by Robin L. Flanigan
It was a hefty title for a hefty topic: “Sacred Texts and Human Contexts—A Symposium on the Role of the Sacred Texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in Uniting and Dividing Humanity.”
The three-day conference for academic scholars and interfaith leaders from around the world, hosted by Nazareth College in June, launched an unprecedented global discussion and solidified the College’s role as a trailblazing force in an increasingly critical subject.
“There has to be a buzz about an institution for it to play a major role on the world stage,” says Muhammad Shafiq, Ph.D., IIIT chair in interfaith studies, professor of religious studies, and executive director of the Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue. “That buzz has been created by this conference.”
The event was sponsored mainly by the Hickey Center, with support from the Center for International Education, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of Religious Studies at Nazareth, as well as the Center for Interfaith Affairs at the Peace Islands Institute and more than a dozen institutional partners. It drew 150 people, including a large contingent from the Middle East, who came to answer questions such as these: What elements of sacred texts and their interpretations nourished times when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived as good neighbors or provided a context for conflict resolution? How might those times suggest models for the future?
Thom Donlin-Smith, Ph.D., professor of religious studies and a Hickey Center advisor, particularly enjoyed a presentation by an Ashland University associate professor of religion that spoke directly to an interpretation of scripture passages all three Western religions share—that people of other religions are excluded from salvation.
“Such passages have fueled the worst in human attitudes and behaviors toward others over the centuries,” he explains. “The conversation in the room around the topic was lively, honest, and transcended the usual liberal pleasantries that can dominate interfaith occasions. It also expressed wonderfully the title of the conference, in that these are texts considered by their adherents to be, in some sense, the ‘word of God,’ and yet there is also an undeniable human element in their creation and ongoing interpretation, and sometimes terrible consequences for human society.”
Donlin-Smith, with others at Nazareth, plans to help some of the presenters develop their papers into chapters for an anthology for potential publication. He also hopes to broaden the current conversation to consider interfaith relations beyond the three major Western traditions.
Speakers included the Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, president of Auburn Theological Seminary in Manhattan and known globally for her work in pioneering religious leadership programs in all faiths; Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, former president of the Islamic Society of North America; Rabbi Dr. Rachel Mivka, director for the Center for Jewish, Christian and Islamic Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary; and Dr. Leonard Swidler, professor of Catholic thought and interreligious dialogue at Temple University and founder/president of the Dialogue Institute.
All participants “made a lifelong commitment to this symposium,” adds Shafiq. They vowed to attend the next one scheduled for June 2014 in Istanbul, Turkey, to introduce or expand interfaith studies for undergraduates and community youth, and to help develop new ways to cooperate in the future. The follow-up conference, largely sponsored by the Peace Islands Institute, will allow some of this year’s participants to continue discussions and offer the chance for more attendance from Europe and the Middle East.
“This really was a breakthrough for Nazareth College,” says George Eisen, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for International Education and associate vice president of academic affairs.
The campus could become a critical training ground for religious understanding, Eisen continues. He already has discussed crafting a proposal to the Saudi Arabian academic community for a program at Nazareth that would combine religious studies through the Hickey Center and intensive English courses through the Center for International Education’s American Language Institute.
For Christine Bochen, Ph.D., professor of religious studies, the symposium was “important and timely” and will inform the way she teaches students about sacred scriptures. “These are very much living texts,” she says. “They’re important to people in the ways in which they live their lives, as well as the ways in which they live their faith. We need to underscore that.”
Feedback has been both positive and meaningful, packed with appreciation for stimulating presentations that left listeners enlightened and inspired.
In a note to Dr. Shafiq, the Rev. Deborah Fae Swift from Rochester-based South Presbyterian Church said that while out of her element in terms of academic affiliation, she was deeply touched by discussions highlighting our unified presence in a diverse world. She left with a deeper connection to others working to improve the human condition.
“In many ways, what we as urban Presbyterians are going through in terms of self-definition, mission-setting, and discerning or reclaiming our call as children of the living God was reflected for me in the development of interfaith relationships,” she wrote. “Understanding as I do now the difference between inclusiveness and plurality, I can more accurately claim my place in the overall reign of God.”
David C. Carlson, professor of philosophy and religion at Franklin College in Indiana, commented that people outside academia often question—legitimately—the long-term benefits of intellectual gatherings, yet this one would shatter the ivory tower image with its new approach to solving the world’s most pressing problems in the name of religion.
According to Shafiq, who views this more deliberate emphasis on interfaith discussions as a type of second civil rights movement (“...and it should carry on until we reach the desired objective,” he says), Nazareth has an academic responsibility to spread the ideas shared during the inaugural symposium. He characterizes the financial pledges that have come from other institutions to support that effort as “eye-opening.”
“It speaks to how these universities look at the new leadership of Nazareth College,” he says. “We are a small college with a big task. We need to continue this dialogue. It is not going to end.”
Robin L. Flanigan is a freelance writer in Rochester, New York.
Read more about the Hickey Center at naz.edu/hickey-center.