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I once took a course at a small Catholic seminary entitled The Church in the World Community. The professor was a Franciscan friar who had worked for most of his life in sub-Saharan Africa. He revered the dignity of those of all backgrounds he spent his life serving, combining that with an openness to having his own faith enriched by the traditions and life ways he encountered. His style of mission work was best summed in the dictum attributed to Francis: “preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.”

He opened my eyes and my heart to the writings of the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard was a theologian and a scientist. I think of him as a sort of holy polymath. He did things like work on archaeological digs from Spain’s Cave of Castillo to Manchuria while he weaved a rich theological tapestry best known for his concept of the Cosmic Christ, an ever-evolving supreme reality in which the evolutionary story of the universe and humankind’s place within it has its grounding.

That teacher also opened my eyes and my heart to the writings of Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun and contemporary scholar, who has written several popular books that underscore the common thread of compassion among the world’s faiths. Armstrong famously used her TED prize to issue an appeal to a Charter for Compassion.

I remember reading one of her books, A History of God, in seminary, and referencing it in a paper I wrote. The passage had to do with a pivotal figure in the history of Islam, Waraqah ibn Nawfal. A relative of Muhammad’s wife Khadija, tradition holds that Waraqah was a Christian priest. After the first revelation comes to him, shaking Muhammad to his core and leaving him crawling and writhing in overwhelming fear, he begs his wife to cover him. Khadija decides to take Muhammad to Waraqah, relying on the priest's religious wisdom. Waraqah becomes the first person to recognize and affirm Muhammad’s prophethood. Waraqah always remained a Christian.

These stories, all of them, offer models into how those of different religious orientations could and did interact -- the lives and works of my former seminary professor, Francis, Teilhard, Armstrong, Muhammad, Khadija, Waraqah. They are hopeful stories. The historical examples convey a wisdom modern research is confirming -- see for example, research showing how Gen Z college students are befriending those of different religious and political persuasions:

Why don’t more of us know and celebrate them? What might it look like for our colleges and universities to lift up these examples and tie them to contemporary challenges? While some are distant historically, the ethic that runs through them is essential for the civic health of a religiously diverse American democracy, and higher education is key actor in that worthy aspiration.

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