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A New Paradigm for Theological Education

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It has become a truism that the United States is one of the most religiously pluralistic countries in the world. Increasingly, in order to articulate the nature of current events, we find ourselves having to learn the cultural and theological distinctions among different religious traditions. Yet discussions about the current religious landscape often ignore one salient fact: the Abrahamic religions and cultures have been deeply intertwined and intricately related from their inception. At the same time, other religions, such as those with origins in Asia, are steadily growing in their number of adherents in the United States. Within a five-mile radius of Claremont School of Theology, there are places of worship for Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist communities. In states like California there is no majority race, ethnicity, or religion. Similar demographic shifts, while uneven across the United States, will occur often in the next 50 years.

The idea of people from different faith traditions living in close proximity to each other is an increasing reality. Looking at the demographics, it appears unrealistic to talk about Christianity -- or any other religious group -- in isolation from the other faith communities that surround it, either in this country or abroad, and yet many religious institutions continue to do so until the point of crisis. This reality poses the challenge: Where in our troubled world do interreligious learning, dialogue, and relationships most need to take place? How can religious institutions, in particular those interested in training local religious leaders and the next generation of scholars, build relationships across religious differences that enhance dialogue and learning, better equip current and future religious leaders to live into religious pluralism, and provide people with skills to promote the common good in their communities?

Today we at Claremont School of Theology have made a commitment to live into these questions. At a press conference this morning, we announced our agreement to co-create the first graduate consortium in the world that will provide theological education for Christians, Jews, Muslims, as well as students from other faith groups. Each group will maintain its own curriculum and have the opportunity to contribute to a unique shared interreligious curriculum designed to provide students with the experience of interreligious dialogue and study alongside students from other religious traditions.

In addition to the diverse schools of religion, the "University Project" will include programs in key academic areas including ethics, politics and society. Claremont has already received $10 million to begin funding this co-creation and will offer some of the Project's first classes this fall.

The two Los Angeles-area institutions that have joined us in this idealistic vision are the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, a transdenominational rabbinical, cantorial, and chaplaincy school, and the Islamic Center of Southern California, the oldest and largest mosque in Los Angeles, which plans to help us establish the Center for Advanced Islamic Scholarship to be one of the first accredited programs for imams in the United States.

Another truism is that interreligious dialogue is more about deepening the existing religious identity of an individual than it is about conversion to another religion. Furthermore, research shows that individuals who learn in religiously diverse environments usually do not convert to another tradition. As a Christian, I can attest from first-hand experience that interreligious dialogue expanded my spirit and vision. I have a deeper sense of what it means to be a Christian because of my encounter with people from other faith traditions. Interreligious dialogue has helped me to articulate and to live on a deeper level what it means to be a follower of Jesus than if I restricted my religious encounters to people who shared the same religious assumptions and worldview that I do. Interreligious living has also challenged me to learn more about my own religious tradition, its strengths, as well as its challenges for those who adhere to other truths.

The University Project is not about watering down religious traditions or reducing them to an amalgam of platitudes and positive thinking. We have no intention of being a "food court of religions." Rather, we are interested in creating an environment that challenges each of us to become educated in our own traditions, as well as those of others, to promote mutual respect, and to work together on common issues and concerns. As Claremont's board member, Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, has said, "By knowing more about what I believe and how I express that belief, your own faith can be strengthened. Meanwhile my understanding of my own belief system grows stronger as I better comprehend your beliefs. Less smoke. More heat. Real fire. No mirrors."

We believe that if we can educate religious leaders and scholars across religious boundaries on our campus, we will better prepare them for today's multifaith realities and improve our local communities and our world in the process. As the University Project progresses, we will improve our religious understanding, our spiritual lives, and our ability to work across boundaries to repair the world. May God be with us.