Interfaith Dialogue and Higher Education | Elmhurst College


Interfaith Dialogue and Higher Education

President S. Alan Ray explored the opportunities and challenges of interfaith cooperation and higher education in a luncheon speech on November 24 at the Niagara Foundation in Chicago. The Foundation is dedicated to innovation and revitalization in education and bringing together people of different communities and ethnic backgrounds.


Earlier this fall I participated as a panelist at the sixth conference of the Interfaith Youth Core, moderated by Dr. Eboo Patel. Dr. Patel, as you probably know, is the founder of that organization devoted to engaging youth around the world in venues of discussion and service for the purpose of developing a robust and respectful conversation about the place of faith—all faiths—in our shared futures. On that occasion Dr. Patel raised a significant question that has since set me thinking. He asked, given how other social movements have deeply affected universities’ curricula, student programming, and institutional priorities, what is the highest aspiration we can set for colleges and universities around interfaith cooperation?

As I see it, there are at least two main ways to understand and respond to this excellent question.

Model One: Interfaith cooperation as participation in a zero-sum game

The question can be understood to assume that interfaith cooperation is a social movement, like the race-equality based civil rights movements in the United States in the 1960s, and the feminist, gay rights, and disability rights movements of the 70s, 80s and 90s. As interfaith cooperation comes on the academic scene in the 21st Century, it must compete with institutional norms and practices established by these predecessor social movements. In an environment where other social movements have deeply impacted university curricula, programming and priorities, the question goes, what is the highest aspiration for proponents of interfaith cooperation? Here, “highest aspiration” means something like “maximum impact.” In the highly occupied social terrain of our day, this model presents a kind of zero-sum game, where interfaith cooperation achieves its impact by displacing other social movements’ effects. Those effects are highly secular but, say some, they conduce to the common good in a way faith-based effects do not. Secular practices admit of no special pleading by religious adherents, who are perceived to be seeking to smuggle in private or parochial agendas, unrelated to the public good. Thus, on this model, if one creates a place for interfaith cooperation in a college or university, one does so against competing agendas and philosophies and by displacing them to some extent. Those (secular) competitors are styled as rational, while faith of any kind is positioned as irrational; or, as objectively valued discourses versus subjectively espoused faith-statements; or, as truth claims subject to public warrants and criteria of verification versus truth claims subject to verification by so-called “religious feelings,” or dogmas and doctrines based on supposed divine revelations.

In this zero-sum strategic vision of interfaith dialogue on campuses, if different religious faiths cooperate, it is in part due to a common enemy or enemies—rationalism, reductionist explanations of religion, perhaps materialism. At the level of tactics, public display of differences between faiths may be suppressed for strategic reasons, or emphasized, depending on whether it is helpful or hurtful to signal the specificity of one’s religious tradition. Also within this model are overtly faith-based colleges or universities, enclaves of quite particular religious missions, who go about their work in a wholly different episteme or master frame than that utilized by non-religious colleges and universities. Assuming, however, that we are talking about the penetration of interfaith activities onto a so-called secular campus, what is the most one may hope for? The highest aspiration of the interfaith dialogue proponent in such a situation is to use strategic means to acquire places in the curriculum, student organizations and other platforms, and in the administration, to advance one’s cause, as against self-consciously secular educational forms among the faculty, students, administration, curriculum, and co-curricular programming.

We have seen this model of religious “strangers” in a secular “strange land” played out time and again in the post-Enlightenment history of liberal education, but perhaps never with the intensity and polarization of the last 40 years. Departments of religious studies, if they exist and their content is not dispersed to other departments in the humanities and social sciences, are problematic creatures, viewed with suspicion if not derision by their more “scientific” peers. Academic departments of theology would be a contradiction in terms. Support for student co-curriculum and activities, and administrators charged with overseeing student life, are viewed skeptically if their content or mission includes faith-based organizations.

Why is this so? The civil rights movement of Dr. King, Rabbi Heschel, and Elmhurst College’s own alumni, Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, and countless others, was informed and drew strength from the words of the Christian and Hebrew scriptures. The work of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and Thomas Merton, the Trappist priest who inspired millions through a life of “contemplation in a world of action,” vividly embodied Catholic social justice teaching and the authoritative statements of Vatican Council II.

