The straw poll taken of a seminary faculty group spoke volumes about the religiously diverse world in which we live and work. The show of hands revealed that every one of the dozen or so clergy and scholars in the room—who gathered for an annual training seminar at Auburn Theological Seminary’s Center for Multifaith Education—had immediate family members who identified as adherents of faiths other than their own.
The finding suggests that religious diversity is a central issue for contemporary theological education—not only in the political or global contexts in which it is often discussed, but also in the pews and around dinner tables.
But that’s the thing about straw polls—they don’t always correspond with realities on the ground, or in the classroom. A December 2007 study by Auburn’s Center for the Study of Theological Education asked 2,300 seminary graduates to rank 14 areas of study in order of relevance to their professional life and work. “World religions” was ranked 13.
So which is the true read on how theological seminaries are thinking—or not—about how to prepare their graduates for work in a religiously diverse world?
Interfaith dialogue is a touchy subject, if an extremely relevant one in a world in which wars are often rooted in religious disputes, fears of terrorism are often accompanied by religious misunderstandings, and an estimated one-quarter of all American marriages wed two faith traditions as well as two people. The concept of “interfaith” brings up difficult questions: Do we all believe the same thing at our cores? If my religion is true, does that mean yours is false? How can I live and work in community with someone who believes something fundamentally different from me?
A growing number of seminaries are making the case that their students need to grapple with these questions even as they engage deeply in their “home” faiths. New York City is an epicenter of activity in this area, evidenced by the gathering hosted by Auburn, a Presbyterian seminary. The seminar brings together faculty from Christian, Jewish, and recently American Muslim seminaries around the country to discuss how to foster what the Center for Multifaith Education’s Rabbi Justus Baird calls an “operational theology of difference.”
“Living in a multifaith world is no longer the exception, it’s the rule,” said Baird. Seminary students are asking, “How are we supposed to respond to doing the weddings? The hospital visits? How are we supposed to preach? These are the questions that seminaries have to prepare their leaders for.”
THE FACULTY MEMBERS who attend the Auburn seminars often come from schools that offer courses or field placements on religiously diverse topics—or want to. A great number of the seminary programs currently under way are funded by The Henry Luce Foundation, a New York City-based institution that has an active theology program and is focusing more on making grants to support education around religious pluralism.
What’s needed is “more than an introduction to world religions,” said Lynn Szwaja, the foundation’s program director for theology. “Those courses are important, but they don’t equip people to actively engage with people from another faith,” she said.
The theology program has a $6 million annual budget, and it made recent grants supporting programs ranging from an internship program on reconciliation and interfaith understanding at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago to a Hartford (Connecticut) Seminary program called Building Abrahamic Partnerships, which fosters dialogue among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Before these programs existed, students who wanted to focus on interfaith understanding and outreach had to attend specialized schools that explicitly ordain “interfaith ministers” not affiliated with any single tradition.
“We are all the same; we just have different packaging,” said Rev. Deborah Steen Ross, associate director of The New Seminary in New York City. The seminary calls itself the “oldest interfaith seminary in the world” and will celebrate its 30th anniversary of ordaining interfaith ministers next year (the school does not grant degrees, but it is licensed by the state of New York to ordain ministers).
Ross, who graduated from The New Seminary herself in 1998, said that the roughly 100 students who attend each year go on to healing or counseling ministries, found new interfaith congregations, or become interfaith chaplains at hospitals or prisons after taking courses and attending religious services in traditions ranging from Native American sweat lodges, Buddhist and Hindu temples, synagogues, and Catholic, Protestant, and New Thought churches.
BUT INTERFAITH WORK is no longer cloistered in schools like The New Seminary. Sectarian schools are increasingly embracing the idea of preparing religious leaders for the diverse world in which they will live and work.
Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, is a Christian seminary with more than 100 denominations represented among its student body. The school’s intra-Christian diversity also has opened the door for a fruitful and genuine interfaith conversation, said Rev. Kurt Frederickson, director of the school’s doctor of ministry program.
