Last week, I had the privilege of attending a wonderful conference, “Educating Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Leaders for Service in a Multi-Religious World: The American Seminary Context.” The college was hosted by Andover Newton Theological School, Boston Theological Institute, and Hebrew College. To read an overview of the conference written by Joshua Stanton, editor of the Journal of Inter-religious Dialogue, click HERE. To read Samir Selmonovic’s comments, click here.
The conference was extraordinarily rich: two and a half days filled with panels and programs from breakast till late in the evening. A wide range of speakers presented on a rich variety of topics, all related to the question of training the next generation of religious leaders. Certain themes recurred. Here is a brief list of the ones I noted:
1)Radical pluralism—Professor Diana Eck, founder of the Harvard Pluralism Project, was honored with an award at the conference and was quoted often, sometimes merely to note the title of her 2001 book, “A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation
2)The Need for Community Based/Experiential Learning–Rabbi Justus Baird reported on a national study Auburn Seminary conducted of multifaith education in seminaries. One surprising finding: at most, 15% of the courses involved anything beyond classroom learning. It was widely agreed that the field should make more use of community based learning, focusing more on hands-on education, including service, travel and experiential opportunities of all kinds.
3)Wild Hybridity– Several speakers, especially those working on college campuses, referenced the emerging reality of interfaith work: the boundaries between groups are less clear; sometimes the multifaith dialogue takes place within a single individual. What does it mean to be advocating conversation across groups, when the tribal ties themselves are fraying and identities are increasingly complex, faith stances increasingly syncretistic? No one thought this meant there was less need for the work of interfaith education, just that it had to take into account the changing landscape.
4)Israel/palestine–This topic arose as a central concern in a panel devoted to international issues. It also came up at other times in conversations regarding issues in Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Muslim dialogue, in discussions of funding sources and in the all-important conversations over coffee and late at night. Clearly, much more attention needs to be paid to bringing this issue into the world of interfaith in a fruitful way.
5)American Muslim Religious Leadership–Throughout the conference, we were aware of the growing presence of a second and third generation Muslim American community eager to join the multifaith conversation. That community is beginning to figure out how to train religious leaders in and for this country. On a panel devoted to this topic, Professor Ingrid Mattson, the president of the Islamic Society of North America, spoke of the need for American Muslims to commit resources to training a new generation of leaders. An Americanized version of the “imam” role may emerge(as the role of “rabbi” also adapted to a Christian context). A huge question that lingers: how will American Muslims find a common platform in the midst of religious diversity? Will we see Reform, Conservative and Orthodox versions of Islam emerge?
6)Inclusion of Evangelical Christians– Association of Theological Schools reported that the accrediting institution he works with has as its constituency Christian seminaries–21% Roman Catholic and Orthodox and the rest evenly divided between Evangelical Protestant schools and Main Line(liberal)Protestant schools. However, he pointed out, when you look at the number of students, a different picture emerges. 10% Roman Catholic/Orthodox, 60% Evangelical and 30% Mainline Protestant. Many speakers expressed their desire for interfaith work to not be limited to the progressive religious community.Panels included evangelical representatives. The modern version of interfaith left less room for evangelicals than the post-modern version does. This area holds exciting possibilities.
7)”Shacking Up”— The campus on which we met, shared by Hebrew College and Andover Newton, clearly reflects a trend that many agreed will be more important as the years go by. Funders want to know that money is used wisely, that individual institutions are not “reinventing the wheel.” Particularly when the subject is interfaith, collaboration seems often to be the best choice.
8) Curriculum Infusion– Many speakers agreed that adding extra courses, as if multifaith was an added on bonus/elective, was not the best way to transform seminary education. Rather, we need to think about how the formation of our clergy in all its aspects might reflect an awareness of the multifaith world they will confront.
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