Yet the social movements of the last 40 years have left their mark on the academy in a profoundly secular way. It is as though the price of admission to the academy and its departments of ethnic studies, women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, intercultural studies, indigenous persons studies, critical race theory—all marvelous additions to the canon of American university life, in my view—the price of acceptance as interdisciplinary explorations and free-standing departments appears to have been the rejection of religious belief as a relevant frame for truth-seeking, and thus the mooting of interfaith cooperation as a legitimate resource for all but the fringes of academic life.

An example of this model in action is my own graduate school alma mater, Harvard University. In 2006, Harvard flirted with the idea of requiring its undergraduates to take a course in a category called Faith and Reason. The Report of the Committee on General Education contained the recommendation. This aspect of the Report was ultimately not adopted. I view this as unfortunate, since the major faith traditions are conspicuously playing an increasingly pivotal role in world and domestic affairs. Rarely if ever has faith been less “private” and more a legitimate part of the public discourse, even, indeed, especially on university campuses. Yet, interfaith cooperation remains marginal to the intellectual enterprise at this most famous of research universities, even as the university itself acknowledges its importance to the lives of the vast majority of Harvard’s students. As the Report of the Task Force on General Education states, “Religion has historically been, and continues to be, a force shaping identity and behavior throughout the world. Harvard is a secular institution, but religion is an important part of our students’ lives.”

To appreciate the ambiguous, and to some extent, frustrating, effects of marginalizing religious studies and the discussion of religious issues qua religious, one need only read a very recent story in the Harvard Crimson, the University’s award-winning student newspaper, entitled, “Religious Discussion Desired”:

“Challenges to Faith at Harvard,” a panel discussion moderated by the Harvard Political Union last night, examined the social and intellectual pressures that influence undergraduates’ religious life.

The panelists and audience were in agreement that more religious discourse should occur on campus in order to incorporate the diversity of religious viewpoints. Many of the panelists said that Harvard’s climate helped to ground their religious beliefs.

“At Harvard, I am forced to think about what I believe, and to explain why I believe X, Y, or Z,” said Aneesh V. Kulkarni ’10, a member of Dharma, Harvard’s Hindu organization.

However, some panelists said that Harvard’s attitude towards religion is at times problematic. “At Harvard, we are told to think critically about every aspect of our lives, except for faith and religion”, said Stephanie M. Cole ’11, a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship.

The panelists in turn said that pluralism is included in each religious tradition.

“You don’t have to agree to a certain political opinion in order to be a member of the Catholic Student Association,” said Katherine J. Calle ’10. “The expression two Jews, four opinions is a good one, I think,” said Jason W. Schnier ’11, a member of Hillel.

The “challenges to faith” described above are not limited to Harvard, but arise on most campuses where interfaith dialogue is seen as a competitor to non-religious discourse and practices. Is there a way to bring interfaith cooperation more into the arena of academic discussion, without doing violence to the precepts of truth-seeking and open inquiry so valued in a secular liberal learning environment?

To move towards an answer, I think one must leave the first model, sketched above, which conceives of the academy as strategically organized zones of competing world views and social practices. Rather, on a second model, Eboo Patel’s question—to what can interfaith cooperation aspire in the academy?—can mean that interfaith cooperation as a social movement inherits a campus cultural environment that has been shaped by decades of specific social movements and their philosophies (of equal rights, due process, tolerance, and other institutional values derived from the Enlightenment), and we ask, within this matrix, what is the highest aspiration that proponents of interfaith cooperation can hold and seek to advance?

Model Two: Interfaith cooperation as critical reappropriation of tradition

This second model eschews stereotypes of the secular and religious and recognizes that all faiths, including secularism, are living realities conditioned by multiple cultural currents, currents shared with philosophies religious and non-religious, even antireligious. The abstractions of theologies and Enlightenment-based philosophies of the person and world are replaced by living individuals and concrete communities, like the Harvard students quoted above, whose members experience a complex world in similar ways. Strategic rationality and gamesmanship are replaced by communicative rationality and dialogue, and the identification of common problems and threats in the environment. Religious traditions and non-religious traditions are mined for rhetorical and performative resources—ways to say and do things—that stimulate mutual allegiances across religious boundaries and religious-nonreligious boundaries. Public displays of differences are not suppressed for strategic ends, but rather are subordinated to achieving common objectives through collective action. This is followed by reflection back within one’s tradition (secular or religious) on the meaning of this collective action for adherents of the tradition, and indeed, for the claims of the tradition itself. The critical re-appropriation of tradition through reflection on collective action becomes a legitimate academic move, in fact a way of life and self-formation by students as well as by administrators and faculty.

