July 19 2024

The Politics of Interreligious Education

by Najeeba Syeed-Miller, Claremont School of Theology

photo of a river confluence

In a world in which institutions, individuals, and states function beyond (and in some cases even circumvent) national boundaries, the importance of examining transnational functions of education becomes an increasingly vital line of scholarly inquiry. With limited space in this essay, a full explanation of the term “interreligious theological education” is not possible. Building on the scholarship of David Roozen, Heidi Hadsell, María Isasi-Díaz, Eboo Patel, Catherine Cornille, Judith Berling, John Thatanamil, and others, I consider five common components that undergird the scaffolding of interreligious education in seminaries; the engagement may range from one encounter to a fully developed course of study in this area:

  1. Generally, programs will include the comparative theological study of more than one tradition.
  2. Pedagogical features of the instruction emphasize an experiential component, such as in class dialogic models.
  3. Very often, a normative student learning outcome is emphasized, that of peaceful coexistence between the religions that are the objects of encounter.
  4. Community engagement and immersion outside the classroom is encouraged or curated by the instructors.
  5. Theologies of religious pluralism, interfaith engagement, hospitality, the "other," and bridge building are often emphasized.

This essay poses questions to frame the coalescing of interreligious education and theological training and considers how institutions of transnational interreligious education are created. This is an attempt to discover ethical, philosophical, and political research areas for further development of the field by emphasizing interesting and innovative current scholarship.

Contesting Frameworks

In different countries, the state explicitly or implicitly utilizes multiple mechanisms to engage in the enterprise of theological education. The very instructive case study of Germany and its current struggles toward establishing Islamic Studies programs was outlined by Zubair Ahmad at the 2012 AAR Annual Meeting in his paper “Constructing a Secular-, State-, and Democracy-friendly Islam from Within?”1 The government or its proxies essentially become shapers of theological study, boundary makers of access to spiritual authority, and purveyors of discursive emanations that ripple in their effects across a broader geography of religion in public and private places.

As one begins to form transnational agendas for theological education, the sources of funding, policy-based decision making, and support of scholarly research will need to be interrogated. To the extent that theological education reflects an advancement of national interests, the transnational agenda may pose a challenge to state-bound educational purposes. A state’s limiting or barring of religions, recognizing the constitution of, or denying the existence of a religious people has a role in forming the playing field for what constitutes legitimate theologies. Furthermore, the state’s agenda may also impose extra-educational pressures as international controversies are being negotiated with varying accesses to power. The transnational nature of theological education is by definition a non-neutral public square that carries with it the flavors, nuances, power dynamics, and citizen-participant expectations of religious adherents.

Inherent in this exploration is the role of secularities and the definition of religion. As the current conception of interreligious education seeks to promote a definition of pluralism, one might imagine varying definitions of "pluralism," competing articulations of secularism, and complex demarcations of how religion is defined in its legal sense and also in the discourse of what constitutes religion within a social and political context.

We live in an age of a plurality of pluralisms; it is time to add to the pantheon of scholars often taught in interreligious courses. In addition to Diana Eck, Paul Knitter, William Connolly, and Robert Bellah, instructors can consider the study of revolutionary inter-spiritualties such as a DuBoisan ethic documented by Dwight Hopkins. Religion as the sole epistemic commitment for the basis of pluralism ignores the fractal genealogical patterns of lived religion; scholars Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, S. Steve Kang, and Gary A. Parrett, in their volume A Many Colored Kingdom, A Multicultural Dynamics for Spiritual Formation (2004), unearth the many other lenses through which pluralism can be sieved. Another obscured view of pluralism is “conservative pluralism” described by John-Charles Duffy at the 2012 AAR Annual Meeting in his paper, “Coming to Terms with Pluralism: Evangelical Responses to Mitt Romney’s Presidential Campaigns.”2

There are historical, cultural, communal, and individual meanings of terms that are often proposed as conventional values or wisdom; it is imperative that we do not allow this "universal" lexicon to prevail. The classroom, in its microcosmic representation of the outer universe, is a laboratory for embodied aspects of political functions. As instructors we must disarm the notion of a “safe” classroom and disabuse students of an expectation of a risk-free learning experience, especially if peace between religions is a normative outcome promoted in interreligious education.

Betty Barett argues for an alternative construction to the foundational element of safety as the organizing principle in the classroom in her essay “Is ‘Safety’ Dangerous? A Critical Examination of the Classroom as Safe Space" (2010). I am not speaking of physical safety or intentional harm. Barett offers this alternative framing:

While educators may not be able to directly observe, monitor, or enforce intrapersonal states, they can indeed observe, monitor, and enforce student behaviour in the classroom. A reconceptualization of classroom safety to incorporate a primary focus on civility is essentially a movement away from concern with psychological constructs (invisible) to behavioural constructs (visible) as the focus of classroom management. Although it is true that educators reinforce and/or prohibit certain student behaviours because of their potential psychological, emotional, and spiritual impacts on other students, educators cannot ethically assure students that the classroom will only produce positive psychological states in them. Indeed, learning, growth, and development may well be the fruit of painful and frustrating labour. Educators may not be able to (nor should they) promise students in good faith that intellectual enterprise and scholarly exchanges are safe and comfortable endeavours. They can, however, promise students that, while they are engaging in such endeavours, that they will not be subjected to certain behaviours on the part of their peers that threaten the social and physical integrity of the learning environment (10).

