Conservative Christians Oppose New ‘Inter-Religious’ University

Claremont School of Theology caught national attention on June 9 with the announcement of a new inter-religious university. Beginning in the fall, students at this Methodist seminary will study side by side with students from the Academy of Jewish Religion in Los Angeles and the Islamic Center of Southern California. The San Diego Jewish Journal calls it “the world’s first multi-religious graduate school.”

Of course, Claremont is not alone. Hartford Seminary boasts the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, the country’s oldest center of its kind. A second imam training program is being launched by the once all-Christian Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley; its website calls it “the largest and most diverse partnership of seminaries and graduate schools in the United States, pursuing interreligious collaboration in teaching, research, ministry, and service.”

Why would this relatively benign-sounding news frighten conservatives so deeply? Yet resistance from the Christian Right has already been swift and strong. Even prior to the June 9th announcement, conservative protests within the United Methodist Church led to a withholding of operating funds for Claremont (about $800,000 a year). Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, bemoans “the liberalism of seminaries like Claremont.” In a recent post he complains, “Will Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists want to study theology at a declining, liberal Mainline Protestant seminary? Claremont’s new interfaith approach seems to undermine the transcendent claims of all faiths, and treat religion as merely a prop for the secular culture’s enchantment with multiculturalism and diversity.”

I find Daniel Aleshire’s analysis particularly insightful. Looking back over the conservative rewriting of statements of faith at Southern Baptist schools, which cost him and many others their jobs, Aleshire recognizes “the persistence of a tendency to perceive anti-intellectualism as evidence of faith.” When the right wing seeks to take back “their” religious schools, nuanced positions are replaced with “hard-edged, binary categories.… A person is on either one side or the other, in sympathy with one leader or another, committed to one position or the other. Middle ground collapses.”

Admittedly, the inter-religious university at Claremont will face challenges. Can the school maintain high standards for rigorous religious education? Will graduates continue to be well-versed in their own traditions? Or will the result be a syncretistic blending that pulls the new university away from any clear Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) identity, moving it in the direction of the California Institute for Integral Studies or the Institute of Noetic Sciences? The faculty and administration deny that this will happen. But time will tell.

What’s really at stake in the furor of criticism? What trends do they signal? Conservative schools that fight interreligious education isolate themselves behind higher and higher walls, rather like the walls U.S. embassies have to build to protect themselves from increasingly hostile populations. At stake, they say, is the unity of truth and the preservation of the historic Christian faith (the two notions often being identified). To choose dialogue is to begin a long slide down the slippery slope to relativism and faithlessness.

But wall-building is just not an option in a world in which humanity has become interconnected and interdependent. In the logic of modernity, religion was a zero-sum game: if I’m right, you’re wrong, and your believing negates my faith. That logic fueled the age of religious warfare. This new postmodern world requires a different economy of belief. Those who reject interreligious bridge-building based on mutual respect and understanding, those who insist ever more rigidly on the exclusive truth of their own way, distance themselves further and further from other traditions. Are these the sorts of religious leaders we want to be producing, to take the helm in the era of globalization?

The greatest argument against the skeptics lies in the tangible excitement of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim students at the new Claremont university. “I have a great desire to learn about others,” said Susan Goldberg, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Academy. “The learning … clarifies who I am and how I’m different and how we’re connected. It can only serve to make us better leaders.”