Let me describe in a bit more detail each of what I see as four moments in this dialectic. I will then offer some concluding remarks on how we at Elmhurst College are trying to achieve interfaith cooperation as I have described it here.

The highest aspirations of interfaith cooperation in the dialectical model are the following: 1) creating robust intrafaith occasions for learning about and interpreting one’s religious tradition—liturgical, educational, communal, and individual—and reinviting alienated or disaffected nominal members to join the conversation; I call this moment charging the batteries; 2) naming the issues of concern to the college or university community which are shared among faiths and persons and groups of no faith traditions, issues such as environmental and economic justice, poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia, and simply getting a meaningful job and starting life as a young adult, and then offering religiously-based interpretations of same to the group, listening and hearing interpretations offered by those who reject religion or a particular tradition, and doing so on and off campus, indeed potentially around the world; this moment focuses on engaging in issues-based discussions with all college stakeholders and stakeholders worldwide, and can be called issues-based dialogue; followed by 3) taking collective action on the issues with all stakeholders and engaging in critically informed social reform, in short, collective action; and finally, 4) critically exploring with all stakeholders the meaning of this collective action for one’s religious tradition, its theologies of self and world, or, for secular actors, philosophies of rights and ethical systems, to educate and to incipiently reform those theologies and philosophies in light of collective action and its historical context, and stakeholders’ reflection on it; such a final moment is a moment of engaging in personal transformation through reflection on collective action and history, or, in a phrase, self-formation.

Note the model presented above does not strive for a consensus of philosophies or theologies. It begins in the specificity of traditions and returns there, but invites tradition-transformation through issues-based dialogue, working together on common problems, and reflection on shared experiences. In short, I believe that our highest aspiration for interfaith cooperation on campus is to create tradition-based opportunities for radical change of self and world, which include the possible transformation of one’s own tradition.

Interfaith dialogue at Elmhurst College

I would like to sketch what my campus has been doing recently to try to achieve that aspiration.

First, a word of framing. Elmhurst College is an affiliate of the United Church of Christ. Last year we began and completed a broad based strategic planning process. We named for the first time five core values. They are: intellectual excellence; community; social responsibility; stewardship; and faith, meaning and values. The last of these—“faith, meaning and values”—states, “We value the development of the human spirit in its many forms and the exploration of life’s ultimate questions through dialogue and service. We value religious freedom and its expressions on campus. Grounded in our own commitments and traditions as well as those of the UCC, we cherish values that create lives of intellectual excellence, strong community, social responsibility, and committed stewardship.”

Regarding the first moment of the aspiration to interfaith cooperation, “charging the batteries,” I note that coordinated by the College Chaplain and numerous co-chaplains representing the major faith traditions, EC students voluntarily engage in religious services appropriate to their needs and responsive to their religious calendars. Recent work has gone into enhancing liturgical and social opportunities for Catholics, for example, who make up 40% of the student body (we now have monthly Masses, a start of the year Mass, and inclusion of Catholic priests in leadership roles at college events such as Graduation and Baccalaureate). Last year we reviewed the adequacy of prayer spaces for our Muslim students on campus. We are attempting to appoint a Buddhist co-chaplain. This year we moved the office of the Chaplain to its own house on campus to increase visibility and facilitate the creation of sacred space. We host annual public lectures focused on major religious traditions: the Al-Ghazali (Muslim), Bernardin (Catholic), Heschel (Jewish), Niebuhr (Protestant) Lectures and an Evangelical Lecture. We make high-profile awards to religious figures, such as the award this September of our highest honor, the Niebuhr Medal, to Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, founder of Latin American Liberation Theology. We also support a strong and visible Secular Students Association, for students who wish to explore questions of ultimate meaning through intentionally non-religious frames of thought.

As to the second moment of interfaith cooperation, issues-based dialogue, we offer a number of forums for naming and exploring issues of concern to the educational community. We support a Spiritual Life Council—an interfaith group consisting of and led by students and our Chaplain, which engages in dialogue on traditional religious questions and issues of social justice. We administer the Niebuhr Center. Funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, the Niebuhr Center offers students from all faiths the opportunity to explore careers of service, whether as ordained religious leaders or as laypersons. Through the Niebuhr Center and outside it, we offer numerous study abroad opportunities where students come face to face with world issues and alternate points of view, and we host an increasing number of students from outside the United States, who eagerly engage in issues-based dialogue with their American counterparts.

