Claremont Lincoln: The World's First Interreligious University

On May 16, 2011, the Claremont School of Theology, located in Claremont, California, announced the receipt of a $50 million naming gift from Joan and David Lincoln that will establish the Claremont Lincoln University as the nation's (and possibly the world's) first interreligious theological graduate university.

The Christian couple envisions the new university as a place in which clerical candidates from all the world's religions will be able to pursue education in their own traditions, but also share some key classes with other traditions. The new university will also create unique opportunities for collaboration among religiously diverse scholars and practitioners in exploring ways in which religions can positively contribute to solving pressing global problems.

This new model of theological education is a break from traditional paradigms in which future pastors were trained in Christian denominational or ecumenical seminaries; future rabbis were trained in rabbinical schools within the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox traditions; and future imams needed to go to the Middle East for their training, since there's nothing approved, as of yet, in the United States. This old silo model of theological education may have been effective in the past, but it will not adequately prepare 21st-century religious leaders who will work within what is becoming an increasingly multi-religious country.

The newly founded Claremont Lincoln University is being established as a degree-granting institution at the center of a new consortium of professional graduate schools for religious education. Under this historic new model, Claremont School of Theology will continue to offer high-quality clerical education in the Christian tradition. In addition, our co-founders, the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJRCA), and the Islamic Center of Southern California (ICSC) will offer professional religious education in their respective traditions. The consortium hopes to eventually add schools in Buddhism, Hinduism, and other traditions as well.

Having joined the Claremont faculty in 2006 after many years of teaching at a Christian college, I have already found that my understanding of religions outside of my own has been greatly enriched. As part of forming the new university, my colleagues and I have participated in a series of conversations with our colleagues from AJRCA and ICSC. Just this past week, we gathered for a meal and conversation on the meaning of holiness in each of our three religious traditions. We were able to see points of convergence as well as distinctive understandings of holiness in each of our traditions.

As someone who is strongly committed to social justice, I have also gained a deep appreciation for the theological grounding for justice activism in other religions, including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. These new understandings are already reflected in my scholarly writing as well as my praxis. Increasingly, I find myself participating in interfaith justice organizations around a diverse set of issues such as worker and immigrant rights as well as the rise of Islamophobia in local communities in Southern California. Had it not been for my participation in creating this new university, I would have been much less prepared to fully engage with fellow activists who come from other religious traditions.

I realize that many Christians will continue to see believers of other religions as objects of their own efforts to evangelize. Instead, I see the formation of this new interreligious university as the embodiment of Jesus' admonition to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We know that Jesus was born a Jew and lived in Palestine, which as part of the Roman Empire, was characterized by tremendous religious and ethnic diversity. In fact, Jesus' most well known parable about neighbor love is built around the story of a Samaritan man who represented a distinctive ethno-religious community that was at odds with the Jews. Referring to this same call to love our neighbor, Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, AJRCA's president, explains, "It is not enough to speak in G-d's name while ignoring the fundamental teaching of our traditions to love our neighbor as ourselves, or to treat others as we would like to be treated. How can this love develop if we have no relationship with our brothers and sisters in different religious traditions?"

Those of us who believe that religion can be the grounding for lasting peace and wholeness in communities across the globe must recognize that this will not be accomplished by any single religion alone. It will come as a result of a many interreligious collaborations of which the new Claremont Lincoln University will undoubtedly be only one.

Dr. Helene Slessarev-Jamir is the Mildred M. Hutchison Professor of Urban Studies, a member of the Sojourners Board of Directors, and the author of the forthcoming book entitled Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movement in Contemporary America.

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