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Exploring Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University

By Erin Taylor

THE BERKLEY CENTER - GOING AFTER THE BIG ISSUES

The attacks on September 11, 2001. Religious conflict in Northern Ireland. Protests over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. How could Georgetown contribute to increased dialogue and understanding around these problems, and more broadly around religion’s complex relationship with questions of conflict, violence, peace, justice, and human development? By 2006, one answer became clear: the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, founded thanks to a generous gift by businessman and philanthropist William R. Berkley.

In many ways, the Center functions like a think tank: faculty members publish research and hold events on topics ranging from religion’s role in global development to ways to advance international religious freedom. Under the leadership of Professor Thomas Banchoff and Professor Michael Kessler, twelve faculty and senior research fellows, nine fellows, twelve researchers, and nine staff members comprise the Center community.

But two things make the Center unique. First is the interdisciplinary nature of its activities. Faculty and fellows teach in the School of Foreign Service, at the Law Center, and in the Theology, Anthropology, Philosophy, Psychology, and Government departments. This is important because it allows us to examine the challenges and opportunities that religion presents to world affairs from a variety of perspectives.

 A panel discussion on science and religion at the Berkley Center – Photo: Berkley Center

A panel discussion on science and religion at the Berkley Center – Photo: Berkley Center

Second, the Center has teaching and service components to its work. All three facets of the Center’s work allow it to explore global challenges of democracy and human rights; economic and social development; international diplomacy; and interreligious understanding.

Two premises guide each component of what the Center does: that a deep examination of faith and values is critical to address these challenges, and that the open engagement of religious and cultural traditions with one another can promote peace.

 Speaking about the Center in 2006, Georgetown president Dr. John J. DeGioia further explained that “Georgetown possesses a unique religious identity, authentically Jesuit and Catholic with recognized excellences in nurturing multiple religious traditions on campus and advancing interreligious dialogue. This new Center will allow Georgetown to harness its academic strength and unique ability to foster interreligious dialogue in the pursuit of peace.”

Pursuing Peace

As we enter our tenth anniversary year and look back at what we have accomplished and forward at the next decade, it is indeed the pursuit of peace that continues to drive our activity.

Eight programs form the basis of our research. There have been event and research highlights in each, but a few examples stand out. Early on, the Center established an annual Berkley Center Lecture.  Global thought leaders including Tariq Ramadan, Charles Taylor, Hans Joas, Tu Weiming, José Casanova, and Martha Nussbaum have been welcomed to campus to address cutting-edge topics at the intersection of religion, culture, and politics. The Center has also convened conferences around the world on topics ranging from faith and development in Bangladesh to the role of Jesuits in globalization in the UK and Italy. One symposium, organized by the Religious Freedom Project on Christianity’s contributions to the understanding and practice of freedom for all people, even resulted in a meeting with Pope Francis.

 The $1 million Opus award being given to Sakena Yacoobi, the executive director of the Afghan Institute of Learning, an Afghan women-led NGO she founded in 1995. – Photo: Berkeley Center

The $1 million Opus award being given to Sakena Yacoobi, the executive director of the Afghan Institute of Learning, an Afghan women-led NGO she founded in 1995. – Photo: Berkeley Center

We have been fortunate to have the support of leading foundations including the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs, the Ford Foundation, and the John Templeton Foundation. We also value our collaboration with the World Faiths Development Dialogue, a non-profit housed at the Center that works to build bridges between the worlds of faith and secular development.

Finally, the Berkley Center is honored to help host major campus-wide initiatives. One example is the 2013 Opus Prize, an annual $1 million award given to an unsung hero whose faith inspires their work on the world’s most persistent social problems. We helped organize the Courtyard of the Gentiles conference in 2014, the first time the Vatican’s interfaith initiative had been held in North America. We also help the university in its stewardship of the Building Bridges Seminar, which encourages Muslim-Christian dialogue.

The student aspect to our work is critical. Curricular and co-curricular programs prepare students for responsibility and leadership in an interconnected world marked by growing cultural and religious diversity. As early as their freshman year, students can participate in our Doyle Engaging Difference Program, which encourages them to think, inside and outside the classroom, about the importance of difference and diversity. Each semester, courses across the university are run as Doyle Seminars and encourage students to engage national, social, cultural, religious dimensions of difference. Students in the School of Foreign Service have the opportunity earn the Religion, Ethics, and World Affairs Certificate by taking courses that explore the role of faith and values across topic areas including international relations, comparative politics, and history and cultures.

 Kendra Layton, standing in the rear, is a senior at Georgetown who visited Dhaka, Bangladesh last year in a Berkley Center research project. – Photo: Berkeley Center

Kendra Layton, standing in the rear, is a senior at Georgetown who visited Dhaka, Bangladesh last year in a Berkley Center research project. – Photo: Berkeley Center

Outside the classroom, Georgetown juniors who study abroad can blog about religion, politics, and culture in their host countries as part of the Center’s Junior Year Abroad Network. In addition, students can apply to conduct research on innovative poverty and education projects around the world as part of our Education and Social Justice Project. The Berkley Center has also spearheaded the university’s participation in the White House-led President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.

As the Center looks forward to its next ten years, thanks to Thomas Banchoff’s additional role as Georgetown’s vice president for Global Engagement, it is partnering with other campus-wide initiatives that address global challenges with a strong ethical or religious dimension. The two most important are: the Global Futures Initiative, which brings world leaders to campus to engage faculty and students around critical global issues; and the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, which addresses the Catholic Church’s contributions to national and international debates about peace, social justice, and human dignity.

As news headlines ranging from Pope Francis’s work, violence in the Central Africa Republic, and ISIS attacks show, religion’s impact in world affairs is not going away. If anything it is becoming more pronounced. The Berkley Center will continue to encourage dialogue, research, and learning around these topics in the hopes of contributing to the creation of a more just and prosperous world.