In the last year, the Niebuhr Center has hosted two Sacred Conversations on Race, on campus and at Bethel Green Church in Chicago’s west side, where members of the Elmhurst College community and church members, together with national leaders on race relations, spoke on this important topic from Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim perspectives. And, this spring, we will host our first-ever Niebuhr Forum on Religion in Public Life, where a prominent religionist and scholarly panel will tackle the issues of the day from multiple perspectives.

I would also point to the College’s frequent and fruitful engagement with my host today, the Niagara Foundation, which provides sponsorship of and organization for trips to Turkey for our students, faculty and administrators, as a basis for issues-based dialogue and intercultural understanding. So much more could be done here, but the large and growing number of academic courses, such as our campus-wide first year seminars, plus the co-curricular student groups focused on world peace, hunger, disease, gender justice, and sexual orientation, are concrete opportunities for students, faculty and administrators to identify shared issues of concern and engage in dialogue from their various religious and non-religious perspectives.

For the third moment, collective action, the College’s Niebuhr Center is again an example of critically informed work toward social justice. This fall we co-organized a rally with Bethel Green Church against gun violence in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, brought in students to go into the streets to urge people to attend the service, which featured remarks by (social activist Rev. Michael) Pfleger.

We just concluded a week-long Native American Awareness Week that brought together students, faculty, prominent scholars, and representatives of indigenous peoples communities to educate ourselves about the history of colonization in America and, with members of traditional Native American communities, to celebrate their—by which I mean our—religious, political and cultural self-determination today. The week included a traditional smudging ceremony held in our Chaplain’s office, conducted by members of Chicago’s Anawim Center, and attended by students from a variety of faiths.

We also annually take as many as 100 students to sites affiliated with Habitat for Humanity, mixing both students of religious faith and those with non-religious beliefs in the service of the homeless and communities lacking adequate facilities. Finally, the College is embarking on what we hope will be an annual theme-based set of service and education projects. For 2009-2010, our focus is on poverty, both worldwide and close to home in DuPage County, and we are giving service and educating the College and the general public in myriad ways throughout the year.

Finally, in the fourth moment of interfaith cooperation, i.e., self-formation, our students are engaging in personal transformation through reflection on their collective action. Back in their spiritual “homes,” whether through Spiritual Life Council, faith-based groups or the Secular Students Association, through other meetings of affinity groups, or informally and alone, our students ask themselves what they have learned about their faith and value systems through their many experiences of collective action. For all students, every year, the College will provide what we call the Elmhurst Experience, a model of intentional liberal learning, which has as one of two foci student self-formation.

We are doing this even now through an intensive, multi-day, small-cohort, new students orientation in August, called Big Questions Orientation, that asks first year students to act cooperatively, to reflect on themselves, their world and values, and to engage in off-campus service learning, followed immediately by their formal first academic experience, the First Year Seminar, a credit-bearing course. The First Year Seminar brings together the very same cohort and same set of instructors—one faculty, one staff—who led their orientation, and the seminar pedagogy, focused on an interesting, interdisciplinary topic, encourages students to take intellectual and social risks and, hopefully, to begin a lifelong love of learning. The College is also focusing on residential campus communities as sites for student self-formation—there is probably little like living together in residence halls to spark interfaith cooperation, or at least, constructive conflict resolution!

Through our recently adopted new program of General Education, the Elmhurst Experience will be extended beyond the first year to students throughout their undergraduate careers. Our new General Education program requires each undergraduate to complete a course in the category, “Religious Studies in Context,” replacing a narrower requirement in “Judeo-Christian Heritage and Religious Faith.” In all these ways and others, Elmhurst College is aspiring to generate opportunities for genuine interfaith dialogue and student self-formation.

The opportunities for changing student lives through changing the world, and changing the world through changing student lives, are immense, I hope you will agree.

The challenges to this work are, I have argued, inherent in a model of higher education that pits religious against secular faiths, thereby marginalizing religion and impoverishing liberal education. The alternative model grounds action in communities of faith and commitment, religious and non-religious, and transforms both communities and their members through collective action and reflection on shared experiences. In such a radically transformative dialogue, anyone and anything may be changed. But a commitment to such deep change, I believe, is a principle that unites rather than divides most religious and secular communities and therefore is cause for optimism.

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