By Jerry D. Campbell
President, Claremont School of Theology
Almost a decade now after the fateful events of Sept. 11, 2001, the story is a familiar one: a young man, inspired by 9/11, seeking direction and meaning in life, enlists in the United States Armed Forces. Some join up out of patriotism, some out of anger, and some out of a sense of adventure.
Asif Balbale did it because he is Muslim, and he wanted to prove that all Muslims aren’t terrorists.
Lt. Balbale is only the fifth Muslim chaplain to serve in the U.S. Navy, and he recently graduated with a masters degree from Claremont School of Theology, where I am president. By the time of our commencement, he was already stationed at Camp Pendleton, so I wasn’t able personally to hand him his diploma or the award he received as the top graduate in the field of spiritual care and counseling.
Some might say that Asif – a Kuwaiti-born American Muslim of Indian descent – is the future of America, but he is very much a part of this nation’s present. For decades, global migration and communication have brought adherents of the world’s great religions to the United States, and many leaders within those traditions are now developing distinctly American expressions of their religions that reflect our shared values of democracy, equality, and freedom of expression.
The days of religious segregation in the United States are quickly fading. Nearly gone is the era when one could go a day without seeing a woman in hijab walking down the street, or glimpsing a small Buddhist shrine in the kitchen of a local restaurant. And as our children go to school together, play together, and start families together and become members of each others’ families, the hard boundaries of religious identities begin to diminish.
(Compare the religious beliefs of Jews, Christians and Muslims are Patheos.com)
The old nostalgic ways of religious life that perpetuate competitive denominationalism no longer meet the realities of our new religiously plural America. And neither does the old segregated model of theological education that will produce the next generation of religious leaders and scholars.
My own institution, a United Methodist-related theological school in Southern California, is taking the lead in light of these new realities. Claremont School of Theology announced today a new interreligious collaboration with the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and the Islamic Center of Southern California, both located in Los Angeles. While each group will continue to teach its own tradition, together, we are working toward the establishment of an interreligious university, where students, faculty and practitioners from these and other traditions will have the opportunity to experience a multi-religious curriculum designed to teach understanding, cooperation, and collaboration among religions.
The idea is simple: Students from different religions will learn together today so they can lead together tomorrow.
The Academy for Jewish Religion, California, is an institution in which future rabbis, cantors, and chaplains from across the Jewish tradition come to study and prepare for leadership together. They are learning from and among each other, across the religious boundaries of their own tradition.
Likewise, the Islamic Center of Southern California is a religious and cultural hub in Los Angeles for Muslims from many different nations and traditions. Sunnis and Shiites pray side by side (and in some services, men and women do too). The center has as its mission the development of a Muslim identity that is distinctly American, reflecting the best of this nation’s history and freedoms.
We call our joint effort “The University Project,” and it is getting underway in coming months. This fall, Christians and Jews will be able to take classes together, and the first Muslim professor of the University Project will begin teaching in the area of interreligious education and leadership. Students from any tradition, multiple traditions, and no tradition at all are also welcome in fields both scholastic and practical, such as spiritual counseling for chaplaincy, interreligious education, and urban ministries.
Take Asif, for example. He wanted desperately to be a chaplain in the U.S. Navy, which requires a degree from an accredited theological school. Since there are no accredited Islamic theological schools in Southern California – or anywhere in North America – he came to Claremont to study spiritual care and counseling in preparation for his career as a Navy chaplain.
Asif was not our first Muslim student, and I am happy to say he will not be our last. But necessity is the mother of invention and, by the grace of God, this new educational alliance in Southern California will result in a unique university to better prepare religious leaders, across lines of difference, for service in a multi-religious nation.
Rev. Jerry D. Campbell, Ph.D., is an ordained Elder in The United Methodist Church and president of Claremont School of Theology in Southern California. He welcomes your questions and comments at [email protected]
Editor’s Note: The University Senate of The United Methodist Church announced June 29 that it has lifted its sanctions from Claremont School of Theology, unfreezing church funding to the School and reinstating its full affiliation with The United Methodist Church. The Senate had placed the school on “public warning” last Jan. 21 because it had failed “to consult fully” with church authorities on a new mission statement that included plans for a multifaith University Project. It also cited the School for not submitting recent financial audits.