What if someone could pursue rabbinical studies seated next to another student who aspires to be an imam? What if that Muslim theology student could have classroom discussions about ethics or scripture with a student who expects to become a Protestant pastor?
This bold vision—believed to be the first formal academic program in which all three Abrahamic traditions study together—was unveiled at a press conference on Wednesday, June 9 at the Claremont School of Theology (CST) and will become a reality this fall.
The University Project is a cooperative program involving students from CST, almost all of whom are Christian, as well as students at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR, CA) and the Islamic Center of Southern California (ICSC). In the initial phase, students from CST, AJR, CA and ICSC will be able to take courses at all three institutions, often learning about the other traditions from teachers who were brought up in that faith.
This in itself pushes the boundaries of the way clerics have traditionally been taught. But the goal of the University Project, which was first envisioned in 2006, is even larger. Although the details of the eventual structure are still to be determined, the tentative proposal calls for four academic departments: ethics, politics and society; world spiritualities and the healing arts; scriptures and traditions; and religions, cultures and theologies. In time, the program will add Buddhism and Hinduism.
“I think that what’s wonderful about this program is that although there are other places where you can have an occasional class or seminar together with people from other faiths, here we’re hoping that there will be actual learning together on a regular basis,” said Tamar Frankiel, AJR, CA’s academic affairs dean and comparative religion professor.
The University Project brings together three organizations that have similar goals and a shared vision.
The Claremont School of Theology, founded in 1885, is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, a branch of Protestantism. Historically, Methodists have taken strong stands against slavery, established institutions of higher learning—like CST—and participated in many ecumenical efforts.
Imam Jihad Turk, director at ICSC, said his institution promotes a theology “that is inclusive, that is cooperative and that is pluralistic in its tone and tenor.” Turk said that he and his organization are a counterweight to “fanatics who are promoting a theology of death.”
The AJR, CA is, according to its Web site, a “pluralistic institution” whose mission is to develop religious leaders capable of transforming Jewish communities into places where all Jews can grow toward wholeness and well-being.”
Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, AJR, CA’s president and dean, said that his school has, in its own curriculum, “attempted to ... reach out to the entire Jewish community, the affiliated and non-affiliated, and thus we are thrilled to create a consortium with our like-minded brothers and sisters who wish to learn from us as we wish to learn from them.”
From their statements and past actions, it could be argued that even though the three institutions involved are from traditions that have often been in conflict, it’s likely that they have more in common with one another than they do with certain groups within their own religion, especially those considered more conservative or less amenable to change.
During the press conference, Gottlieb spoke to this point. “After all,” he said, “change always brings forth anxiety and resistance.”
Even the relatively open-minded United Methodist Church, which donates about $800,000 every year to CST, seems to be somewhat apprehensive about the new University Project and carried out a review of the curriculum.
The Rev. Jerry Campbell, president of the Claremont School of Theology, said he thought the review went well, but the results won’t be known for another few weeks.
However, even if the Methodist Church were to cut off its annual stipend to CST, the project will continue because CST has received funding from a different source: David and Joan Lincoln, residents of Arizona, have donated $10 million.
Campbell, in a press release, thanked the Lincolns and said he expected the “University Project to become a light for the world in terms of intercultural understanding, ethical integrity and religious intelligence in education.”
Clearly, those involved with the University Project have ambitious goals. Najeeba Syeed-Miller, a CST Muslim faculty member, said this project “brings hope not just to Claremont, but also to those around the globe who are looking for a way out of strife. ... Through studying our own traditions together, we will find a place to build empathy, peace and hope.”
There’s little doubt that the new program takes into account the demographic and cultural shifts taking place in both California and the nation.
Jon Hooten, a graduate student at CST as well as its communications director, said that his largely white, Christian institution has gone through a great deal of “self-reflection” in order to accept the fact that the University Project would mean “sharing power.”
“Even though [CST] jump-started this process, we’ve had to cede control,” Hooten said. “In the past we could chart our own course. But now, with this project, we’re charting the course together with our partners. ... It would be morally indefensible for a school of theology to dictate to other traditions about what [the University Project] has to be. ... So now that we have collaborators in place, we’re developing educational models.”
Marvin Sweeney, a Jewish professor of biblical studies at both CST and AJR, CA, said that he and his colleagues are attempting to develop a “model in which each tradition will learn to respect the religious integrity of the other and learn to work together as partners in the world rather than as opponents or obstacles to cooperation.”
“In fact,” Sweeney said, “the School of Theology has adopted, as part of its overarching motto for the University Project, tikkun olam, repair of the world, as its model for trying to bridge the gaps among the various religious traditions. “
At the press conference during which this project was presented, Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders of the project sat next to one another in front of a screen that projected their organizations’ logos, which included a cross, a Magen David and a crescent, respectively. The speakers emphasized that even though the students will be exposed to religious traditions that are not their own, the aim is to have them maintain their own religious identity and integrity.
“We’re not trying to create a hybrid,” CST’s Campbell said. “If you come here as a United Methodist, we hope you leave here as a much wiser United Methodist, someone who understands his or her neighbors, which in California and much of the world consists in a multi-cultural and multi-religious mix.”
AJR, CA’s Frankiel agreed. “We’re not assimilating,” she said. “We’re going to be Jewish, distinctively Jewish, autonomous in our way of presenting material and doing our studies. But we’re doing it in cooperation and collaboration with others. ... It will change the way [students] see their own religion, and it will change the way they relate to the larger community.”
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