Reimagining Higher Religious Education
For interfaith devotees it is heartening to see venerable academic institutions take a lead in studying interreligion. Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College’s collaborative leadership training program stands out. Equally impressive work is going on at Auburn Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, Graduate Theological Union, Hartford Seminary, Harvard Divinity School, Naropa University, and University of the West, among others.
Together they are reshaping how we understand and approach spirituality, religion, and its practice. As noted in TIO two years ago, accredited seminaries across the country are augmenting their curricular offerings to meet the new Association of Theological Schools’ requirement that Master of Divinity degrees include an interfaith competency.
As these new offerings emerge, we are witnessing a much more open door to non-Abrahamic traditions. Higher religious education is recognizing the need to expand and revamp religious leadership training to include the full spectrum of religious diversity. As important as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are to our culture, including the rest of the religious world is long overdue and a particularly welcome addition in many of the new programs mentioned above.
Leadership Training at Hartford Seminary
A perfect example is Hartford Seminary, established 181 years ago in Connecticut to prepare Protestant Christian clergy for ministry.
For the third year in a row Hartford Seminary has offered an innovative one-week summer intensive, the “Religious Diversity Leadership Workshop” (RDLW), with a new emphasis on Asian religion. Thirty-six participants included interfaith advocates, clergy, youth leaders, program administrators, educators, and professionals from diverse religious backgrounds and practices.
RDLW is a significant detour from Hartford’s past, even though for more than a century it has offered courses in Islam and Christian-Muslim relations. Indeed, for more than a decade it has served as the only accredited Islamic chaplaincy program in North America. This past decade has also included a pioneering training program called “Building Abrahamic Relationships,” facilitated by Professor Yeheskel Landau. It offers a practical foundation for mutual understanding and cooperation among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Now Hartford’s reach is broader than ever. One only has to observe the burgeoning number of Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain houses of worship cropping up in Connecticut – as well as in nearby Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York – to appreciate how wide the range of religious diversity in America has become and how deep the resulting impact on the American public domain and in the “hallowed halls” of academia.
At the helm of the RDLW at Hartford is Anglican theologian, Dr. Lucinda Allen Mosher, a faculty associate in Interfaith Studies. She is director of Hartford Seminary’s multifaith chaplaincy program and author or editor of eight books, including the Faith in the Neighborhood series (Seabury Books). RDLW’s approach is to teach American religious diversity combined with visits to local religious sites, contemplative practices, and practical training in the skills necessary for interfaith collaboration. In 2011 Hartford received a three-year grant from the Buddhist Shinnyo-en Foundation for the program, and new funding to continue the unique course is being sought.
“Hartford Seminary and RDLW are really on the cutting edge of interfaith education,” emphasized Mosher, an educator with long experience in interfaith dialogue, teaching, and collaboration. She was the founding instructor for the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s experiential Worldviews Seminar, held annually from 2002 to 2012, and frequently serves as a consultant on interreligious concerns in the U.S. and abroad.
Connecting with Asia
As a way to deepen the Asian connection at RDLW this year, Mosher brought in Rev. Wakoh Shannon Hickey, PhD, a Soto Zen priest and professor of Religious Studies at Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore. Mosher invited Hickey to help her re-design the program and to co-facilitate, and she consented. Hickey has practiced Zen Buddhism for 30 years and holds an MA in Buddhist and Christian studies and an MDiv from Pacific School of Religion. She had been a participant in the 2013 workshop and had given a presentation on American Buddhist diversity.
The two interfaith colleagues stress on-site visits as an integral part of the program to provide an opportunity for participants to personally experience the rituals and meditative practices that they study in the classroom. The field trips this year included visits to the Dae Yen Sa International Buddhist Temple (belonging to the Chogye Order of Korean Zen), the Sri Satyanarayan Temple serving Hindus and Jains of multiple traditions, and the Gurdwara Nanak Darbar of the Sikh Community.
Contemplative Zen practices led by Hickey were sprinkled throughout the week. On the first day she led a Taizé-inspired interfaith service of melodious chanting, silence, and short readings. Opportunities to experience other forms of meditation and a silent walk on an indoor labyrinth were also offered.
Aside from teaching the distinguishing characteristics of the Dharmic religions, Rev. Hickey also led several kinesthetic practices from InterPlay, which she described as “an art form that any body can do, a spiritual practice for some, and a means of community-building grounded in improvisation and play.” InterPlay, she explained, involves learning and then improvising in simple, incremental forms of story-telling, music-making, movement, and stillness.
The week was rich with offerings:
To help participants develop organizational and leadership skills, Mosher invited Rev. Jim Steen of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago to teach a method of frank dialogue called “Fierce Conversations.”
Joe Colletti, a Hartford-area management consultant with Master’s degrees in theology and counseling demonstrated “Project Sequencing,” a simple but powerful project-planning method.
Rev. Dr. Claudia Ramisch, a Unitarian-Universalist minister from Owensboro, KY, introduced a spiritual peer-mentoring program called “Theology as a Second Language.”
Sierra Pirigyi, a young interfaith activist from Omaha, Nebraska, shared tools developed by Project Interfaith for advancing interfaith literacy, including “Speed Dialogues” (a bit like speed dating), and the multimedia project RavelUnravel, which features scores of brief, online videos of people discussing their religious or spiritual journeys, challenging common misconceptions about the paths they follow.
A veteran of Hartford leadership programs, this year I was invited to speak about the challenges of interfaith entrepreneurship, that is – supporting yourself as an interfaith activist.
At the closing event, each participant was given an opportunity to take a silent spiritual walk on the labyrinth, formed from a huge canvas tarp that had been stretched out on the carpet of a spacious meeting room. Afterwards, Joe Caruso, the young Hindu chaplain from New York University, remarked that the labyrinth walk was just like life.
“You’re trying to make your way to your destination, and on the way you meet and even bump into people. Sometimes you forge ahead and sometimes you have to step aside to let someone else pass by. Ultimately,” he reflected, “you realize the journey was as important as the destination.”