There’s an ambitious effort under way, to change the way religious leaders in the United States are educated. It’s a new theological program which plans to train Muslim, Jewish, and Christian clergy together.
In one southern California classroom, scholars and students from the three major Abrahamic faiths - Christianity, Islam, and Judaism - are examining sacred texts, focusing on their spiritual commonalities.
This course on interreligious leadership is part of a new graduate program taking form at the Claremont School of Theology -- an initiative that would train future pastors, rabbis and imams side-by-side, as they work toward their theological degrees.
“We think it’s the world’s first shared curriculum in interreligious understanding,” says Rev. Jerry Campbell, president of Claremont's School of Theology - an institution which has educated Methodist ministers and scholars for more than a century. “Our concern was how to make religion more a source of peace in the world rather than a source of conflict.”
The first approach, Campbell says, was to desegregate theological education. That paved the way for what’s known as the University Project - a consortium of the Claremont School of Theology, the Academy for Jewish Religion California, and the Islamic Center of Southern California.
The project is just getting off the ground. So far, seminary students at Claremont and the Jewish Academy are able to take courses at each other’s institutions. By next fall, three Muslim-leadership graduate programs will begin at Claremont, adding a number of Muslim students to the mix.
While there is no separate Islamic school yet, Claremont plans to help develop an Islamic center, with hopes of incorporating an imam-training program - the first of its kind in the United States.
And as the University Project develops, so will its diversity. The founders hope to include other faiths, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
“You can’t really respect and get to know other people unless, unless you study with them, unless you have relationships with them," says Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion California. "And then you could have a clear idea of their traditions rather than stereotyping or categorizing the other out of fear or ignorance.”
The University Project will be particularly valuable to the Muslim community, says Jihad Turk, director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California.
“The Muslim community has the most to gain from this University Project because Muslim-Americans are the most misunderstood," says Turk. "And yes it will benefit all the partners because it will benefit American society at large to be more informed.”
For second-year student Emris Staton, the University Project reflects the pluralistic nature of the United States.
“Interfaith, multi-religious, diverse, what ever word you use, that’s the world we live in and preparing us to be comfortable in that context and competent in that context I think is really important.”
Certainly, American society does have its share of religious tension. Take, for example, the controversy that arose last year over plans for an Islamic center and mosque in New York, near the site of the September 11 World Trade Center attack.
Or the uproar over a Florida pastor’s plan to burn copies of the Quran on the anniversary of that attack.
Campbell says that, while other issues may lie ahead, learning to overcome them is what the “progress of history is about.”
Campbell and his collaborators hope the University Project will strengthen their individual faiths, and through mutual respect and understanding, strengthen America.