Muslim,'" said Farajajé. "That's an interesting statement. It says more about the student than about the content of the class. It's a good invitation to sit with the question and ask, 'What do I think of my faith? Is it simply a kind of a shield?'"
It may be a shield, but it may also be that many -- even those pursuing graduate level theological education -- are simply uninformed about and uncomfortable with other perspectives. Even the terms "multireligious" and "multifaith" are notably different to most Americans. "Multifaith" first caught on at the University of Birmingham in England, and has spread to Canada and Australia, but is still relatively unfamiliar in the United States. "Using the term 'multifaith' is a way to respect the multiplicity of faiths," said Auburn's Brenner. While "interfaith" or "interreligious" works to describe dialogue between religions or marriages between people of two different traditions, "We feel this is a better term to describe the work we do."
At the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, also part of the GTU, Jesuit Father James Redington began teaching classes in interreligious dialogue and Hinduism three years ago and has led several student groups in three-week immersion trips to India and Indonesia, where they studied Christian dialogue with Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. In the fall of 2004 he gave the inaugural lecture of the newly funded Dwan Family Chair in Interreligious and Ecumenical Dialogue.
"This is a field that's no longer completely marginal but not entirely off the margin," said Father Redington."Most schools aren't falling all over themselves to set up big [interreligious] programs, but more people assume these kinds of courses are worthwhile. "At the Jesuit School of Theology, students in the master of divinity program are required to take one class in ecumenical or interreligious dialogue.
In particular, Father Redington says, he finds most younger graduate theological students accept the importance of learning about other faith traditions, but it can be more difficult for faculty and administrators who grew up in a more homogenous environment -- and who recognize how much there is to learn about one's own tradition, especially during the brief time students are at seminary.
But the reality of Christian theological schools focusing on other religions is hardly a new development. Hartford Seminary in Connecticut runs the Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, which has a history dating back to 1893. Starr King offered its first class in Islam in 1904, its first year of operation. Rabbi Herman Schaalman started teaching courses in Judaism at Garrett Theological Seminary (now Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary) in Evanston, Illinois, in the 1940s (and he continues to offer classes today).
"Forty or 50 years ago there was a movement in theological education to look at the Jewish origins of Christianity and to understand the connections between the two," said Farajajé. "I'm sure that in another 20 years we're going to be seeing more of a multireligious approach that looks at the history and fluidities of these traditions."
To help jump start that approach, The Henry Luce Foundation has invested heavily in multifaith efforts at graduate theological schools in the last few years. Sixteen of the 42 grants awarded by the foundation's theology program in 2004-05 had a multireligious dimension.
"It's been a developing interest and has become a chief focus of the program," said Lynn Szwaja, program director for theology at the Luce Foundation. "It's clear that emerging religious leaders need to be prepared to live, work, and serve in a world where people don't all believe the same things."
While some seminary administrators clearly comprehend this, others point to elective courses on world religions that they already offer and expect this to fit the need. "I'm pushing something a little deeper," Szwaja said.
Still, "I don't think there's any one right approach," Szwaja said. Recently the Luce Foundation has given $195,000 to the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis to support a visiting professorship in interreligious theology, $300,000 to Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City to support its Center for Multifaith Education, $300,000 to Catholic Theological Union in Chicago to establish an internship program on interfaith dialogue and reconciliation, $300,000 to Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, to administer a leadership training institute for clerical and lay leaders from Atlanta-area churches, synagogues, and mosques, and $300,000 to Starr King to develop and implement a multifaith emphasis in its master of divinity program.
"I can't say enough about the Luce Foundation," said Auburn's Brenner. "They've helped us build partnerships and nurture the work we do."
One of the unique offerings at the Center for Multifaith Education is a seminar for seminary faculty from around the country. "We've taken mostly faculty members who are responsible for teaching about the 'religious other' -- those teaching courses on missions or world religions, for example," Brenner said. While the two-year-old program started out being eight days long, more recent seminars have been shortened to five and then three days to better accommodate faculty schedules and allow more people to participate.
"The idea is that across the curriculum there are teaching moments about the religious other," said Brenner. "It could happen in a biblical hermeneutics or a missiology class. We're engaging the questions of how we relate to the religious other and how one's particular religion relates to a religiously diverse world."
Brenner said they try to get as much geographic, gender, and theological diversity as possible among the participants of each session. The last seminar's speakers included an Orthodox rabbi who spoke about how Orthodox Jews view religious pluralism, a Muslim physician who's a medical ethicist, and a lay imam who spoke about Islamic hermeneutic traditions.
Catholic theologian Paul Knitter of Xavier University in Cincinnati and Buddhist scholar Rita Gross of the University of Wisconsin led the first several seminars for faculty, and, Brenner said, their teaching provided just as much expertise in their fields as material for personal reflection. "This was the first time anyone asked me why I'm a monotheist," said Brenner. "I needed to know how to answer this."
