by Susan R. Garrett and Christine J. Hong
At Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, we aim to educate men and women to make connections, work collaboratively and build bridges across chasms of difference in our pluralistic world. Why? Because we believe that racial, religious and other forms of diversity were created by our sovereign God, who calls us to love all people and to treat one another with integrity, reverence and respect. In times as conflictual as ours, the church and world need leaders who approach difference by seeking to understand rather than judge; teachers and guides who are skilled in addressing conflict; and preachers, pastors and therapists who model God’s reconciling and inclusive love even in tough or touchy situations.
Louisville Seminary’s Doors to Dialogue program (D2D) grew out of these missional commitments.
“I believe our faith, based on the model of Christ, calls us into relationship not just with Christians, but with those who are not,” said Courtney Bowen, a second-year Master of Divinity student at Louisville Seminary. “We are not meant to shut ourselves away from the world in insular and homogenous Christian sects.”
In designing D2D, the faculty determined that the program ought to prepare graduates to do at least three things: describe important characteristics of at least one religious tradition other than Christianity and one Christian ecclesial tradition other than their own; articulate their own theological perspective in a way that acknowledges the global, multicultural, multireligious context of contemporary ministry; and participate in intra-Christian and interreligious dialogue with appreciation and respect. Initially, these aims were met through regular coursework and extracurricular opportunities for interaction with people of other faiths.
The variety and scope of the program were expanded in 2013 when the Henry Luce Foundation awarded Louisville Seminary a $375,000 grant to support four new D2D initiatives to support: relevant study-travel for students; visiting professors with expertise related to ecumenism or faiths other than Christianity; programming to educate counselors and caregivers in interfaith dimensions; and opportunities for table fellowship and guided conversation with persons from a variety of faiths or Christian denominations.
D2D is now woven throughout Louisville Seminary’s curricula for all master’s-level degree programs as well as through many of our extracurricular activities. It has influenced faculty members’ research and publication as well as recent faculty hiring decisions. We have added new courses and revised old ones; conducted travel seminars to India, Israel/Palestine, France, and Cuba; hosted and benefited from guest professors and guest lecturers; held workshops; organized forums; and enjoyed innumerable thought-provoking table conversations.
An especially noteworthy D2D offering took place in spring of 2015, when members of the Louisville Seminary community joined with people of various religious traditions from the city to explore the implications of growing U.S. religious diversity for Christian ministry. The series, called “Encountering the World’s Diversity of Religious Faith and Practice among Our American Neighbors,” brought distinguished scholars Diana Eck, Amy-Jill Levine, John Thatamanil, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson and Eboo Patel to our campus. About 90 persons participated in general lectures and discussions offered by these teachers on five Sundays throughout the semester. Seminary students taking the course also participated in much smaller Monday seminars.
Each guest professor left us thinking “No one could top that” — and no one ever did, for each was extraordinary in his or her own way. Participants were pressed and inspired to think more deeply about the impact of religious difference on our church and on our world.
Among the countless learnings from this series, two stand out: the profound impact of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which abolished an earlier quota-system, on the landscape of religious diversity (including diversity among Christians) in the U.S. and the important role that ecumenical engagement can and must play in lowering opposition by many Christians in the U.S. to interfaith collaboration and understanding. The latter discovery underscored the importance of D2D’s focus on both ecumenical and interfaith education.
“It is important that, as Christians, we learn to become comfortable with our own discomfort when interfacing with different faiths, so that we articulate what we believe while not automatically rushing to ‘win the argument.’ Showing a willingness to listen to, dialogue with, and even learn from other faiths is a powerful counter narrative to the destructive force that religious fanaticism can wield,” said Bowen, who was among those who took the D2D course. “I very much believe this effort is part of God’s reconciling work in the world.”
The leadership of D2D is changing. One of the seminary’s newest faculty members, Christine J. Hong, brings extensive relevant knowledge and experience to the program. Most recently she served as associate for interfaith relations in the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the PC(USA). In that position she worked to accompany congregations in interreligious learning. Hong, an ordained teaching elder in the PC(USA) with a Ph.D. from Claremont School of Theology, joined Louisville Seminary in July of 2015 as assistant professor of worship and evangelism.
Last spring (while still at the Presbyterian Center), Hong taught an innovative course called “Multifaith Perspectives on Global Displacement,” which introduced Louisville Seminary students to Presbyterian resources for interfaith education. The course took students into the community to interact with displaced persons and explore the role that religious identity and communities played in their lives. Students also considered ways that other types of displacement or dislocation affect non-refugees and reflected theologically on how the gospel helps people to make sense of such experiences.
“One of my biggest takeaways from Dr. Hong’s class on displacement is the need to check my tendency of unconsciously interpreting the experience of diaspora through my own lens instead of letting those who are displaced tell their own unique stories,” said Bowen. “As faith leaders, we must stand in solidarity alongside those who have been displaced and allow their voices to be the ones who speak and are heard. We should even be open to reexamining our own contexts and systems of interpretation that may have unwittingly contributed to a sense of displacement in our increasingly pluralistic communities.”
The D2D program overlaps with Louisville Seminary’s Black Church Studies (BCS) program, which is also implemented using various modalities and in multiple instructional contexts.
Louisville Seminary recently welcomed the Felicia LaBoy as its new associate dean for black church studies and advanced learning. LaBoy will help define the goals of the BCS program, which prepares women and men to provide leadership in African American churches by teaching students to honor the history and African American thought traditions through critical theological inquiry and exploration of new and emerging paths.
“We need in the corridors of our theological institutions places to have honest discussions about race and social justice that build on history and enable us to think deeply and act justly in the midst of color-blind structural racism,” said LaBoy. “Black Church Studies cannot only be for African Americans seeking to address theologically the world in which they find themselves. It must be a critical component for those seeking to lead the church to see the increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the United States not as something to be suppressed, but as God’s gift.”
On October 12 and 13, Louisville Seminary’s annual Black Church Studies Consultation will be presented in conjunction with the seminary’s portion of the 30th anniversary celebration of the Louisville Grawemeyer Awards. The event will feature past winners of the Grawemeyer Award in Religion (Willie James Jennings, Timothy Tyson and Barbara Savage) and will address the topic “Race, Faith and Community.”
As with D2D, the seminary offers BCS components in its curricula as well as a certificate in Black Church Studies. Further development of the BCS program is also a major component of the seminary’s “Covenant for the Future” strategic plan.
At Louisville Seminary, the D2D and BCS programs are seen as a means by which all — students and faculty alike — come to value relationships with communities of faith whose theological, social and religious perspectives are distinctly different from one another and from the communities with which each of us (as individuals) identifies. We believe that experiencing and learning about diversity are essential to the formation of our students for leadership in the church and ministry in a world of difference.
“We all live in the same world, however we are all different. We live and coexist with each other, and instead of helping each other, we can make it harder for each other,” said DeEtte Huey, a Louisville Seminary Master of Divinity student. “I think we live in fear that someone is different than us, so we hurt, shame, bully, and in extreme cases injure and kill others who are different; especially people of different faiths. When we sit down to understand what someone believes and why they believe that, we can then grow with each other and know that not all people of one faith are trying to overtake us, or that the majority of persons of a given faith are not identical to a more visible minority of that faith. When we seek to truly get to know those of other faith traditions as people, rather than a project, we can begin to bring about God’s Kingdom … and isn’t that what we are called to do?”
SUSAN GARRETT is dean and professor of New Testament.
CHRISTINE J. HONG is associate professor of worship and evangelism. They are both at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.