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Learning About Interfaith Every Which Way

By Paul Chaffee


As with so much mainstream media, stories about religious education usually shine a bright light on particular problems – science versus creationism in the classroom, lawsuits over textbooks, prayer in public schools, renting space to religious groups, upset atheists – so many problems, so many conflicts.

Anyone watching closely, though, can discern something quite different, stories full of good news about new developments in religious education, public and private. This issue focuses on religious/interreligious education in Canada and the United States, and includes a report from Guadalajara, Mexico. Future issues of TIO will tell a variety of different stories about interreligious education beyond North America.

Fifty years ago, Supreme Court decisions essentially banished religion from public schools in the United States. In those days, except for religious leaders in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, the media paid little if any attention to religion, much less religious education. Setting aside the occasional world religions course, there was no such thing as interfaith studies.

Oh, what half a century can bring!

The stories that fill this issue are intriguing examples of what is changing in religious education in North America for everyone from young children to post-graduate scholars and life-long learners. One of the most encouraging articles is about the new embrace of interfaith studies in seminaries and graduate schools of religion.

Even more startling for some will be the article about “interfaith seminaries” that approach religious higher education in a completely new way; followed by a story from one of the founders of the Order of Universal Interfaith, where hundreds of newly ordained interfaith ministers have become members. This growing part of the interfaith movement appeals in particular to the tens of millions who self-identify as “none” when asked about religious affiliation, but who tend also to identify as spiritual-not-religious.

Most veteran interfaith activists will have one of two responses to “interfaith seminaries” and an “Order of Universal Interfaith.” A few will say – “It’s about time.” Most others will cringe and be upset at what looks like a new religion, a new doctrine, and a new understanding of spirituality, all of which interfaith leaders have historically rejected.

TIO’s aim is not to promote either side of that debate but to notice a major difference among interfaith activists and show how each side of the divide is very serious about multifaith, interreligious education and interfaith culture.

In short, interfaith education today is an overflowing banquet of projects and resources. Inside this issue are some gems. Put them all together though, and we’re still talking the tip of the iceberg. We didn’t have room for the research and seminars going on at UCLA and dozens of other public and private universities into spirituality, student life, and learning. Nor about mending the learning gap for chaplains, trained in a specific tradition, who find themselves providing pastoral support to people from dozens of different traditions. Nor for the Interfaith Youth Core’s work with undergraduates on more than 200 campuses (though you’ll find that story aggregated this month under Interfaith News).

What can be said in summary is that the media, mainstream and otherwise, is generating all sorts of multifaith information in a flood of new formats, and it is beginning to mitigate American religious illiteracy. And from kindergarten to graduate school, students are beginning to understand that religion in America has become interreligion, and that we can all be the better for it.