Four Reasons Why World Religions (and We) Need
Interreligious Schools of Theology
In this extraordinary age of global interconnectedness, profoundly divergent structures and theologies perpetually challenge communication between the world religions. Realizing the sometimes-impassable Babel of our multiple theological languages, shared experience often emphasizes the unifying commonality of the human search for truth, goodness and meaning yet grounds each of these very different traditions and spiritualities.
Far from a merely theoretical consideration, the implications of this unity-in-diversity frame my own profoundly personal search as a Christian practitioner and scholar:
One of the most fascinating aspects of my spiritual—and academic—experience has been the vastly different theological spaces I have found myself occupying over the five decades that now mark my Christian journey. One does not traverse the terrain from the rough and ready, uncomplicated simplicity of the loosely banded Jesus People of Washington State to the well-structured formalities of Roman Catholic Archdiocesan appointments without an ever-evolving capacity to translate one Christian language into its associated—but profoundly different—family of tongues. Far more than a metaphorical exercise in translation, however, the richness of such an experience has itself been generative of a deeply personal expansion of theological conception, continually overflowing its linguistic banks into the verdant pastures of its practical terrain. Energized by desire for proficient enactment of a nascent Christian multilingualism, I have sought to understand the sources of a hoped for collegial communicativeness across the multiple theological worlds that have surrounded me. (Kelly, in press)
Experienced even within my own single religious tradition, the potential for translative impasse only gives way to insight, understanding, and compassion through development of an astute and skillful theological “multilingualism” capable of generating not only mutual understanding but of growth in one’s own traditional grounding.
As I have discussed in a recent article quoted above, “Babel Reconsidered” (in press), sensitive, compassionate, informed and systematic theological multilingualism nourishes the theologian’s personal, “vertical” faith experience through substantive expansion of theological meaning through interpersonal, “horizontal” communication and shared practice. Potentially yielding authentic participation in the unfamiliar linguistic patterns of the theological “other-tongue,” I am transformed and renewed as our exchange enriches my often univocal understanding to hear the unfolding of a symphonic grace.
An interreligious school of theology like the Graduate Theological Foundation (GTF) wisely nurtures emergence of these multiple, “second first languages” (MacIntyre, 1988, p. 374), through a fourfold enactment of shared unity-in-diversity. Each of these four movements grounds the individual scholar deeply within his or her tradition while potentially transforming the collegial breadth of its interreligious theological promise.
The four movements are four critical reasons the contemporary world needs such innovative theological education and formation:
Movement #1: Distinction
GTF upholds and maintains the characteristic distinctions of varied, worldwide religious traditions.
While integrative and collegial, the curriculum facilitates individual focus from within the particular distinctions of a singular tradition. Taking place within an international community of scholars from a multitude of literal and metaphorical spaces of their multiple traditions, such denominational or religious concentration grants a robust potential for fluidity and theoretical expansion to any scholarly investigation. In this manner, GTF emphasizes the importance of traditional distinctions while yet advancing more pluralistic commonalities.
Movement #2: Commonality
GTF promotes robust interreligious insight through dialogue and commonly held academic goals.
Options for applied study within sole denominations abound while GTF’s structure simultaneously ensures the opportunity for interreligious exchange through its international programs, flexible modules, tutorials, and graduation events. This unique blend of the particular within the greater whole of world religious thought and experience enacts the “real world” placement of the religious scholar within the multiple traditions he or she will continue to encounter in our interconnected global society.
Movement # 3: Scholarship
GTF fosters substantive development of varied religious and spiritual traditions and their institutions through scholarly preparation of clergy, ministers, leaders and teachers.
As noted in Dr. John H. Morgan’s (2013) study of clergy stress, religious leaders and ministers often find inadequate support for their intellectual pursuits within the practical demands of ministerial life. Added to the time consuming administrative activities of such vocations, advanced theological study—a prerequisite to any tradition’s development—may be an inaccessible luxury for those most responsible for its teaching. Furthermore, the weight of pastoral responsibilities potentially cloisters the minister within his or her single confessional community. GTF’s innovative curricular flexibility empowers ministry leaders grounded within their traditions toward much needed theological scholarship within an international, interreligious community of scholars.
Movement #4: Transformation
GTF nourishes the unique and particular needs of each scholar while supporting his or her participation in transformation of the global whole.
While Movement #1 maintains the distinction of the religious traditions within their greater interreligious contexts, this movement actuates this principle at the individual level. A GTF scholar designs or participates in a uniquely relevant curricular program, wherein his or her particular academic and ministerial needs are not only considered but emphasized as a crucial educational outcome. In this context, individuals become catalysts of self-generative growth and transformation, a critical key to ongoing growth and development of the worldwide religious traditions themselves.
In concert, these four movements potentially construct a broad and stable foundation not only capable of bearing the weight of universal religious mystery but of grounding the cognitive, spiritual and interpersonal development of individuals called to live and serve within their distinct traditions.
Through avoidance of the bilateral hazards of a facile and reductive pluralism and a contrary univocal and exclusivist theological “monotheorism” (Tracy, 1987, p. 11), interreligious schools of theology like GTF empower authentic interreligious exchange and thereby assist in global transformation.
Four formative movements are, thus, key to opening the much needed potency and promise of a well-formed theological “multilingualism” within and across the world religions. As GTF continues this mission, it participates in transforming not only its scholars, but our much needed participation in the remarkable unity-in-diversity of our sacred planet’s multiple religions.
Questions for discussion:
How has and does GTF facilitate this kind of interreligious “multilingualism” for you?
How have you experienced (or would like to experience) the influence and effects of the four movements?
What implications do the four movements have for religious and spiritual scholars? For religious traditions? For the world?
Kelly, N.A. (in press). “Babel reconsidered: Enacting an Integral Christian multilingualism.” In S. Esbjörn-Hargens (Ed.), Enacting an Integral Future: New Horizons for Integral Theory. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
MacIntyre, A. C. (1988). Whose justice? Which rationality? Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.
Morgan, J. (2013). “Clergy stress and satisfaction in the workplace: A comparative study of four Christian traditions part III” [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.gtfeducation.org/blog/blogpost.cfm?p=75
Tracy, D. (1987). Plurality and ambiguity: Hermeneutics, religion, hope. San Francisco: Harper & Row.