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“Interfaith Seminaries” Chart New Territory

By Diane Berke and Kurt Johnson

A Different Approach to Higher Religious Education

Historians generally associate the birth of world’s interfaith movement with the seminal Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. At that gathering, the brilliant and charismatic Swami Vivekananda introduced the “consciousness” teachings of Vedanta to the West. After this remarkable seeding, the next Parliament of Religions would not gather for another hundred years.

A New Context

In the first half of the twentieth century, our planet experienced an unprecedented scale of horror and violence through two world wars. After the Second World War, a new cosmopolitan international community emerged, intertwined in commerce, communication and ongoing global-level development. Pivotal international inter-political organizations were founded – e.g., the United Nations, International Court of Justice, and myriads of treaty networks – and, with them, nearly two hundred international interfaith organizations and associations. Theologian Hans Küng summarized the fundamental importance of interfaith work when he wrote: "There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions, and there will be no peace among religions without dialogue among religions.”

Yet today, seemingly intractable ethnic and religiously based conflicts continue to rage across the globe, despite, and in part, because of the ongoing process of globalization. The basic mandate of interfaith work – to foster interreligious dialogue and cooperation among people of different religious identities in the service of increased understanding, respect, and recognition of our shared humanity – continues to be an imperative for the future of the planet.

The last part of the twentieth century also witnessed increasing interest in the exploration of consciousness and consciousness development, including growing interest among westerners in the teachings of the east and in the “technologies of transformation,” i.e., the contemplative spiritual practices found at the heart of every religious tradition. As ease of travel and increased availability of technology made these teachings more widely accessible, increasing numbers of people became involved in a personal search for meaning. For more and more people, this search took place outside of their birth religion. For many, it led away from a singular religious identification and participation in traditional religious institutions. Today, nearly 20 percent of Americans and 30-40 percent of world citizens consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

A New Kind of Institution

One expression of, and response to, the needs of this growing population has been the emergence of seminaries that train and ordain interfaith ministers. These training programs are distinct from the interfaith programs that can now be found within more and more traditional seminaries, programs usually geared toward training clergy from a particular tradition to be more sensitive to, engaged with, and literate about the beliefs, observances, and worldview of others in a religiously diverse world. (Just this summer such offerings became a seminary certification requirement of the Association of Theological Schools, as reported in this issue.) However, interfaith studies remain a tiny piece of the academic pie in most traditional seminaries.

Interfaith seminaries, by comparison, take more time building a foundation of cultural and religious literacy across a range of traditions while preparing ministry students to offer spiritual service and support to individuals, families, and communities who no longer feel at home in more traditional religious structures. This has also proved a particularly effective approach in preparing for chaplaincy in the public sector where pastors typically relate to individuals from various traditions.

A painting by Gina Rose Halpern, founder of Chaplaincy Institute for Arts and Interfaith Ministries in Berkeley, that captures graphically the work of the seminary.

A painting by Gina Rose Halpern, founder of Chaplaincy Institute for Arts and Interfaith Ministries in Berkeley, that captures graphically the work of the seminary.

The first interfaith seminary was founded in New York City in 1981. Today there are at least a dozen interfaith ministry training programs in the United States and abroad. (See sidebar) Together, they have ordained more than 3000 ministers. Interfaith ministers typically serve the religiously unaffiliated, designing and officiating, for example, at rituals and ceremonies to meaningfully mark life-cycle events like weddings, baby blessings, and funerals. They offer spiritual direction and support for individuals on their journeys of growth and development.

Increasingly, interfaith ministers are also starting independent worship communities; serving as chaplains in hospitals, hospices, and educational institutions; and serving on the ministry staffs of progressive denominations and congregations. In 2009, the Council of Interfaith Communities (CIC), an association of independently organized interfaith congregations and seminaries, was established in the United States and internationally.

An Evolutionary Approach to Spirituality

The emergence and growth of interfaith seminaries can be seen as an institutional expression of what might be described as an evolution from traditional interfaith or interreligious work to the exploration of what has been called trans-traditional spirituality. Beyond education and dialogue, beyond understanding our different narratives about reality, beyond even our collaborative social justice projects, trans-traditional spirituality emphasizes experiential exploration of the spiritual treasures of the world’s religions.

At the most basic level, this type of exploration leads to deep appreciation for shared aspects of humanity’s search for the sacred found in the rich diversity of expressions that search has taken. At a deeper level, trans-traditional spirituality matures into what monk and social activist Wayne Teasdale, in his 1999 book The Mystic Heart, termed interspirituality – the invitation to enter together into direct mystical experience that is the origin and heart of all religious revelation. Interspirituality is the sharing across traditions of ultimate experience, which has been called unitive awareness, non-dual consciousness, awake awareness, and unity consciousness. We can learn from the contemplatives of every tradition, as well as those like Eckhart Tolle, from no tradition, how to enter these states of consciousness and to integrate and stabilize them in our living.

A prayer circle at One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York.

A prayer circle at One Spirit Interfaith Seminary in New York.

Moving from trans-traditional spirituality to interspirituality is the leading edge of development within interfaith ministry education, together with an increasing focus on what author Andrew Harvey calls “sacred activism” – the marriage of a deep grounding in unity consciousness with engaged action in the service of justice, peace, and the evolution of human consciousness. It is also the focus of a number of other educational and spiritual organizations and initiatives that do not offer ministerial training. (See sidebar)

Education and professional training within interfaith seminaries ideally includes these key elements:

  • interspiritual education (understanding both conceptually and experientially the traditional interfaith, trans-traditional, and interspiritual perspectives);
  • sacred activism (joining contemplation and action);
  • cultivating and stabilizing awake awareness/unity consciousness;
  • nurturing individual formation (supporting personal maturation in universal spirituality);
  • grounding in an evolutionary and developmental view of history, religion, and individual growth (including the new cosmology);
  • building authentic community as a container and support for spiritual growth; and
  • ministry development (from fulfilling conventional roles and functions as clergy to exploring new expressions of spiritual service).

Because human beings and cultures evolve their worldviews at different rates, there will remain, for the long-foreseeable future, a place and value for every level of interfaith work, from traditional dialogue to trans-traditional spirituality to interspiritual exploration and experience.

And there will continue to be a need for skilled and caring religious, spiritual professionals and laypeople who can engage at each of these levels in the service of a more hopeful, sustainable, just, and peaceful planet. Even as the interfaith seminary phenomenon has emerged in recent decades as a testimony to our multi-cultural and globalizing world, we can expect further exciting developments across the religious landscape in the future, as the great wisdom traditions step up to the planetary implications of their unique heritages yet shared high ideals.

Interfaith Seminaries

Interspiritual Organizations and Initiatives