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State of Formation: A Forum for Young Faith & Ethics Leaders

By Karen Hernandez


It is difficult to know where to turn to get accurate, interesting, creative, not to mention, meaty theological reflections exploring the social issues we face in the world today. The online forum State of Formation (SoF) offers such a place, and as the forum grows, the continuing legacy of writers, ideas, topics, and dialogue grows as well.

As stated on its website:

State of Formation is a community conversation between leaders in formation. Together, a cohort of seminarians, rabbinical students, graduate students, activists and the like – the future religious and moral leaders of tomorrow – are working to redefine the ethical discourse today.

State of Formation began as the brainstorm of three people; Rabbi Joshua Stanton, co-founder of the Journal for Interreligious Dialogue, Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, a PhD candidate at Claremont School of Theology, and Christopher Stedman, author of Faithiest: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Since its founding, Ian Burzynski, Honna Eichler, as well as myself, have also all served on staff with State of Formation. Today Benjamin Barer is executive director, serving with Esther Boyd, communications director.

An offshoot of the Journal for Interreligious Studies (formerly the Journal for Interreligious Dialogue), at its inception State of Formation was housed at Auburn Seminary in New York City. Today it is hosted and housed in the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE), a project of Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College, under the guidance of Dr. Jennifer Peace and Rabbi Or Rose.

The concept was simple and needed, yet missing in mainstream media outlets. The three highly motivated founders saw the need, noticed a gap needing to be filled enabling young, emerging religious and ethical scholars and activists to express their voices. They felt that these forming voices needed an outlet for their work, a forum about formation. They also saw the need for dialogue in a setting where writers could delve deeper into the critical topics of our time. With this in mind, State of Formation was born four years ago.

The name of the online forum is perfect. There are thousands of scholars and emerging leaders around the world. Yet most have no platform for sharing their ideas, research, and reflections. These thinkers are thinking, a lot, but had no outlet, no accessibility to communities sharing their concerns. They needed a safe place to stretch their wings as they grasp their own truths and lend a voice to what they are learning and witnessing on our planet.

With a stringent application process that is quite selective, State of Formation offers young scholars a place to vet their voices, to stand back and view their own formation. This is truly a gift, especially when people are forming opinions, attitudes, ideas, and theologies. They are changing and morphing. State of Formation gives all of that an outlet.

State of Formation is also a learning opportunity for State of Formation readers. Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists, Christians, Jews, Pagans, and Humanists, among others, share their different perspectives. Many of the writers hail from other countries. Numerous races and ethnicities are represented. Many are in graduate school or seminary. Gay, straight, and queer scholars have a voice.

Most SoF scholars are still in school, or a year or so out, but some are already working in their prospective fields and writing about the adjustment. So you will find a wide array of topics on SoF… from homelessness to religious violence, praying, race issues, LGBTQ issues, food, world politics – you name it, you can find it on State of Formation.

With this kind of diversity, communications director Esther Boyd now says that an important aspect of SoF is student leaders hearing from folks in the same position they’re in, who face similar challenges. Boyd says that each year’s scholars have the opportunity to learn how to navigate through the world by viewing others navigating themselves through their own spiritual formation.

Boyd reflects on why it is important for these conversations to take place. She says SoF enables really important questions to be asked. Such as, How can we talk about personal, meaningful issues in a public way? She notes how such topics often are not broached in our daily conversation; then, when they are, it’s easy to get mired in politics, ending the talk. She also mentioned that religion and the rhetoric we are constantly bombarded with in public discourse creates conflict. By contrast, she feels that SoF offers a secure place for public conversations about religious formation, and how to apply that to social justice issues, with meaningful conversation, in a public, positive way.

Current and past State of Formation scholars have been appreciative. Sai Santosh Kolluru, a Hindu-American who became a scholar in 2011, said this about SoF. “State of Formation provides a platform to express your purest thoughts on topics that are dearest to you without any restriction. The platform allows you to project your deepest sentiments without having to worry about what others may think. It is a place for your Higher Self to be itself.”

Paul Raushenbush and Diana Eck pose with SoF contributing scholar Simran Jeet Singh after State of Formation's first annual workshop at the American Academy of Religion. – Photo: SoF

Paul Raushenbush and Diana Eck pose with SoF contributing scholar Simran Jeet Singh after State of Formation's first annual workshop at the American Academy of Religion. – Photo: SoF

As a State of Formation scholar 2010, as well as later working as associate director of communications, I wholeheartedly agree. Here I could delve much more deeply into topics than in the classroom. I was able to reflect on the less experienced Karen, beginning my theological education and formation, becoming a theologian. In short, writing for SoF was a blessing.

The fact is, when someone goes through a theological or social justice oriented educational program, they change. Transformation is inevitable. State of Formation came along at a perfect time, providing a forum with an ever growing community of peers engaged in their own spiritual formation.

What does the future hold? SoF is looking at new ways to connect scholars in person and in community. Something to add to the yearly American Academy of Religion State of Formation workshop. The workshops provide a professional, experiential educational opportunity, where you can connect with interreligious leaders such as Diana Eck from The Pluralism Project and Paul Raushenbush, executive religion editor for Huffington Post Religion. SoF has given several cross-posting opportunities to scholars in publications like Patheos, Huffington Post, and The Interfaith Observer. A new partnership is developing with the U.S. Holocaust Museum offering more writing opportunities.

Rabbi Stanton, Ms. Varnon-Hughes, and Mr. Stedman should be proud of their foresight and for following through to create this digital dialogue.

SoF’s managing editor, Benjamin Barer, talking about its impact and future, says “I think that the most important aspect of State of Formation is the truly diverse group of people who have chosen to come together and share the thoughts, hopes, and struggles in their lives as religious and ethical leaders with their communities. It allows them to learn with and from each other and build long-term relationships as they pursue their professional lives.”

State of Formation is currently soliciting applications for 2015 Scholars. Go here for details.