Sunday, June 21, 2009

Interreligious Chaplaincy: Just the Beginning

Seldom a day goes by that I'm not reminded of the religious diversity in the United States and the need for professionals -- religious and otherwise -- prepared to meet the every day challenges of religious difference. The front page of the L.A. Times provided just the latest example of this for me, in last Friday's edition.

In a story entitled "Zen in Their Bedside Manner," the Times reported on a Buddhist chaplaincy program at a Jewish hospital in New York. The program provides clinical education specifically for Buddhist chaplains (known by the anachronistic title "Clinical Pastoral Education") who meet with patients and their families at their most dire times of need. As with any hospital, these chaplains must be prepared to counsel and/or pray with whomever is on their floor -- Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and the irreligious alike. It is a wonderful article, and I hope you will take the time to read it.

At Claremont, our faculty is encountering similar effects of religious diversity, in all areas of theological reflection and practice, but specifically in the field of Spiritual Care and Counseling. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, a Muslim woman graduated this spring from our M.A. program, in which she was studying spiritual care and end-of-life issues for American Muslims. She now is preparing for the chaplaincy program at UCLA hospital. We also have a doctoral student (from a Christian Pentecostal background) who is researching how to best provide spiritual care specifically in inter-religious hospital contexts, in light of his own Christian faith commitments.

For several decades, scholars of religion have sought ways to cross the canyons between the major religious traditions. Claremont's own John Cobb is a living pioneer in this effort, and Roland Faber, professor of process theology, is continuing in this tradition with his avante-garde work on transreligious discourse. But a new day is dawning. Religious discourse exists alongside the need for interreligious eduction and cooperation, for people of the world's religions -- and the increasingly hybrid admixtures of different traditions, new religious movements, and secular wisdom -- to work together on our common problems and conditions. Counseling the sick and traumatized in the natural diversity of a hospital is only one example of this need.

The diversity of our students and the religious contexts they serve are stretching the interests and competencies of our faculty -- and they are happily up to the challenge! In coming years, as Claremont continues to recruit students from across the religious spectrum, we will also seek faculty beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition to stretch our students in new directions. In this way, our students -- Methodist and Muslim alike -- will be better prepared to serve their own community and work together in a religiously diverse world.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Graduating into the Future

Graduation is always an exciting time in Claremont, and this year’s ceremony was no exception. There are always up-lifting stories that emerge at this time of year – such as the bus load of parishioners from Central City Community Church on skid row who came to see their pastor graduate. But this year’s most remarkable story (at least in my mind) was one that began as a private conversation and culminated in a very public conclusion.

This year’s commencement included what we believe is the school’s first Muslim graduate. Out of honor and respect for her achievement, we invited Imam Jihad Turk, religious director of the Islamic Center of Southern California, to give the opening prayer for the event. (This is a photo of me with Imam Turk and Dean Susan Nelson.)

Before the ceremony, as we lined up to process into the ceremony, he expressed his gratitude for being invited to Claremont and asked if it would be appropriate for him to chant the prayer in Arabic before reading it in English. This is the way it is done in his tradition, he explained, but did not want to risk offending the graduates or their families with an unfamiliar practice.

As Claremont continues its transformation into a multi-religious university, the opportunity to experience and be impacted by those beyond the Christian tradition will be increasingly important. So I did not hesitate to welcome his request.

When the procession concluded, and the graduates settled into their seats, Imam Turk rose in front of Kresge Chapel and chanted the first surah (chapter) of the Qur'an. His intonations soared through the crisp morning air, and a peaceful silence fell on the crowd.

In English, the surah reads, in part:
Guide us along the straight path, the path of those upon whom You have bestowed Your blessings, not the path of those upon whom is anger, not the path of those who have gone astray.
There is little doubt in my mind that our graduates – be they Christian clergy or secular scholars – have much to learn from the wisdom of great traditions beyond the Judeo-Christian .

Experiences such as these reiterate the vibrancy and imminent imperative of Claremont’s mission to be a place for people of diverse beliefs and background to study together. We have much to learn from each other, and Claremont is posed to help lead the way.