‘That Doesn’t Sound Like a Seminary.’ | Sojourners

‘That Doesn’t Sound Like a Seminary.’

In 1865, the Theological Institute of Connecticut settled itself in Hartford and 20 years later renamed itself “Hartford Theological Seminary.” In the century-and-a-half that followed, the seminary, which eventually dropped “theological” from its name, became known for pioneering inclusion. It admitted women to the seminary in 1889; in 1972 it began studying Christian-Muslim relations; in 2000, it became the first accredited seminary with an Islamic chaplaincy program.

Now, the nondenominational institution is rebranding with a new name, Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, announced on October 13.

Joel Lohr, the now-university president sat with Sojourners’ assistant news editor Mitchell Atencio in late September to explain why the school changed its name and what that change says about the future of theological education — and the church — in the United States.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: How did you and other leaders at the seminary decide that it was necessary to rebrand?

Joel Lohr: What we’re doing now has been a conversation that’s gone back for years — and when I say for years, I mean decades. We’re one of only a few places that refers to itself as a seminary and yet does not have an M.Div. degree. We are not affiliated with a denomination and haven’t been since the 1970s.

When I introduce myself as president of Hartford Seminary, [people] immediately say, “Oh, what denomination? Where do your priests go?” And I say, “We don’t actually ordain priests or ministers, 40 percent of our students are Muslim, we have the first Islamic chaplaincy program in the country.” People immediately say: “That doesn’t sound like a seminary.”

If you need to explain why you’re not that type of seminary every time you begin a conversation, it’s probably the name that needs to be adjusted to fit who you are and what you do.

I read that the decision to rebrand with a new logo and strategic vision came before you had formally settled on changing the name. But the course to a name change had been plotted for a while.

We have been committed to interreligious understanding and peacebuilding for such a long time. Even if you look into the late 1800s, a faculty member named Duncan Black Macdonald was very interested in Islam and started teaching Arabic here because he felt even “good Christian ministers” should know something about the world, about Muslims, and about Islam as a related Abrahamic religion.

And so we have this long history of Muslim-Christian relations and Muslim-Christian studies. We have the first center in the country for Muslim-Christian studies [and a history of] peacebuilding — in particular religion and peace and the way those two are not only intertwined but dependent upon each other in our world.

In the words of [Swiss theologian] Hans Küng: There will be no peace in the world until there’s peace among the religions, and there’ll be no peace among the religions unless there’s dialogue among the religions. And an alumnus added this in a talk he gave here: “There will be no dialogue among the religions until there are friendships between people within those religions.”

So we are a place that has fostered friendships between the religions — particularly with a focus on Abrahamic religious traditions, because that's where our areas of expertise lie, in Islamic studies, Christian studies, and Jewish studies. We have a deep interest in religions beyond that, but for the immediate future, our focus will continue to be on the Abrahamic religions. And, there’s problems with the term “Abrahamic,” but we use it because it’s a convenient, shorthand.

If I’m thinking about the big picture across the country, I’m curious how much of this relates to the three faiths you mentioned and how much it has to do with the data that we see regarding people in the United States being more hesitant to identify with a particular religious institution or identity: the “rise of the nones,” as they say. Or is it both?

It is both. I would say that no matter how someone identifies, even if they identify as non-religious or no religious tradition, all of us have an investment in religion and how we think about the world and make meaning of the world.

As for the increasing numbers of people in our world that choose not to associate that with religion, I’m not on a mission to say “You’re religious.” I would say “Fair enough, I can appreciate that you choose not to use religious language to talk about those ways of shaping your understanding of the world, life and others.” But the values we hold are often linked to religious traditions. The ways you look at retribution or how justice should be meted out, these things are often deeply informed by a religious tradition. Even if you have no connection to [religion] — or feel like you have no connection to it — culture as a whole has a connection to it. The more we can do to understand the ways that religion, spirituality, and those things that go all the way down inform ourselves — and how they may vary among different people, religious and non-religious — the more we can work towards a society of understanding.

We have had a tagline here, which I hope we won’t lose even if it’s not in the logo anymore: “Hartford Seminary: Exploring differences, deepening faith.” We’ve been trying to work out difference, through religious difference, and think about diversity as it relates to religion for decades. How many places put the word “differences” in their tagline? We care about differences, and we don't think that minimizing difference or diversity is the solution. We think that understanding our differences and our diversity and celebrating those is key to creating a society of understanding.