According to Brenner, one of the objectives of the center is to be a place that draws both people from a more traditional religious background and those who are better described as "spiritual seekers." "Our goal is to create a space where people can learn in a nonjudgmental atmosphere. We're not trying to make anyone into a particular kind of religious leader or a particular kind of Christian. People who have very strong religious commitments can come into this environment and feel respected and challenged."
While Auburn does not grant degrees -- it focuses instead on continuing education and research -- students from nearby graduate theology schools often participate in its public programs. Last November's conference on the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council's document Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) attracted students from Drew, Jewish Theological, NewYork Theological Seminary, and Princeton, among others.
Auburn also recently partnered with NewYork Theological Seminary to offer "Ministry in a Multifaith Context," a new doctor of ministry degree that is designed for chaplains in religiously diverse environments such as hospitals, colleges, prisons, and the military. The purpose, Brenner said, is "to take the work we do with faculty and really put it into play with clergy who are out in the field. "The first students will enroll in the three-year program either this fall or in the spring.
But not everyone who is interested in interfaith ministry can undertake such a long-term educational commitment. Fortunately, a program at Hartford Seminary tackles the topic of interfaith ministry in an intensive eight-day training program called "Building Abrahamic Partnerships. "The program, launched in January 2004, has drawn Christian, Muslim, and Jewish clergy, religious educators, chaplains, lay ministers, and seminarians, including students from Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine, Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Union Theological Seminary in NewYork City, Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, and Yale University Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut.
The program combines reading with guest lectures, study of sacred texts from all three traditions, and visits to prayer services at a mosque, a church, and a synagogue. But most of all, the program offers plenty of opportunities for participants to talk about stereotypes and assumptions, as well as beliefs and practices of each faith tradition in a learning community that includes Christians, Muslims, and Jews. It also focuses on helping participants build relationships with leaders from other religions and acquire pastoral skills for interfaith ministry.
"This program prepares them to go into the real world of multifaith communities and learn how to interact effectively," said Yehezkel Landau, director of the program and faculty associate in interfaith relations at Hartford. One goal is to overcome the apprehension and awkwardness that comes from ignorance. "People are usually reluctant to invite others to their faith communities because they worry about things like 'what kind of food should we serve? How do we read our stories more inclusively?' They don't want to offend."
One of the reasons students come is because they recognize they're carrying stereotypes, Landau said.While most of the 30 participants in each session have had some interfaith experience, it's typically the first time Christian and Jewish students have been in a mosque and the first time Muslim students have been in a synagogue. "We know we'll all be pushed out of our comfort zones. We're not coming to be reinforced in what we already think or feel."
Participants aren't coming for a "Kumbaya" experience, either, as one former participant called it. During part of the week they study thorny passages in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scripture, particularly those that sound intolerant and even violent. Facilitators and participants work together to understand how to unpack and interpret such passages in a way that leads to greater understanding.
This program is Hartford's latest addition to its long history of interfaith work. Its Islamic chaplaincy program is the only one of its kind in the United States, and all M.A. students take a course called "Dialogue in a World of Difference. "In the spring of 2005, because of the school's ties with Turkish Muslim communities, the seminary board traveled to Turkey for a study tour and its board meeting.
The program is set to run twice a year for the next three years and an "advanced round" of Building Abrahamic Partnerships is scheduled for next summer for previous participants who want to further hone their skills in facilitating interfaith discussions, designing interfaith prayer experiences, comparative text study, compassionate listening, nonbelligerent communication, and spiritual tools for conflict transformation.
"How long do we have to catch up to the challenges of reality?" asked Landau. "We need these kinds of preemptive inoculations against the virus of religious extremism."
One of Landau's dreams is for the Hartford program to become something of a template to replicate at other seminaries. "It would be wonderful if other seminaries asked us to send an interfaith team that could orient them and then let each school take it from there."
When it comes to understanding other faith traditions, "There's no magic, no quick solutions," said Landau, who, before coming to Hartford, spent 25 years in Israel doing grassroots peace education between Jews and Muslims. "But if we could move from doctrines to stories we're on the way. If we're conditioned by doctrines, it reinforces our stereotypes. Stories,on the other hand, humanize each other."
Heather Grennan Gary lives in Goshen, Indiana. Her last article for In Trust was "Accreditation Lessons," which appeared in the Spring 2006 issue.
■ Multifaith organizations
To find out more about programs mentioned here:
■ Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary
■ Auburn Theological Seminary Center for Multifaith Education
■ Auburn/NYTS "Ministry in a Multifaith Context" D.Min. program
■ Building Abrahamic Partnerships at Hartford Seminary
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