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Pastors and Rabbis and Imams

October 25, 2011

Eventually, the borders of the 16-acre California campus of Claremont Lincoln University will be marked by the architectural features of the world's religions, with a cross next to a minaret next to a Buddhist pagoda. At the heart of campus, students of all faiths will gather in one space for prayer and meditation.

Like everything about the newly established university, the vision is ecumenical and ambitious. Claremont Lincoln, a graduate institution whose first students started classes in September, is a collaboration between a United Methodist seminary and a Jewish academy and describes itself as "the world's first interreligious university." Although it will not ordain students, the university aims to educate future Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy members and other religious leaders side-by-side.

Demographically speaking, it's a smart bet. At mainline Protestant seminaries like the Claremont School of Theology, which led the effort to establish Claremont Lincoln, enrollment is dropping, and seeking out students of other faiths could boost enrollment and revenue.

As the United States becomes more religiously diverse, with more interfaith marriages and families, the demand for ministers and religious counselors who are comfortable in that atmosphere is "off the charts, no question," says Philip Clayton, Claremont Lincoln's provost.

But Claremont Lincoln, a consortium that includes the Claremont School of Theology; the Academy for Jewish Religion, California; and the Islamic Center of Southern California, sees its mission in grander terms: If religious divisions contribute to global problems, maybe clergy who studied together can solve them. "Drawing on the wealth of interreligious partnerships is one of the most crucial things that we need to learn for the coming decades," Clayton says. "Frankly, without that resource, I don't think human civilization is going to make it."

Future ministers, priests, rabbis and imams will continue to be ordained by the consortium's member institutions, though they can choose to pursue a concentration in interreligious studies at Claremont Lincoln. The university itself will offer master's degrees and Ph.D.s intended for students who will have careers closely linked to religion but won't be ordained.

Claremont Lincoln is likely to remain an outlier. While an increasing number of seminaries are offering courses on other religions and welcoming students of other faiths to study, those lessons are more often presented in a Christian (or Jewish) context. And while many centers of religious education create consortiums so students can learn from each other, starting a new university to do so in a neutral atmosphere is unusual.Najeeba Syeed-Miller

Still, many theological schools are trying to teach their students more about other religions or bring Christians, Jews and Muslims together to talk and cooperate. As Claremont Lincoln's administrators and faculty grapple with the questions, big and small, of partnership -- from prayer spaces and dietary requirements to evangelizing and gender roles -- other institutions will be watching closely.

"One of the additional things religious leaders need to learn, whatever your school's theological position is about other faith traditions, is that they need to be able to handle those practical pastoral issues that emerge from multi-faith families," says Dan Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, an accrediting body.

The association "can't favor a particular perspective about multi-faith issues," he says. "It can call schools, whatever their tradition, to pay attention to the pastoral implications of a multi-faith reality."

Two Schools, Three Religions (So Far)

Claremont Lincoln University is a collaboration between two established schools: the Claremont School of Theology and the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, which trains future rabbis, cantors and chaplains from all branches of Judaism, although Orthodox Jews do not accept the academy's ordination. A Muslim institution, Bayan College, is in the works: it will be part of Claremont Lincoln, established through a partnership between the Islamic Center of Southern California. Administrators say it will be one of the first schools to train Sunni and Shiite imams entirely within the United States.

Claremont Lincoln also offers a master's degree in religious leadership in Muslim contexts, a course of study for both men and women that it says is the first graduate program of its kind in the United States.

While many theological schools are adding programs to familiarize students with world religions -- whether to increase interfaith understanding or make students more effective proselytizers -- the students are usually of one faith. Bringing Christian, Muslim and Jewish students together creates a different, and richer, learning experience, says Najeeba Syeed-Miller, an assistant professor of interreligious education.

A recent class discussion about forgiveness included slavery and the Holocaust. “The conversations extended not into just the role of religion in promoting forgiveness, but also in the difficulty of engaging in a process of forgiveness if one’s racial or ethnic community was discriminated against,” Syeed-Miller says. “They were able to speak to how a community might experience pain and be able to listen and hear each other’s pain without projecting their own experience into that.”

Many students are studying other religions, and sometimes academically examining their own faith, for the first time, she says.

“I allow for there to be very stark contrasts when they exist,” she says, including how different religions and denominations interpret texts, define the nature of the divine and require adherence to laws and traditions. “I think what also startles students a lot of times is there is actually some common ground.”

Church and Classroom Conflict

By the standards of academe, plans for Claremont Lincoln moved fast. The Claremont School of Theology voted in 2008 to establish an interreligious university. The partnerships with the Islamic center and the Jewish academy were announced in 2010, the name chosen in spring 2011 (after a $50 million gift from David Lincoln, a Claremont School of Theology trustee, and his wife Joan) and the first students enrolled this fall.

When Claremont School of Theology approached the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, it did so in part because the Jewish academy had experience educating students from various, and sometimes conflicting, branches of Judaism.

"I said, 'This sounds wonderful,' " says Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, the academy's president. " 'We would love to expand what we're doing here to include all religions....' Each of us knew we would have some opposition to it from members of our community, and we were prepared to deal with that."

In the end, there were few objections from Jews, Rabbi Gottlieb says. A few stakeholders worried that adding an emphasis on other religions would water down the intensive study of Jewish texts necessary for ordination, and an academy faculty member eventually left the Claremont Lincoln project to focus more on Judaism. Others were concerned about the political ramifications of teaming up with the Islamic Center, given divergent views on Israel.

