May 26, 2008
— Martin E. Marty
"Women Blaze an Interfaith Trail: Two teachers become first Jewish female and first Muslim female to receive advanced degrees from Catholic Theological Union," and "She's First Jewish Graduate of Catholic Theological Union" were headlines in The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Sun-Times on May 15. These are local news items, but they represent trends that are growing in the religious cosmopolis. At least two Lutheran seminaries have Islamic Study offerings. The presence of Jews on Christian faculties is common. Time to yawn and head back to presidential campaign obsessions for excitement?
What is going on is a revolution in theological education and inter-religious relations on a scale that a religious-warring world ought to cherish. The trend or revolution has its detractors. Some Catholics are building small but well-financed colleges in which Catholic truth is set in amber or hermetically sealed: non-Catholics or Catholics of other kinds are excluded or unwelcome. That's one way of fighting "indifferentism", which The Catholic Encyclopedia defines as "the term given, in general, to all those theories, which, for one reason or another, deny that it is the duty of man to worship God by believing and practicing the one true religion."
Reactionaries also accuse participants in inter-faith dialogue of such indifferentism, and propose that the future of any faith should rely on "differentism," a word not yet in the dictionary, but descriptive enough. "Differentism" does not need seminary curricular support; it appears to be natural, part of the human condition. "I'm right; you are wrong." "We have an exclusive hold on truth; you are in outer darkness." Even more moderate types may acknowledge that indifferentism, the kind of relativistic apathy that is widespread in free cultures, can indeed pose threats to the integrity of the faith(s) and the health of the soul.
The more one observes theological schools which have creedal, confessional, clarified bases but which welcome students (and sometimes faculty) who do not share their confession, the more clear it is that something is emerging which we might observe "beyond indifferentism and beyond 'differentism.'" Sarah Bier, the Jewish graduate at CTU, had seen enough religious violence in Israel; Syafa Almirzanah, from Indonesia, watched in horror as Muslim-Christian conflicts increased in her nation. They wanted to study the phenomena which occur when religious "differentism" turns violent—and to help do something about bringing about change. CTU welcomed them. The Reverend Donald Senior, the respected biblical scholar who heads the thriving—yes, thriving!—Catholic seminary said, "I think of them as real pioneers. We need bridge builders like this or else we're going to be killing each other."
Dr. Almirzanah, who played a curricular double-header as she received a second doctoral diploma the same weekend in the Lutheran School of Theology's program, shared Dr. Bier's choice of term: At these schools the women both learned "respect" for the other faiths, not "tolerance", which is too weak a word. Catholic "truth" and Lutheran "truth" were not compromised, nor were "Jewish faith" and "Muslim faith" eroded or jettisoned. A new model of relations is taking shape and, yes, these graduates are pioneers in a time when shooting comes easier than studying. The news they make is quieter than that of noisy presidential campaigns. But it is news that deserves "respect."
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
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