How should future religious leaders be trained so that they can at once be rooted in their traditions and equipped to work with people of others? This question has been asked with increased urgency, as American theological seminaries have tried to adapt to what has become the most religiously diverse country in history. Answers have proven somewhat elusive.
This week, from April 14 – 16, a group of remarkable visionaries and emerging inter-religious leaders convened at Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College to discuss potential answers during the pioneering CIRCLE National Conference 2010. Participants included Brad Hirshfield, co-Founder of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Ingrid Mattson, Director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary and Executive Director of the Islamic Society of North America, and Stephen Graham, Director of Faculty Development and Initiatives in Theological Education at the Association of Theological Schools.
It seemed fitting to hold the conference jointly at two of the few seminaries to cohabitate the same campus and maintain a close administrative and curricular relationship. Students at Hebrew College and Andover Newton can cross-register for courses, while several classes are team-taught by professors from both institutions. The campus also houses the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE), whose “mission is to nurture a new generation of moral and spiritual leaders equipped for service in a religiously diverse world” through a fellowship program, leadership training, and inter-campus initiatives and programs. Its administrators, Dr. Jennifer Peace and Rabbi Or Rose, saw the conference as a natural extension of their work.
What became clear during the conference were areas that seminary education often fell short. Many schools offered only minimal courses on other religions and few made such courses a degree requirement. Fewer still provided inter-religious experiential learning opportunities to their students and faculty.
Yet there was also a sense of opportunity and momentum, not only to redesign seminary curricula but pioneer a new theology, capable of recognizing a place – and a positive one at that – for other religions within a nuanced and affirming vision of one’s own. Scholarship, inter-religious education, experiential learning, and dialogue could redefine seminary life. Leonard Swidler, Professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue at Temple University, reflected on this trend with optimism, noting, “We always needed dialogue as a species, but now we are aware of it. These are times like no other in human history.”
Also apparent during the conference was the extent to which several key funders had fostered inter-religious studies and action, and particularly seminary life. The Henry Luce Foundation came up repeatedly in discussions as an organization that had underwritten crucial inter-religious efforts around the country and beyond. (It also sponsored the conference itself.) Its Program Director for Theology, Lynn Szwaja, was also credited with helping inter-religious relations grow from a nascent to a robust field through thoughtful allocations and the mentorship of grantees.
To many, the conference was among the most fulfilling of their careers. “It feels like the start of something big,” remarked Janet Penn, Executive Director of Interfaith Action. A number of participants spoke of the possibility for follow-up conferences and meetings. But still more spoke of the significant transformations that had already taken place at the conference itself. Paul Knitter, Paul Tillich Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary, who was honored during the event along with Rabbi Irving Greenberg and Professor Diana Eck, cited his mentor Raimon Panikkar: “To answer the question 'who am I,' I have to ask the question 'who are you.'" While both could take a lifetime to answer, the conference helped reframe the search.