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Seminarians Go Online to “Make Interfaith”

By Joshua Stanton


For Jewish students, "making Torah" is not about tests and grades but rather interaction and understanding.

For Jewish students, "making Torah" is not about tests and grades but rather interaction and understanding.

In Rabbinic Judaism, Torah is considered as much a process as a sacred text. By studying, analyzing, and debating the significance of its contents, rabbis and their disciples are said to make Torah.

If respectful debate and engagement enliven our own sacred texts, we must similarly work to make interfaith learning in seminary rather than view it as a passive undertaking. By its very nature, it seems meant to be made, not simply learned cold and dry in a course on comparative religions. This is not to say that such courses should be discounted, but rather that they should be supplemented or structured so that seminarians can engage, struggle with, debate, and thereby gain a fuller respect for other religious traditions.

But how can interfaith studies be made? If everyone in a seminary is of the same denomination (as in many cases) or at least the same umbrella religion (as in most others), with whom can seminarians engage in the creative, tense process of making interfaith learning?

Some seminaries have answered offhand that you simply cannot do so without a multi-faith student body. Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School cohabitate the same campus to ensure the creative tension necessary to make interfaith learning happen daily. The new interfaith Claremont Lincoln University similarly brings students in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian programs under the same roof. But for the majority of seminary, divinity, and graduate school students, deeper interfaith learning cannot be found on campus – and sometimes not even nearby.

Yet such learning must continue to take place. Without it, an entire generation of clergy may enter congregations and positions of leadership with notions of other traditions that resemble cardboard cutouts rather than refined, detailed pictures wrought by intensive study and full-hearted grappling.

Clergy will be less able to collaborate with other religious communities if they do not understand their own traditions in relational terms – terms forged through intensive discourse. Yet even American seminaries devoted to a single denomination can encourage students to make interfaith learning – in this case online.

Current seminarians are expected to be versatile online – and in time even use online resources to teach and help make their traditions come alive. A number of websites, notably the internet Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue (JIRD), have worked to foster quality dialogue between readers and commentators of different traditions. Yet few have enabled seminarians to actually guide the conversation and contribute a majority of articles.

As Chris Stedman, managing director of State of Formation, a new forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders, notes in a recent article, “The current American discourse on religion and ethics is primarily defined by established leaders... While their perspectives are invaluable, this leaves an entire population of important stakeholders without a platform: the ‘up-and-comers.’“

For future clergy to truly make interfaith leadership, they must first find a conversation that they can join as equal partners. When we are willing to allow it, this may readily take place online.

This article was originally published on the Tikkun Daily and then republished on the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue’s State of Formation website, December 26, 2010.