Inter-Religious Studies: A Field of Its Own

It was a deeply moving conversation, but felt hardly out of the ordinary to have an Imam, a rabbi and even a Muslim scholar of Holocaust Studies on a panel moderated by a pastor. They seemed at home together -- as did the many who gathered to watch and listen.
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Surreal in its normalcy, I found myself this week enjoying a fabulous panel at the Jewish Theological Seminary on the "Future of Judaism and Islam on American Campuses." It was a deeply moving conversation, but felt hardly out of the ordinary to have an Imam, a rabbi, and even a Muslim scholar of Holocaust Studies on a panel moderated by a pastor. They seemed at home together -- as did the many who gathered to watch and listen.

Though the speakers passionately relayed stories from their own lives about Jewish and Muslim life on university campuses, they also drew forth a growing body of scholarly work and research related to each community. These thought-leaders, Imam Abdullah Antepli, Rabbi Gail Swedroe, Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, and Pastor Paul Raushenbush, were taking part in a larger academic conversation about the ways in which religious traditions connect, conflict, and collaborate. Their dialogue, I would submit, is part of the growing field of "Inter-Religious Studies" -- one that is now being articulated at conferences and within institutions of higher learning across the country.

Last Fall, my friend and mentor Eboo Patel persuasively presented the case that we are moving "Toward a Field of Interfaith Studies." (A point of continued discussion is whether to name the field Inter-Religious or Interfaith Studies, as some view one as a subset of the other and vice versa.) Patel explained,

As an academic field, interfaith studies would examine the multiple dimensions of how individuals and groups who orient around religion differently interact with one another, along with the implications of this interactions for communities, civil society, and global politics.

While I resonate with his definition and agree that this field is growing rapidly, I think that Patel understates just how much this field has already come into its own. In good measure, he also understates his own contributions to the field.

Five years ago, when I, Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, and a number of colleagues, including Patel, collaborated to launch the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue as a forum for scholarship on inter-religious interactions, a new field of study seemed an eternity away. With only a couple of other related publications (notably the longstanding Journal of Ecumenical Studies) and important conversations about what inter-religious scholarship should consist of still unfolding in broad strokes, the idea of Inter-Religious Studies as a field was a vision shared by many, but an unlikely reality for any.

Since then, institutional changes and the broader impact of the interfaith movement have helped the field of Inter-Religious Studies gain widespread recognition and, I would argue, take shape as a veritable field of study. Here are but a few of the many events that have helped shape this blossoming academic field. Many are more recent, but a notable number date back decades and suggest that Inter-Religious Studies is a field with roots, as well as countless green shoots.

  • The MacDonald Center at Hartford Seminary came forth from a dedication to Muslim-Christian understanding dating back to 1893. (Many might likewise suggest that 1893 was a watershed year more broadly, with the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago.) The MacDonald Center can be seen as a precursor to others that have flourished, such as the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and other interreligious centers that have been created at academic institutions.
  • Since the 1960's the Journal of Ecumenical Studies has provided a peer-reviewed journal "in the field of interreligious dialogue" and may be seen as an early entrant in formal academic discourse related to Inter-Religious Studies.
  • From its start in 1991, The Pluralism Project at Harvard University has pioneered the study of inter-religious interactions and communicated its many findings and materials, such as its Case Study Method, database, and reports about religious communities across the United States.
  • In 2006, Georgetown University established the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs to deepen the discourse on religious communities and expressions as they relate to geopolitics and society.
  • The Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of 2007 was a point of inflection in the study of American religion and use of social science research to discern how different traditions are perceived and interract. Other key works in this genre include Diana Eck's New Religious America and Robert Putnam and David Campbell's American Grace. The Public Religion Research Institute and the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies have also contributed profoundly to the use of statistics in Inter-Religious Studies.
  • In February 2009, the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue (just this week renamed the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies) released its first peer-reviewed issue. Building on its significant online presence and readership, it created a second online forum known as State of Formation to support emerging religious and ethical leaders as they delve into Inter-Religious Studies before becoming leaders within their respective communities.
  • In 2009, Dr. Catherine Cornille and a number of her colleagues released what may be seen as the first book series dedicated to Interreligious Dialogue (or Inter-Religious Studies).
  • In 2011, Claremont Lincoln University became the first "Multi-Faith School of Theology" and education, to teach Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and now Jain leaders in an intentionally pluralistic setting.
  • NYU unveiled its "Of Many Institute" in January 2012. It has since held lecture series and other public fora and is said to be in the process of planning broader courses of study for its students. With the highly regarded Interfaith Youth Core, it recently convened a gathering for dozens of academic administrators to introduce them to the emerging field of Inter-Religious Studies and suggest ways that administrators can help it take root at their respective institutions.
  • In the Fall of 2013, the new section on Interreligious and Interfaith Studies convened a number of key conversations at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and through its very presence conferred academic recognition to Inter-Religious Studies as a field of its own.
  • Just this winter, Andover Newton and Hebrew College, which had served as convener for many inter-religious conversations through their joint Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE) brought on staff a new Muslim scholar to ensure a greater plurality of learning for students and collaborative interfaith opportunities among faculty. This portends future growth even within institutions long dedicated to multi-faith work, such as Auburn Seminary, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Union Theological Seminary (among many others).
  • A forthcoming 25-volume book series that many scholars of Inter-Religious Studies are collaborating to create is poised to help define the contours of the field for years to come. The series will join a growing number of books in the field.

Even these groundbreaking changes are dwarfed by the growth likely for the future. Continued growth and outreach by the countless scholars, advocates, and interfaith leaders promoting inter-religious education will continue to help the field spread. Efforts by Patel and the Interfaith Youth Core to bring more academic administrators and university professors into the conversation will be incredibly helpful in broadening the scope of the field and cultivating long-term support for it within academe.

With more funders than ever, new publications, new professorships, and recognition by the largest academic body pertaining to the study of religion, Inter-Religious Studies has truly become its own field. It has gained significant momentum in recent years and appears poised to continue its expansion.

While it is unclear that a field of study can, in and of itself, change the dynamics at play between religious communities, it can at the very least help us better understand them and serve as a beacon for the many who now seek to improve them.

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