Barrett suggests this exclusive framing of classroom comfort-ability originating by the professor can stunt student intellectual development. She points out “the impossibility of safety for students, particularly racially, socially, and economically marginalized students" (6). How do we prepare students to navigate these complex, rich, and choppy waters as scholars and negotiators of their identities? How can we form them to carry an internal compass that is the production of self-generated security and confidence to investigate and explore difference?  

American Exceptionalism in the Interfaith Movement?

The United States interfaith movement is a driving force in proposing and developing many localized efforts in the American seminary setting, moving some Christian institutions towards more inclusive student populations, faculties, and institutional structures. If this American-based movement promotes a form of pluralism that is grounded in a fulfillment of rhetoric that implies the United States is the yardstick by which pluralism is performed at its highest level, this will blind the transnational theological educational model from gleaning lessons and practices that demonstrate multiple ways of managing and developing pluralistic resources across and within diverse traditions.

As an example, in the experiment of building Claremont Lincoln University, the Claremont School of Theology experienced more support from African United Methodists who recognized the necessity of interreligious education due to the interreligious nature of families and communities in the settings in which their religious leaders functioned. To assume that the American context produces the greatest level of an inclusive social, political, and cultural consciousness will not only centralize US-based rhetoric, it will also limit the scrutiny of the foundations and assumptions of the American interfaith movement. Additionally, it should not extend to scholarly production on interreligious education. Some of the most groundbreaking work can be found from scholars writing in Norway and the Netherlands for instance. See Carl Sterkens’s volume, Interreligious Learning: The Problem of Interreligious Dialogue in Primary Education (Empirical Studies in Theology) (2001) and Interreligious Studies: A Relational Approach to Religious Activism and the Study of Religion by Oddbjørn Leirvik (2014).

At the 2013 AAR Annual Meeting, Jason Springs proposed a series of excellent questions in his paper “Transforming Conflict on Sacred Ground: On the Limits and Risks of Inter-religious Engagement in Contexts of Structural and Cultural Violence.”3 I would extend this inquiry into interreligious education and transnational settings with these points:

  1. If there is a demonstrated theology of interreligious engagement for each group within an interreligious setting, implicitly functional at the table is also a political theology of how the individual and/or aggregate deems an appropriate relationship with their particular state and ethics of global political identities and communities; this political theology functions most powerfully with the convener who originates an interreligious convening, educational process, or institution.  
  2. Another gloss on political theology would require an exploration into the states that comprise a transnational effort and into how each player in an interreligious endeavor relates to bolstering or challenging the sacral elements of that state or corporate system of states. Educational systems are by far one of the most robust articulations, indeed, ritual spaces that carry the values of a particular society and pose an opportunity to challenge or buttress existing modalities of citizen-consciousness formation and belonging.

The Politics of Hybridity

As transnational theological education advances, the issue of hybridity is one that would be most helpful to discuss. How will embodied and community-based hybridity be engaged transnationally? If the current institutional models are largely founded on a denominational basis or on the standards set by specific individuals, what will be the result of the brushing up against locales in which communities or individuals have long identified as religiously multiple? As transnational identities imply (see Peggy Levitt’s work), these locales will be politically, nationally, and culturally multiple as well.

Here again we face the dilemma of a definition of “religion” that assumes a particular—if not now calcified—rubric and mapping of religious identity. Transnational theological education must be nimble, agile, and willing to consistently question its own definition of religion or spiritual practice or experience. It is again the discourse on the topic of religion and religious communities that becomes powerfully influential in the genesis of this emergent co-created space of interreligious and transnational educational spheres.

How open are theological institutions to the embodied hybridities that function not merely as a post-modern identity, but in some cultural contexts as the very norm and not the aberration of religious identity? How are courses organized comparatively? How are questions of purity, authority, legitimacy, and representation of traditions investigated and exhibited in organizational structures that function across what might be more fluid lines than some might assume or be willing to visibilize?

Kwok Pui-lan eloquently and succinctly captures a further tension in the recognition that not all hybridities are “equal” in her essay Globalization, Gender, and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue (2012). She offers a rigorous and problematized explanation of this social phenomenon and renders a picture of this process that attacks the notion that hybridity is a horizontal, flat terrain of religious identity transference.

As institutions of education construct classrooms and theories of instruction, how will they serve a hybridity of self-improvement strategies that amalgamates multiple sources versus a hybridity of survival, built to withstand assaults on a communal existence (that may be religious, racial, language based, geographic)? How will hidden sources of knowledges and subjugated knowledges be surfaced, acknowledged, realized, and ethically taught? Who will do the teaching, which credential will be deemed sufficient and which will be denied? Where will the teaching be held? What are the politics and structures of spiritual formation in hybrid contexts? Rabbi Or Rose, Jennifer Peace, and Gregory Mobley speak of the profound concept of “co-formation” in their dyadically and triadically inclined Christian-Jewish-Muslim programs (2012). How will the next generation of embodied hybridity inform or transform existing models of practical formation of students in seminary settings?