"We get through it," Rabbi Gottlieb says. "People begin to understand where each person is coming from, and that each culture might have a different take on it."

Pushback was stronger from the United Methodist Church. The Claremont School of Theology was emerging from a tumultuous period when it announced plans for Claremont Lincoln University. The theology school nearly lost its accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in 2007 due to problems with its financial practices.

In January 2010, the church's University Senate sanctioned the theology school, freezing $800,000 in annual funding and setting the Claremont Lincoln opening back a year. The concerns were partly financial -- the school had not submitted its audit and management letter -- but the school was also cited for undergoing a "substantial reorientation" without consulting the church, which viewed the move as transforming the school from a school of theology into a university with schools of ministry.

A few of the more conservative church members are suspicious of any interfaith partnerships, saying that the founder of Methodism taught Christians to evangelize, Clayton says. But the greater concern was that Claremont was abandoning its Methodist mission to focus on clerics of all faiths.

The school, and the plans for the university, went through a church review of its mission and business plan, and eventually the money was reinstated. "The majority of Methodists embrace the interreligious project as long as the Methodist members participate as Christians in interreligious dialogue,” Clayton says.

Given the scarce resources at many theological schools, pushback isn't surprising, says Aleshire. “A lot of theological schools are perhaps ahead of some of the thinking in their respective denominations or ecclesiastical communities,” he says. “They are more ready for this kind of intellectual and pastoral engagement, where the people in the denominations are less sure about it.”

Holidays and Halal Food

Even within the new university, officials had many delicate issues to work through. A few of the easy ones: How would the class schedule make allowances for Muslim students’ daily prayers? Since closing for all religious observances was impractical, how would holidays be handled? If the university adds students of other faiths, as is planned, how will they juggle Jewish kosher and Muslim halal guidelines with dietary requirements for Hinduism?

Those issues are familiar to secular colleges, but new to institutions accustomed to students of one religion. For now, Muslim and Christian students are currently sharing the same prayer space, with a shared closet to store religious objects. Students can take a maximum of 13 days off for religious holidays. And while the food questions aren’t fully resolved, much of the faculty and staff expects the campus will be vegetarian, the easiest compromise among all world religions.

Other questions are deeper and perhaps insolvable. The role of proselytizing on campus is one of the most difficult, Clayton says. Some Christian students tend to see evangelizing as a duty, while Jews and other Christians would prefer it be avoided altogether. Gender roles and the morality of gay sexuality are equally divisive topics.

The university has compromised where it can, and so far, it seems to be working, Clayton says. Claremont School of Theology admits students of all genders and sexual orientations. Although Bayan College will train only men to be imams, the master’s degree in Muslim leadership is intended for both men and women, and both are enrolled, although so far male students outnumber female ones. Professors of both genders teach in all programs, including Syeed-Miller, who is a faculty member for the degree in religious leadership in Muslim contexts.

Students in class can talk enthusiastically about their beliefs, but they also discuss their divergent views on evangelizing. The religions have found common ground on strong leadership roles for women, even if they cannot be ordained in all denominations.

The college emphasizes that other differences, such as views on Israel, are political, not religious, in nature.

“The main thing is we agree right from the start to dialog in a harmonious way and to deal with issues honestly and openly,” Gottlieb says.

Adding to the difficulty, many of those dilemmas reflect differences within religions as well as between them. Claremont is trying to attract more conservative students, not just liberal believers who frequently sign up for interfaith efforts. In doing so, both students and faculty are confronting the fact that no religion has one set identity.

The school does not ask students which denomination they belong to. So far, the student body is mostly Jewish and Christian, because the Muslim degree program was just established. But students come from all denominations, including some evangelical Christians and Catholics, Clayton says. Muslim students are both Sunni and Shiite, and Jewish students come from all branches of Judaism. At least one Mormon student and at least one Buddhist are also enrolled.

“You have to be able to intellectually grasp not just a tradition other than mine, but that in my own tradition and in other traditions, there is an intrareligious diversity,” says Syeed-Miller, who says that having a variety of believers helps students learn to get past stereotypes. “I’ve seen that kind of cognitively challenge our students.”

Buddhism, Jainism and Beyond

With Muslim, Jewish and Christian students enrolled, Claremont Lincoln is expanding the consortium. The university hopes to include Jainism, an Indian religion focused on nonviolence, as a major member and recently signed letters of understanding with two Jain organizations. They also hope to partner with other religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and the Baha’i faith.

It also aims to become more independent. The university is piggybacking on the Claremont School of Theology’s WASC accreditation, as well as sharing classrooms and administrative resources, and hopes to be independently accredited by the end of 2013.

Meanwhile, more colleges are beginning to include interfaith programs, including another planned program for training imams at Hartford Seminary. The Association of Theological Schools is encouraging the schools it accredits to consider how their graduates will function in a religiously diverse world.

Though only about 10 of its 260 members are pursuing interfaith education "very seriously," Aleshire says, “it's clearly happening, and it's happening with more schools in a variety of ways.”

Currently, the association accredits only Christian and Jewish institutions, although it offers affiliate memberships to schools of other traditions. But eventually that too may change. “These issues are going to become more present in the careers of persons being educated for ministry now,” he says.

Claremont Lincoln acknowledges that its approach might not suit all clergy or all congregations. So far, they see their challenges as part of their strength.

“Everybody here has to bring himself or herself into the classroom,” Clayton says. “It is not a heads-only endeavor. If you think about it, why should we have ever thought that religion would be a matter of the head alone?”

 

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