Sunday, September 25, 2011

Theological Education and Interfaith Learning

The Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) has received a grant of $350,000 to support faculty development, curricular revision, and online continued educational programs on religious pluralism. The Luce Grant will enable EDS to offer courses on Islam. The Grant will also enable us to share what we are learning at EDS with the wider Episcopal Church and other faith communities.

Serene Jones during her installation in 2008 as the President of Union Theological Seminary in New York announced that preparing students to minister and work in a religiously pluralistic society would be one of her major strategic initiatives. Paul F. Knitter of the Seminary has been a pioneer in interfaith dialogue and John Thatamanil, a new faculty member, has done innovative work on comparative theology.

Last May, Claremont School of Theology received $50 million from David and Joan Lincoln to establish the Claremont Lincoln University to educate Muslim, Jewish, and Christian spiritual leaders. David Lincoln said, “We believe the outcome of this kind of education will be tolerance and respect among religions and the ability to better address global problems where religious cooperation and cooperating are needed to reach solutions and repair the world.”

Harvard Divinity School

I welcome and salute these various initiatives and innovations to enhance interfaith learning. As a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, I have been exposed to very rich and lively discussions of different religious traditions. Though Wilfred Cantwell Smith had retired from Harvard when I entered as a student, he had come back to lecture and his influences were clearly felt. His book The Meaning and End of Religion, published almost five decades ago, remains a classic in the field.

Center for the Study of World Religions

During 1986-87, I had the fortune of living at the Center for the Study of World Religions opposite the Divinity School. John Carman, a well-known scholar on Hindu culture and religion, was the Center’s director. Riffat Hassan, a leading Muslim feminist scholar, and Kurt Rudolph, who studied the Gnostic tradition, lived on the same floor. My five-year-old daughter became close friends with the children of a Sikh and Jewish couple and the young children of a Buddhist priest from Japan. The Center organized different seminars and talks, and I still remember Carol P. Christ came to speak about the Goddess tradition.

In addition to the events of the Center, I benefited from meeting the research associates of Women’s Studies in Religion Program and other women visiting professors from around the world. Mercy Oduyoye taught a course at the Divinity School during my first year there in 1984. She was working on Hearing and Knowing and began to develop an African feminist theology paying close attention to the indigenous African traditions. Mieke Bal spent a year as research associate, and her lecture on the Book of Judges was just brilliant. I also remember listening to Sylvia Marcos, an anthropologist and a pioneer in studying women in Mesoamerican religions.
Harvard-Yenching Library

This interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and multireligious learning has played a critical role in my development as a scholar and teacher. They have nurtured my interest in many fields: biblical studies, the study of religion and culture, and Christian theology.

The Divinity School and the Harvard-Yenching Institute, in close proximity to each other, were my intellectual homes. I had the privilege of studying with some of the most renowned philosophers and historians in Chinese studies. The late Benjamin Schwartz, author of the award-winning The World of Thought in Ancient China, guided my independent study on women and feminism in China. He jokingly said that he was a mild feminist.

One of the world’s leading Confucian scholars Tu Weiming taught me the Confucian and Daoist traditions and served on my dissertation committee. I was very grateful to Paul A. Cohen, a professor at Wellesley College and an authority on Christianity in modern China, who kindly agreed to co-direct my thesis. All these scholars have immense knowledge of philosophy, history, and historiography in the East and the West. They have always encouraged me not to be satisfied with ready-made answers and to search in the gray, in-between areas.

I will be able to share what I have learned about China, the study of religion, and Christianity in the EDS travel seminar to China next summer. My colleague Patrick Cheng will be the co-leader of the seminar and we plan to visit churches, seminaries, Christian organizations, as well as Buddhist temples, a Confucian temple, and the mosque in Xian. I am committed to helping my students to learn about China, a country that is so important for USA and the world in this century. The travel seminar will offer opportunities to learn about different concepts and functions of religion and interactions among different religious traditions in this ancient country.