“There are the things that we hold onto,” he said, “but from those core essentials we are willing to enter into dialogue and questioning with other people. We are switching from the model of trying to club someone with our truth to a stance of, ‘I want to understand your faith because I’m going to be enriched as well.’ It’s a whole different tone.”
Fuller faculty members participate in a number of ongoing interfaith conversations, including one between Mormons and evangelicals and another, in which Frederickson participates, between evangelicals and Jews.
Last December, the group—made up of 30 to 50 Jewish and Christian clergy and scholars—gathered for a kosher meal and conversation around the topic of the “holiday season.” Both sides felt that their communities “fall into the consumerist trap,” said Frederickson, and during the session each learned something about the other—the ministers learning, for example, that Hanukkah is not as religiously important a holiday to Jews as Christmas is to Christians.
Some seminaries take interfaith dialogue as an institutional priority, establishing official partnerships between and among nearby seminaries from different faiths. Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School have even gone so far as to share a piece of property on their Newton Centre, Massachusetts, campus.
The partnership between these schools is intriguing on many levels, including the fact that Andover-Newton is the oldest graduate theological institution in the United States (it was founded in 1807) and Hebrew College’s rabbinical school is the youngest Jewish seminary in America, founded just five years ago. Also, both schools have an interdenominational focus, with Andover-Newton representing 35 denominations within the Reformed Christian tradition and Hebrew College being a “trans-denominational” school.
Situated on what is affectionately called “Faith Hill,” the schools’ proximity to each other allows for frequent and open communication in both formal and informal educational settings.
Rabbi Or Rose, associate dean of Hebrew College’s rabbinical school, said he urges students and faculty to practice the idea of “epistemological humility—the idea that God is greater than any one tradition.” Each semester, the schools offer a joint course taught by one faculty member from each institution. Past courses have covered topics such as the book of Job and the problem of evil, spirituality and social justice, and the biblical story of the binding of Isaac.
All 11 of Hebrew College’s inaugural class of rabbinical graduates have taken at least one of the joint courses, Rose said, adding that the schools are contemplating offering a certificate or degree program in interfaith and intercommunal leadership in the future.
Interfaith work also goes on outside the classroom. In addition to participating in joint social action projects at local food banks and homes for the aged, students have formed a group called “Journeys on the Hill” to provide informal study opportunities and holiday gatherings such as joint Passover and Easter celebrations and a program called “Light in the Darkness,” where the December holidays are observed.
IN NEW YORK CITY, another student-led group brings together seminarians from across the religious spectrum. The Interseminary Dialogue of New York City has a mailing list of 60 students from Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox rabbinical schools, plus Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Christian seminaries. About 30 students attend the four meetings the group holds each semester to participate in deep, lively conversations about topics as delicate as death, creation stories, and—next year’s topic—proselytizing.
“We live in a world where our traditions aren’t insular,” said Laurel Koepf, a student at Union Theological Seminary who will soon be ordained by the United Church of Christ. Active in the Interseminary Dialogue as her school’s student coordinator, she said, “As religious leaders, we want to be aware of one another” for a number of reasons. Chief among these is that when she and her colleagues are leading congregations or are otherwise engaged with their communities after graduation, it will be helpful to have formed friendships with clergy from other faiths so they can call on each other for advice or information about other traditions.
Inside the classroom, Union Theological Seminary offers courses called “Dealing with Diversity: Christian and Buddhist Perspectives” and “Double Belonging,” taught by Paul Knitter, a Roman Catholic theologian of religions. Knitter, who is developing a session for the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions on how to prepare religious leaders for a religiously diverse world, sees “a crying need” for seminaries to do a better job of offering students more opportunities to think through the questions inherent in religious pluralism.
“Can Christians be as open to other religions as they are committed to Jesus Christ?” he asks. “God has done something unique in terms of revealing Godself and bringing humanity to Godself in Jesus,” he said. “The theological question is what God is doing outside of Jesus, or in connection with Jesus but outside the Christian churches.”
How, and to what extent, they will address this question will certainly be on the minds of administrators and their students in the coming years—not to mention the people in their pews.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi (www.hollyrossi. com) is an editor at Beliefnet.com and a freelance writer based in Arlington, Massachusetts.