Assumptions of Agency

Religion is a choice, or is it, or should it be? As race, ethnicity, language, and natural location are embedded in many settings, can one privilege religion as the primary source of identity for an individual or an institution? As religion dances in the lives of some communities, it does not always follow the scripted sounds of a set of rules that allow for exit and entry without the loss of culture, community, racial identity, or language. To what degree will transnational interreligious education reify a transactional business model of religious identity in which one is assumed free to buy, sell, or exchange freely in a marketplace of faith? 

What can we learn from how people talk about religion or, sometimes more importantly, do not parse it out at all? How is scholarship affected when sacred and profane spaces, epistemologies and institutions of learning are so closely nondualistic that it becomes unknowable and unfathomable to one uninitiated into this experiential setting? How does one form interreligious educational models that are often predicated on human contact theory—that the experience of another tradition equals the knowing of the other—when the process of participating in another religious group may be impossible due a less porous delineation of that particular community? Saba Mahmood identifies these spaces of “ethical cultivation” (2005) for piety that are not merely experiential, but concretely behavioral in the methodologies and modalities of instruction. As Marianne Moyaert points out, it is valuable to pay attention and care to the theological stance and affect of uncomfortability of students who may hesitate to participate in deep wells of ritual of the other (2011). Unpacking why students have misgivings and nondidactically dialoguing about their rationale allows for a principled approach to cross-religious embodied education. My point here is that in addition to comparative theologies, interreligious education is inherently an interpedagogical experiment. Each tradition holds a lineage of how to teach in addition to what is taught; sometimes we must give care not to the content alone but also the process of how it is taught in its home tradition and how students receive, wrestle, or reject pedagogies that they understand as novel to their previous experiences.

Questions of Indigeniety

More and more in my own interreligious instruction, I have become aware of the lack of discussion of traditions that reflect (this is a shorthand analysis due to limited space) large sets of indigenous traditions. Assumptions of a set text like a creedal code allow for a comparative theology enterprise when theology constitutes religion in this way. The very way knowledge is conceived of is at play here. Margaret Kovach articulates an indigenous epistemology in her essay “Emerging from the Margins: Indigenous Methodologies” as “[i]ndigenous epistemology is fluid, non-linear, and relational. Knowledge is transmitted through stories that shape in relation to the wisdom of the storyteller at the time of the telling” (2005, 27).

Increasingly, as a transnational eye is brought into this area of theological education, this question will be finding its way into the classroom and penetrating the potentially highly limiting constructs of interreligious education. The danger here is that the definition of religion may be expanded, but its curious genesis remains in the particularities of a set form. Newer landscapes that are created still carry this litmus test, and ironically so. It is the more recently born traditions that insist on the particularities of what a religion looks like, while ancient practices and their very coherent genealogies are cast aside. Linda Tuhiwai-Smith’s work deftly addresses the processes by which the academy has relentlessly marginalized the bodies, knowledges, and voices of indigenous communities; it would be a pity to see interreligious education recapitulate these dynamics.

In conclusion, the intersection of interreligious education and transnational theological education excites me greatly. It makes for more intelligent, plastic, and inclusive institutions in higher education. Perhaps the practical challenge is this: How does one forward these rousing lines of inquiry while staying within a realm of reality that still works in established systems of religion and theological education so that the scholar is not outcast without a relevant venue and interlocutors to continue his/her work?

Ahman, Zubair, “Constructing a Secular-, State-, and Democracy-friendly Islam from Within?” (paper presentation, Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Chicago, IL, November 18, 2012). Session A18-106, Religion and Politics Section. Session theme: Contesting the Definition of Religion in Global Contexts.

2 John-Charles Duffy, "Coming to Terms with Pluralism: Evangelical Responses to Mitt Romney's Presidential Campaigns" (paper presentation, Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Chicago, IL, November 19, 2012). Session A19-107, Religion and Politics Section and Mormon Studies Group. Session theme: Mormonism and the 2012 Elections.

3 Springs, Jason, "Transforming Conflict on Sacred Ground: On the Limits and Risks of Inter-religious Engagement in Contexts of Structural and Cultural Violence" (paper presentation, Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Baltimore, MD, November 25, 2013). Session A25-230, Religions, Social Conflict and Peace Group. Session theme: Recognition and Social Transformation: Theory and Practice in Religious Peacemaking.

Najeeba Syeed-MillerNajeeba Syeed-Miller is assistant professor of interreligious education at the Claremont School of Theology and director of the Center for Global Peacebuilding. Her published works have focused on the intersection of religion, politics, legal systems, transnational diplomacy, urban peacemaking, and interfaith just peacemaking. Her current book project, Decolonizing Interspiritualities, theorizes millennial inter-spiritual peacemaking in the Los Angeles urban landscape. She is an award-winning mediator in the areas of gang intervention and interracial conflicts.