“The new interfaith theologians,” By Cassie Meyer

Posted on May 31st, 2010 | Filed under Faith and Politics, In Print: New Books, InterViews, IR News and Events

This article was originally published on the On Faith blog, hosted by the Washington Post and Newsweek.

A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to hear Professor Paul Knitter, probably the most important Christian theologian to construct and explore theologies of interfaith work, talk about how he got involved in this work. He recounted training in Rome during the Second Vatican Council when a Bishop handed the young student a document the Council would discuss the next day. It was the first time Professor Knitter laid eyes on Nostra Aetate.

Among the seminary faculty, students, religious leaders and interfaith activists in the room, there was a collective intake of breathe. Nostra Aetate was a new articulation of how the Catholic Church understood its relationship to other religions. It opened the way for Catholics to engage with people of other faiths in ways previously unimagined. To be there when the document itself was just a draft was to witness an important moment in the interfaith movement.

The conference we were gathered for, "Educating Jewish, Christian & Muslim Leaders for Service in a Multi-Religious World: The American Seminary Context,", felt like it might mark an important moment for the interfaith movement in its own right.

I've been to similar conferences in the past, but the breadth of this group impressed me. There were leading academics and theologians like Diana Eck and John Thatamanil , and pioneers in translating interfaith experience into seminary contexts like Nancy Kreimer of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. But there were also student leaders like Joshua Stanton, a rabbinical student and founder of The Journal of Inter Religious Dialogue and lead activists like Alex Kern of Boston's Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries.

I spoke on a panel about interfaith work in the classroom with several leading theologians who I've long admired, which was just a bit intimidating. What could my experience teaching IFYC's approach in seminary classrooms add to this conversation? The lines between academic and practitioner are often stark, and many seminarians I've worked with have struggled to find practical answers for the questions they face in their ministry in the world-religion type classes offered in their seminary education. Yet the questions and conversations I heard during our session revealed a generosity, eagerness and necessity from both "sides" to learn from one another. We need rich academic exploration and real on-the-ground experiences, and interfaith work must reach beyond classrooms and academic panels "to the pews."

Regular readers of this blog will know that IFYC rarely dabbles explicitly in theology, although there are surely theological implications for our work. Before the panel I had a chance to talk with Professor Knitter about the experience of teaching one of his books in a course I taught with Eboo Patel at the University of Chicago Divinity School this winter. It helped our students explore what particularly Christian responses could be to religious diversity and also helped them to press at the questions they felt hadn't been answered. Professor Knitter smiled. "These young people - they're writing the new theologies. They're the new theologians."

May it be so: that the young people on the forefront of the interfaith movement today know themselves as the new theologians - and the academics, preachers and teachers - of faith in a diverse world. And may they know the rich legacy of work that comes before them.

Cassie Meyer is Director of Content at the Interfaith Youth Core. Cassie completed her Master's Degree at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where her work focused on social justice movements in American Christianity; she currently teaches a class with Eboo Patel at Chicago Theological Seminary on interfaith action in the world.  At U of C, she and a group of progressive religious students built an online forum to discuss faith and politics, and she is currently a member of the Community Renewal Society’s Associate Board.

One Response to ““The new interfaith theologians,” By Cassie Meyer”

  1. […] Baha’i Thought blogger Phillipe Copeland has a new post on interfaith parenting, making reference to recent data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: Religion driven conflict and culture wars seem to dominate the news cycle these days. What you may not be aware of is the counter-cultural movement of interfaith dialogue and social action. This movement is increasingly being led by a new generation. One example is Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core, based in Chicago. Another is the work of Joshua Stanton, a founder of the Journal of Interreligious Dialogue. Even the process of theological education and training is embracing the principles of interfaith dialogue and pluralism, giving rise to a generation of ‘New Interfaith Theologians’. […]