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“This Is No Place for a Zero Sum Game”

By Ruth Broyde Sharone


For more than 100 years Hartford Seminary has been a pioneer in establishing interfaith engagement between Christians and Muslims, developing Abrahamic curricula and a Muslim chaplaincy program. Most recently the school has begun to include the study of Dharmic faith traditions. This interfaith commitment is a sign of the times, no doubt, but also reflects the worldview of the woman who has served as Hartford’s president for the past 15 years, Professor of Social Ethics Heidi Hadsell.

Dr. Heidi Hadsell addressing Arigatou International, an interfaith organization which champions the rights of children. – Photo: Arigatou International

Dr. Heidi Hadsell addressing Arigatou International, an interfaith organization which champions the rights of children. – Photo: Arigatou International

Dr. Hadsell, a Christian, served as director of the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches in Switzerland from 1997 to 2001 and has been fascinated by observing how religions live out what they profess. “We have a moral obligation to develop relationships with one another. Propelling us forward is the phenomenon of a growing pluralism brought on by waves of immigration, which inevitably impacts universities and seminaries.”

Economic forces, globalization, and the media, she believes, all contribute to making us more aware of ourselves than ever before. They serve as potent catalysts for the creation of three primary groups that characterize our society today, which she describes as: (1) those who feel threatened, reject the changes occurring, and take refuge in their own world view; (2) those who are grounded in their own tradition but recognize similar values in other traditions such as tolerance and mutual respect, and who are also eager to interface with people of many traditions; and (3) those in the middle, the vast majority, who as yet neither reject nor accept the new reality.

Those who constitute the great middle may be waiting to see how all of this will play itself out. In the meantime, the students on the Hartford campus are engaged, Dr. Hadsell emphasized, in interfaith exploration at entirely new levels than they were ten years ago.

She doesn’t take credit for the shift in curriculum, however. “It happened as a result of 9/11. It was a wakeup call. We’re more religiously plural than we thought. Our current students have a whole new awareness and come in eager to learn about their own traditions and also to know about other traditions that surround them.”

Changes have not come without growing pains – before she arrived and since then. “Here we agree we’re not creating generic human beings. We are trying to help Christians become better Christians in an interfaith world. The overall struggle encourages everyone to not see this as a zero sum game. The fact that the seminary is making room for others does not mean we’re leaving less room for those who are already here. The pie is not getting smaller.”

This philosophy is reflected in the make-up of Hartford’s Board of Trustees, which now includes people of varied traditions. But influence is being exercised not just internally but externally as well, she underscores. “As the demographics of our city change, and we have more religions represented around us, it makes more sense to teach the different religions. We are being transparent.”

Hartford Seminary – Photo: Hartford Seminary

Hartford Seminary – Photo: Hartford Seminary

Of course they have critics, she acknowledges, pointing to tensions around national and international political issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dealings with Iran, and more. “These relationships are historical – not abstract – and get played out in the school, in the classes. We have a very lively international group of people. In Global Ethics, it is great to think about it through Christian-Jewish eyes, but our country has changed and it is increasingly difficult to view the world through a Judeo-Christian lens.”

Hartford’s world religion courses are designed to be both creative and careful, and Dr. Hadsell anticipates the day when all religions will be represented at Hartford.

Christian realignment is essential, she stressed. “For some Christians the perception is that Christianity is one among many religions. For many people that is a shocking discovery, greeted with sadness, because they would prefer to reassert Christian hegemony. For others, however, it is a relief. It represents a possibility for Christians to be more authentically Christian, to stand inside the Christianity of the late 20th century and our 21st century.”

Theologians and biblical scholars agree, she said, that Christianity was never intended to be a hegemonic community. The original idea was that Christianity would be best lived out in small communities.

A class at Hartford’s Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations – Photo: Hartford Seminary

A class at Hartford’s Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations – Photo: Hartford Seminary

“We probably have Christians and Muslims at the Seminary who secretly wish they could convert everyone. And many may also harbor fears about the new interfaith movement, worrying they may be proselytized.” Whenever she speaks away from the Seminary, she noted, someone invariably approaches her to express their apprehension that, in this new process of interfaith engagement, their own uniqueness might get lost.

“As president of Hartford University for 15 years, I have never seen anyone who studies other traditions lose their uniqueness. On the contrary, it has allowed people to deepen their own knowledge about their own traditions, to learn what makes us different, but not erase those differences. In each of our traditions we have teachings that lead us to one another. Because of specificity, we have our own wells to draw from. The spiritual-but-not-religious people are, in truth, rejecting authoritarianism within their own inherited religions. Remember, interfaith learning doesn’t lead to interfaith marriage. It happens without us. Actually, we can help interfaith couples to articulate what they are doing. We can come up with rituals to be helpful in those kinds of ways for interfaith weddings, birth ceremonies, and memorials.

No one knows for sure what the future will bring, Dr. Hadsell says, but she is convinced that ideas, religious wisdom, and the traditions themselves will not disappear. “Our religions are supple enough to withstand this new interfaith movement and, here at Hartford Seminary, you are invited to learn – not to convert!”