How Can Jesuit Schools Be Even Better Leaders in Interfaith Work?

photo 2-400x400BY HOPEY FINKMarch 25, 2015

Before I came to Washington, D.C., for college, I grew up in a mid-sized Midwestern town. Although my public high school was on the whole largely homogenous, I was lucky to have friends from a variety of religious backgrounds. My experiences understanding my own Catholic faith and my place in the world as a teenager were interwoven with lunch-table discussions of karma and reincarnation and with solidarity Fast-a-thons during Ramadan. I was drawn to Georgetown University in part because of its commitment to engaging “interreligious understanding” and “community in diversity,” and when I arrived as a freshman I was captivated by the banners around campus touting the “Spirit of Georgetown” with these phrases alongside other Jesuit buzzwords like “cura personalis” and “men and women for and with others.”

Over the past four years, I have been able to engage in interfaith work in many different ways–as a member of and leader in the Interfaith Student Association and as a research assistant at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs; through involvement in social justice programs; and most of all through informal, late-night, or unplanned conversations with those whose backgrounds are different from mine. At the same time, I’ve come to understand the Ignatian identity more deeply, and I’ve seen how Jesuit schools are perhaps uniquely positioned among other universities to foster interfaith dialogue and action. Jesuit schools like Georgetown can and should make interfaith a top priority, on a level that goes beyond the buzzwords and banners.

Nowhere has this special opportunity and obligation been more apparent to me than at the Coming Together 7 conference I attended in February at Yale University. In speaking with students from schools all over the country and learning about their interfaith efforts, I was increasingly grateful not only for the practical institutional support that such work receives at my school, but also for the rootedness of this support. To have “interreligious understanding” as an explicit part of a school’s mission, as it is at Georgetown, is no small thing. Many students trying to engage in interfaith work, especially those at secular institutions, do not have this advantage. In order to truly build a community in diversity and further interreligious understanding, however, we all must understand that we cannot rely on a mission to bring itself to life. At Jesuit schools, our commitment to interfaith work needs to remain dynamic. Igniting the Ignatian charism involves an embracing of active contemplation and dialogue, a focus on global citizenship, and a recognition of the inherent dignity of all traditions.

Jesuit schools are well-positioned to be leaders in the interfaith movement, not only on college campuses but in American society and around the world. Every day, news stories remind us of the critical role that religion has played in the historical dynamics that continue to shape the reality of our planet, and of the powerful significance of interreligious understanding in modern conflicts, discourses, and interactions. With this in mind, I would like to propose four ways in which Jesuit schools can constantly be improving and renewing this commitment to interfaith work. These ideas are pulled from my own experience at Georgetown and from conversations I have had with friends of various faith traditions here and at other schools. The list is subjective and by no means exhaustive, but it is actionable, at the level of the institution and at the level of individual members of university communities.

  • Engaging Non-Abrahamic Faiths and Underrepresented Traditions: Perhaps because of the intertwinings of history and perhaps because of the relative ease of finding theological common ground, many interfaith discussions can tend to focus on intersections and interactions among Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. At Georgetown, for example, we have had Jewish and Muslim chaplains since 1968 and 1999, respectively, but only this year did our large Hindu student community gain an official chaplaincy. We need to make sure that dialogues, service work, academic curricula, and administrative decisions are incorporating the perspectives of those from non-Abrahamic traditions. In addition, religious groups with small numbers, like the Latter Day Saints or Bahá’i, can use more support for their members.
  • Including Agnostic and Atheist Voices in the Conversation: Universities with a religious identity are faced with the task of balancing their mission in an increasingly secular world. Bringing agnostic and atheist voices into discussions of interreligious understanding does not jeopardize religious identity; on the contrary, it leads to fuller and more productive dialogue. Caring for the whole person, being men and women for and with others, and reflecting as contemplatives in action are ideals that apply universally. Jesuit schools need to cultivate an environment where spirituality and reflection can be explored in all of their forms, including creating spaces for those with no religious tradition.
  • Going Beyond Surface-Level Dialogue: Religious issues are in the news a lot. Religion can be a contentious subject. It can be intimidating to talk about difference when we have been trained, in a politically correct society, to find ways in which we are the same. Jesuit schools can push students to challenge their own perspectives and to be comfortable being uncomfortable in the context of interfaith dialogue–as long as a fundamental understanding of respect is maintained.
  • Connecting Students, Staff, Faculty, and Chaplains: Having institutional support for interfaith work is a privilege, but it also presents challenges–good challenges. Sometimes, around certain topics or times of the year, there can be some cross-programming, which ultimately can detract from the quality of each effort. There needs to be effective and streamlined communication among all groups invested in interfaith work: chaplaincies and campus ministry, academic departments and centers, student organizations and boards, and individual members of university communities. Together, these groups can collaborate to foster an environment where interreligious dialogue and action is part of mainstream university culture.



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