Has anything surprised you over this process of rebranding?

There are challenges when you make that big a change: We redesigned all of our degree programs, and we are embarking upon a rebranding.

It surprised me that people have, on the one hand, been so taken aback by the boldness and the leadership. But on the other hand, maybe the surprise has been in how many people have said, “This is so overdue and congratulations on having the courage to do what’s right even though it’s hard.”

I don’t think we are necessarily the first, but I know we will not be the last graduate school that will double down on the importance of peacebuilding and interreligious understanding. We have been blazing the path here. We have, for a long time, called ourselves the leading interfaith seminary in the country — and I think there’s truth in that.

We’re a place of firsts: First seminary in the country to welcome women, in 1889; first seminary in the country to start an Islamic chaplaincy program; first seminary in the country to start a center for Muslim-Christian understanding; first seminary in the country to have a chair for the study of Shia Islam.

We’ve been blazing this trail and being pioneers in this work, but our goal isn’t to be the only one; if you are not engaging with questions of interreligious understanding, how can you call that a robust graduate degree in religion, religious studies, or even in Christianity?

Your Strategic Planning Project says, “Our current model is rooted in older models of seminary education and is not sustainable long-term. Enrollment is declining across peer theological schools, nationally, while our programs face new competition for students.” What is that older model? And what makes it unsustainable for you or for theological institutions?

[That older model is] denominational or very narrow and focused programs that prepare religious leaders for ministries that are very insular and focused on only one very narrow way of looking at one's own tradition.

We want you to learn from — and with — individuals that you’re going to encounter in your parishes, so the first time you meet an imam or a Muslim is not when you’re invited to speak at an interfaith or interreligious event or in a crisis.

To answer the question quite bluntly: When we talk about the older, and becoming outdated, models of seminary, graduate education and religion, [we’re saying] it shouldn’t be the case that a graduate of a religious studies program, an M.Div., or any other religious [graduate] encounters religious traditions and individuals outside of their own after they are proverbially “thrown out to the wolves.” That’s not the time to begin that learning. That’s, hopefully, the time to build upon the learning and the seeds already planted in graduate education.

And what about the portion about new competition? Is that new because of different schools changing the way that they’re educating? Is it new because of the changing religious climate in the country?

We have this long history of doing interreligious and interfaith education. And we’re thankful for [other] institutions coming around on interfaith education and interreligious studies. We do not want to see them as competitors, but we want to support them.

Part of our executive and professional education work — which is a big part of this new future — is to equip other leaders at other seminaries, other graduate schools, and other professionals in health care, civil service, law, education, corporate settings and so on. Whatever the setting, we can be a resource to help others understand religious diversity as an important component of what it takes to be a good society.

How do we now take those gifts that we’ve received in this work and been successful at to help others be successful as well? Because the goal is not to squash competition, but to support that competition for the good of our world. I don’t want to worry at night that there’s a competitor that's coming up, starting to do a program similar to ours. I want to celebrate that and support them in that, because we do know this work is valuable.

How have students responded so far to the announcement that there would be a name change, and a brand change?

We have made a decision here to hold the name back, apart from key individuals within the organization like our board and our employees, so I think there’s a lot of anticipation.

We have involved students in the process from the beginning. This is not a surprise; the rebranding process has been an open one. The words that will be included in our new name will not be new words, because they have been words that have been talked about for so long.

Hartford is a brand for us, which may feel strange to outsiders, but when I travel the world, especially places like Indonesia, Singapore, and the Middle East. [They know] the Hartford school or Hartford model. We publish The Muslim World Journal, which is well-respected leading Islamic studies journal, there's a reputation around “Hartford Seminary.” So there will be some living into a new reality and a new name, but the words that will come out will not be a surprise because this has been such a long process.

We are anticipating that there will probably be some who find it hard. On the other hand, we also have a lot of positive feedback and energy around this moment and the vision that we're casting for the future.

We’re all in some ways, brothers and sisters within the human family, even if we’re not brothers and sisters religiously or politically, we are part of a family of humans that need to live together and get along.

If we can move us in that direction, I’m committing my life to that. That's what this is all about, that’s why we're doing this. Yes — name change. But all of that is really logistics in a bigger mission to help us love one another.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on Oct. 13, 2021 to reflect that Hartford Seminary is now Hartford International University for Religion and Peace.

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