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Claremont Lincoln University: Learning at the World's First Interfaith College

Posted: 09/07/11 01:46 PM ET

A rabbi, a minister, and an imam meet together for a year and something amazing happens...

In June of 2010, the three of us, Rev. Jerry Campbell, Imam Jihad Turk and Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, announced an agreement for our respective institutions to co-create the world's first inter-religious university -- a place where rabbis, ministers, imams and other religious leaders would each be educated in their own traditions, side by side, but also with classes in common. The new university would include academic schools for students who wanted to do world-healing work in non-religious fields as well.

The purpose of this new concept was not to water down the beliefs of each of the different traditions, but rather to create understanding, promote mutual respect and learn how to cooperate across religious boundaries to address the world's greatest problems.

This Sept. 6, 2011, with the help of a $50 million gift from Joan and David Lincoln, our vision is becoming a reality in the form of the launch of Claremont Lincoln University. We are very excited about the history-making potential of this new institution and the caliber of students it is attracting.

This column is not about Claremont Lincoln's launch, however. It is about something that happened to each of us on the way there.

About a year ago we committed to meet for chavruta once a month. Chavruta is Hebrew for an engagement to study holy texts. When it's done between people of different beliefs, it's a way of getting to know "the other," rather than accepting stereotypes.

We felt that as co-founders of this new model, we needed to do something to make concrete the core values that we were trying to create.

Each month, we committed to picking a theme, preparing and then spending two hours with each other to study what each of our texts -- the Quran, the Bible and the Hebrew Scriptures -- say about the topic. One time, for example, we studied Abraham's sacrifice of his son (which is Isaac in the Hebrew and Christian traditions, and Ishmael in the Muslim tradition).

At our most recent meeting, we chose texts that were troublesome from our own scriptures. We explained them to each other in light of scholarship, historical context and spiritual insight. We've discovered that the more fundamentalist members of each of our faiths prefer literal interpretations of such texts, often without considering scholarship and context, and use them to create separation rather than inclusion. We disagree with that approach.

For this session, Imam Turk chose a text from the Quran that is often interpreted as meaning that those who don't believe in Islam cannot obtain salvation.He pointed out, however, that capitalizing the word Islam in this case is a fundamentalist translation. It implies that those who believe the religion of Islam are superior. Other texts in the Quran (such as 2:62) contradict that assumption.

In fact, said Imam Turk, the correct scholarly translation of this text is to spell islam with a lower case "i," using the word's literal meaning: submission/yielding (to God). Since Christians, Jews and other spiritual people, as well as Muslims, yield to the Divine, they are all included in the word islam.

This is an excellent example. If a text is truly spiritual, it must be eternal. Historical context, scholarship and new insights will illuminate it in ways that bring people together instead of pushing them apart.

It has been very gratifying to delve deep into each other's traditions and discover the different ways each tradition has developed for looking at these texts: literally, symbolically, scholarly and spiritually. Since we all have advanced degrees, we knew we would enjoy such studies.

What we weren't expecting, however, is how this process has made us truly good friends as well. We've discovered each other to be bright, caring, very human individuals, who share the same goals of making the world a better place, helping those in need, working for justice and spreading the spirit of love. In other words, doing "God's work."

Our chavruta, and many such similar groups around the world, prove that people from very different religious traditions can respect, understand and love each other -- and hopefully spread that spirit to their communities.

With the launch of Claremont Lincoln University, we are taking the next step. Claremont Lincoln is kind of a large-scale chavruta, which is especially appropriate as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11. While our chavruta at this time represents monotheistic religions, we are anticipating adding colleagues from religions that have different approaches to the idea of the divine. That will bring both new insights and new friends. It will also expand the reach of Claremont Lincoln's impact.

It doesn't end with the religions, however. Many people who are not able to believe in God are still doing "God's work," including some of our students. They refer to themselves as "spiritual but not religious," and we are glad to have them in our midst. In order to solve the world's problems, we need everyone at the table to build partnerships and coalitions across all boundaries -- religious and secular, governmental, non-profit and corporate.

It is not surprising that leaders from countries with high levels of religious violence are among the most enthusiastic voices of praise for this new model for desegregating religious education. If we can make this concept work here in America, there is hope that similar models will work in their countries as well. May it be so.

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb is the President of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJRCA).

Imam Jihad Turk is the Director of Religious Affairs for the Islamic Center of Southern California (ICSC). He points out that he was named Jihad for the authentic meaning of that word: "the struggle to do good," and he would like to see that meaning restored.

Rev. Jerry Campbell is the President of Claremont School of Theology (CST).

AJRCA, ICSC, and CST are the three co-founders of Claremont Lincoln University, which launches Sept. 6, 2011. At press time, Claremont Lincoln was also entering into a collaborative agreement with the International School for Jain Studies.