Source: The New York Times
ELIZABETHTOWN, Pa. — As a high school student, James Spearman excelled in math and science, and for a hobby at home, he assembled insulation pipes into a model roller coaster looping from floor to ceiling and back. So it was not surprising that he chose engineering as his major when he enrolled here at Elizabethtown College.
Then Mr. Spearman ended up in his second choice for a first-semester seminar, a class titled “Big Theological Questions” that was taught by the college chaplain. Indeed, Mr. Spearman had already been asking himself questions since drifting from his Baptist upbringing toward atheism and trying out meditation.
The clincher came a few weeks into the term, when he heard a guest speaker on campus address the importance of interfaith relations in this age of deep divides not only among religions but also between believers and nonbelievers. Mr. Spearman put aside engineering and changed his major to interfaith leadership studies, a degree that he believes can help him become a political organizer.
Mr. Spearman’s decision reflected a combination of serendipity, personal curiosity and institutional direction, for Elizabethtown College had just begun offering a degree and core courses in interfaith studies. This unassuming dot on the intellectual landscape — 1,800 students on 200 acres in the Pennsylvania Dutch heartland — had become the nation’s beta tester in the emerging academic discipline.
While Elizabethtown is the only college to confer a bachelor’s degree in the field, 16 others around the nation have started minors, certificate programs or course sequences in interfaith or interreligious studies, according to Interfaith Youth Core, a national group promoting the trend. For undergraduates, the potential career paths range from social-justice nonprofit organizations to international business. In addition, many theological seminaries offer master’s degrees involving interfaith ministry or chaplaincy.
Eight Elizabethtown students signed up for the major in the first year, and 750 students have taken at least one related to on the subject. For Mr. Spearman, who had lived entirely within one faith tradition, classes have been augmented by excursions to a Passover Seder, a Catholic Mass on Easter and the Friday Prayer service at a mosque.
“I’d always been to one church, and all of a sudden, I’m experiencing all these religions,” said Mr. Spearman, 18, who is from Stafford, Va. “I’d never really understood the concept of religious pluralism. I didn’t seriously understand how you can appreciate other religions at the same time.”
For faculty and administrators, the program extends far beyond mutual tolerance and the appreciation of difference. “The stakes were definitely raised after 9/11,” said the Rev. Tracy W. Sadd, the college chaplain and lead instructor in the interfaith major. “What’s called for now is interfaith peacemaking. Every single one of us who is an American citizen has an obligation to do what we can in the place where we are. There’s no technique — political, military or otherwise — that’s going to fix this. We need leadership to help people with the deep work. And we all need to be part of it.”
Admirable as such sentiments are, the place of interfaith study in higher education remains contested. Many professors of religious studies bridle at the new field’s orientation toward real-world application rather than pure scholarship. There is also concern among some members of the American Academy of Religion that professors of interfaith studies hold a positive view of religion in society rather than approaching it with critical, skeptical detachment.
“These questions have long bedeviled our field,” said Gregory B. Johnson, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “What is our identity vis-à-vis the academy and our own faith traditions? Do we operate from within or without? So I find this kind of development worrisome.”
Partly because of Elizabethtown’s character, the college was well prepared to surmount such concerns. As a college rather than a research university, Elizabethtown operates under a motto of “education for service.” Founded by the Church of the Brethren, one of the so-called peace churches for its pacifist theology, Elizabethtown has long offered courses in what might be called practical idealism, including a major in peace studies.