THE STRAW POLL TAKEN OF A SEMINARY faculty group spoke volumes about the religiously diverse world in which we live and work. The show of hands revealed that every one of the dozen or so clergy and scholars in the room--who gathered for an annual training seminar at Auburn Theological Seminary's Center for Multifaith Education--had immediate family members who identified as adherents of faiths other than their own.
The finding suggests that religious diversity is a central issue for contemporary theological education--not only in the political or global contexts in which it is often discussed, but also in the pews and around dinner tables.
But that's the thing about straw polls--they don't always correspond with realities on the ground, or in the classroom. A December 2007 study by Auburn's Center for the Study of Theological Education asked 2,300 seminary graduates to rank 14 areas of study in order of relevance to their professional life and work. "World religions" was ranked 13.
So which is the true read on how theological seminaries are thinking--or not--about how to prepare their graduates for work in a religiously diverse world?
Interfaith dialogue is a touchy subject, if an extremely relevant one in a world in which wars are often rooted in religious disputes, fears of terrorism are often accompanied by religious misunderstandings, and an estimated one-quarter of all American marriages wed two faith traditions as well as two people. The concept of "interfaith" brings up difficult questions: Do we all believe the same thing at our cores? If my religion is true, does that mean yours is false? How can I live and work in community with someone who believes something fundamentally different from me?
A growing number of seminaries are making the case that their students need to grapple with these questions even as they engage deeply in their "home" faiths. New York City is an epicenter of activity in this area, evidenced by the gathering hosted by Auburn, a Presbyterian seminary. The seminar brings together faculty from Christian, Jewish, and recently American Muslim seminaries around the country to discuss how to foster what the Center for Multifaith Education's Rabbi Justus Baird calls an "operational theology of difference."
"Living in a multifaith world is no longer the exception, it's the rule," said Baird. Seminary students are asking, "How are we supposed to respond to doing the weddings? The hospital visits? How are we supposed to preach? These are the questions that seminaries have to prepare their leaders for."
THE FACULTY MEMBERS who attend the Auburn seminars often come from schools that offer courses or field placements on religiously diverse topics--or want to. A great number of the seminary programs currently under way are funded by The Henry Lute Foundation, a New York City-based institution that has an active theology program and is focusing more on making grants to support education around religious pluralism.
What's needed is "more than an introduction to world religions," said Lynn Szwaja, the foundation's program director for theology. "Those courses are important, but they don't equip people to actively engage with people from another faith," she said.
The theology program has a $6 million annual budget, and it made recent grants supporting programs ranging from an internship program on reconciliation and interfaith understanding at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago to a Hartford (Connecticut) Seminary program called Building Abrahamic Partnerships, which fosters dialogue among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Before these programs existed, students who wanted to focus on interfaith understanding and outreach had to attend specialized schools that explicitly ordain "interfaith ministers" not affiliated with any single tradition.
"We are all the same; we just have different packaging," said Rev. …