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Philip Clayton, Ph.D.

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Can Christians Survive the 'Threat' of a Multi-Faith World?

Posted: 03/28/11 09:23 PM ET

You know Christians who respond to an increasingly interreligious world by building walls around themselves. They have only Christian friends, hold others at arm's length and make sure what you know about "them" comes from reliable (read: Christian) sources. If you do get face to face with a Jew or Muslim, evangelize them, for that's what God's Word calls you to do.

In the comments, few HuffPost readers are likely to endorse this view as a model for one-on-one relations. But when it comes to Christian institutions, people's response is more equivocal. For example, many assume that future Christian leaders should be trained in exclusively Christian seminaries, among exclusively Christian students. I want to ask: Does this make sense? Is it consistent? The best way to pose the question is to put before you a bold new experiment and to have you evaluate it:

The Experiment

Last June, Claremont School of Theology announced a historic plan to desegregate religious education. Together with a Jewish and a Muslim institution, we would launch a multi-religious university where ministers, rabbis, imams (and other students) would be trained side by side for service to society and the world.

Time Magazine called it a first-ever experiment. Massive media attention ensued. And indeed, our hopes for the new institution were idealistic and ambitious. We sought interreligious partnerships that would diminish conflict between the religions and equip religious leaders to work shoulder-to-shoulder in addressing global problems.

Now that we're a year into the process, we've also learned a few things. The experiment creates fears, fears breed criticisms and criticisms require answers. No, the new university is not post-religious. Nor is it a melting pot in which all religions are fused into one. It's a place where leaders from the different religions study and learn together, always with an eye on making genuine contributions to solving real-world problems.

Stories of Interreligious Dialogue

The biggest surprise has been the positive impact on Claremont School of Theology (CST) as the Christian member of this multi-faith project. We knew CST would participate in the multi-religious university. But we didn't anticipate how much the dialogue would deepen and transform our understanding of the changed role of Christian institutions in a global society. It turns out that the University Project is a mirror that allows us to see our own faith in a new light.

What do we see? A short story best describes it. Last semester the faculty established the "Thursday Soirees," afternoon discussions between faculty members and students. One afternoon a Jewish and a Muslim professor, Santiago Slabodsky and Najeeba Syeed-Miller, were describing distinctively Jewish and Muslim motivations for interreligious dialogue. At one point they turned to the CST students who were present and asked them, "Okay, how would you answer this question from your Christian perspective?" An awkward silence ensued: The students didn't know how to respond. These mainline students were happy to foster interreligious discussions, but they were caught off guard by the request to speak from a distinctively Christian perspective. Suddenly I realized: Entering into the multi-religious experience of the new university may do more to foster deep Christian reflection and Christian identity than would ever happen if the Christian seminary existed only by itself!

This story teaches an important lesson. Contact across the religions actually allows one to think more deeply about what Christian identity means in today's world. (The same applies, of course, for Jews and Muslims.) Each person has to find her own answer to that question, which she can then share both within her own community and in dialogue with other traditions.

What Are Our Sources?

What sources can Christian students draw from? Three in particular come to mind. First, we look at the New Testament with new eyes. We concentrate on the narratives of Jesus as he engaged in his ministry in the world. What were the patterns and values that he expressed? How did he deal with religious difference? The Pauline epistles provide additional perspectives. It turns out that the birth of the church and early forms of Christian identity were formed in complex interactions with alternative religious worldviews. (Look at Acts 17, for example.)

Second, we turn to Christian history and (as a United Methodist-related institution) in particular to the life and teachings of John Wesley. Examples come from the narratives of Wesley's public ministry with those who were outside Christianity, as well as from the early Methodist communities in Britain and the United States. The ways that historic Christian leaders organized and understood themselves are more relevant to the contemporary situation than many people realize.

Third, we learn from emerging Christian communities and emerging forms of ministry today. What some call "the emergent church" actually provides important insights into the complexities of Christian identity in a changing world. With the help of a Ford Foundation grant on "Rekindling Theological Imagination," we have been studying the new models of ministry and Christian leadership and publicizing the results. To date we have sponsored five national conferences on these questions (see bigtentchristianity.com for more information). Our speakers have included Richard Rohr, Marcus Borg, Carol Howard Merritt and other progressive speakers, but also Brian McLaren, Shane Hipps, Derek Webb and a good collection of evangelical speakers. The new Claremont School of Theology will be a place where a renewed sense of Christian identity emerges beyond the old dichotomies.

Conclusion

The shortest way from A to B is not always the best way. There is no need to replace Christian seminaries or Jewish yeshivas with multi-religious universities. That would presuppose that dialogue across difference is a zero-sum game, that succeeding with interfaith collaborations means silencing one's own voice. In fact, the opposite is true. The Claremont University Project is like a lens: the more focused it gets, the more clearly we at the seminary can see what it means to be involved as Christians in multi-faith endeavors.

Our opponents say that inviting other religious voices into theological education will eliminate Christian distinctiveness. But, to their surprise, something different is happening. Our own voices are now becoming more clear and distinct thanks to this partnership with other traditions. It turns out that there is a beautiful symmetry between the Christian seminary and the interreligious university. The more clearly we learn to hear the music of other traditions, the more beautifully we can sing our own song.

Philip Clayton is Interim Vice-President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Claremont School of Theology, as well as Ingraham Professor of Theology. He is the author of 18 books and hundreds of articles, an international leader in the dialogue between science and the world's religions, a scholar on the future of faith, and an activist in emerging Christianity.

 
 
 

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