Profile by Gustav Spohn, Director of Communications and Publications, Yale Divinity School
Over the past decade, Yale Divinity School has made significant progress toward enhancing the training of theological students for service in a multi-religious world. That growth has included establishing programs with an interfaith focus, the hiring of faculty with expertise in non-Christian religions, conferences and programs with an interfaith emphasis, and leveraging the resources of the wider Yale University community.
While YDS traces its Christian heritage back three centuries, there is a growing recognition on Sterling Divinity Quadrangle that interaction with other faith traditions—and people representing those faiths—is not an option but a necessity for theological training in a globalized 21st century.
The level of interfaith experimentation on campus is palpable and is sharpening the desire for an even more robust emphasis. The YDS curriculum, coupled with other Yale resources—including the Department of Religious Studies—provides a rich framework for exploration of many faith traditions, and every YDS student is required to take at least one course on a non-Christian religion or a course in the relationship between Christianity and other religions.
Some of the formal aspects of YDS’s commitment to interfaith perspectives include a rewording of the School’s mission statement in 2011 to include specific reference to “scholarly engagement with Christian traditions in a global, multifaith context”; adoption of an inclusivity statement in 2010 that notes YDS’s tradition of welcoming “people of various religious and nonreligious traditions, drawing wide the circle to include myriad perspectives”; and the requirement, adopted in 2000-01, that every M.Div. student study non-Christian religions. Taken together, these elements provide a firm foundation for taking interfaith training to new levels at the Divinity School.
Multifaith engagement at YDS goes well beyond official commitments and guidelines, however, touching the day-to-day fabric of life at the Divinity School, where Christian students may sit side-by-side with a Jewish student or a Muslim student during the course of a lecture or special event, at chapel, or over lunch.
At the heart of the School’s expanding interfaith activities, and a source of inspiration for students interested in learning about non-Christian faiths, are teachers who are deeply engaged in exploration of other religions.
In the last decade alone, several new faculty with expertise in non-Christian religions and with strong ties to other University departments joined YDS—including John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker, authorities in Asian religions and ecology, who also hold appointments in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; Chloë Starr, who has expertise, among other things, in Chinese religions and globalization and who has a joint appointment in East Asian Languages and Literature; and Sallama Shaker, who teaches Islamic studies.
These faculty join others engaged in interfaith work who have a long-standing presence at Yale Divinity School: Miroslav Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology, founding director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, and author of Allah: A Christian Response; and Lamin Sanneh, the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity and the author of such volumes as Piety and Power: Muslims and Christians in West Africa. Sanneh was one of the principal organizers behind the “Accra Charter of Religious Freedom and Citizenship,” which affirms that “faith gives its noblest expression in settings where all are free to follow their religious convictions.” He has served on the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims.
Curricular offerings in non-Christian religions during 2012-13 alone include, among others, “African Religion: Theological Inquiry,” “Judaism in the Time of Jesus,” “Christian-Muslim Dialogue and Understanding History and Theology,” and “Faith and Globalization.” YDS students are also encouraged to take full advantage of the wealth of resources in Yale’s Department of Religious Studies, which offers significant instruction in non-Christian religions.
Supplementing the curricular offerings are events that highlight interfaith and ecumenical issues, both on and off campus. Some of the campus events in the past several years include a two-week summer institute for young people of various faiths entitled “Paradigms and Practice: Approaching Islam-West Relations”; a talk by Interfaith Youth Core President Eboo Patel on the increase in anti-Muslim sentiments in the U.S. since 9/11 and opportunities to encourage greater interfaith understanding; and comments by Walter Cardinal Kasper, the Vatican’s top official for ecumenical relations, who argued that ecumenical dialogue is not an option but a moral obligation for all Christians.
Off campus, delegations of YDS students, faculty, and staff regularly attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Students at the 2009 Parliament in Melbourne, Australia were enrolled in the YDS course “Walking Gently on Common Ground: An Introduction to Inter-religious Engagement.” In June 2010 representatives from YDS and other Yale entities joined with people from over 45 countries at a conference in Alexandria, Egypt on the theme “Initiatives in Education, Science and Culture: Toward Enhanced U.S.-Muslim Countries Collaboration.”
Yale Divinity School recently expanded its formal student exchange program to include oversees institutions based not only in predominantly Christian Europe but in Asia as well. The goal is to give YDS students an opportunity to be immersed for a semester in the culture of countries where the dominant religion is not Christianity.
During his tenure from 2002-12, former Dean Harold Attridge worked diligently to collaborate closely with the wider University, leveraging additional interfaith dimensions at YDS. Attridge served as co-chair of a university-wide search committee that in 2007 brought a new chaplain to Yale, Sharon Kugler, well known for her groundbreaking interfaith work at Johns Hopkins University. In announcing her appointment, Yale President Richard Levin hailed Kugler’s “success in building programs that support numerous faiths, by her work to facilitate interfaith dialogue.” Kugler is also a lecturer in interfaith dialogue at YDS.
One interfaith initiative that has blossomed in the last decade is the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, which encompasses both a “Reconciliation Program” aimed at improved Christian-Muslim relations and a “Faith & Globalization” component. The Faith & Globalization initiative took hold in the 2008-09 academic year, featuring a course co-taught by Miroslav Volf and, for its first three years, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The course aims at demonstrating the positive results that people of diverse faiths, working together, can accomplish. Another Center for Faith and Culture initiative was an eight-day conference in July 2008 that drew scores of prominent Muslim and Christian leaders from around the world and ended with a unanimously accepted declaration for mutual respect, understanding and further interfaith discussions.
Yale Divinity School should be “unashamedly Christian, but not narrowly Christian.” That formulation of the school’s theological posture fairly reverberated on Sterling Divinity Quadrangle as YDS’s new dean, Gregory Sterling, introduced himself to the YDS community in August 2012, when he succeeded Attridge at the helm.
The new dean’s vision for 21st century theological education left little doubt of his intention to continue, and build upon, Yale Divinity School’s historic commitment to interfaith and ecumenical engagement.
“The increasing representation of practitioners of other faiths and stories about them means that it is no longer possible to think of the Christian faith in a hermetically sealed environment,” Sterling said. “We must now think of Christianity in light of other faiths. I plan to make YDS a place where we think of Christianity in a global context . . .. We will operate from a Christian perspective, but remain open to what we can learn from other faiths.”
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Delfin Bautista ’10 M.Div.
"My studies at YDS have helped me shape and embrace a multi-vocalic identity that is rooted in Catholic principles and in my Latino heritage yet open to insights provided by other faith traditions and cultures."
Kaji Spellman ‘06 M.Div.
"My time at YDS was like a walk through the enchanted forest. At every corner, there was something new, something amazing to discover as I learned to look at the world through the eyes of a theologian. Nothing was as I expected, and nothing stayed the same. In this enchanted forest, learning was dynamic, challenging, soul-shaking, and blessed."
Agnes Olusese ‘10 M.Div.
“Through both the Master of Divinity and the Certificate in Security Studies programs I have been able to examine causes of conflict—religious and political—and ways different factions constituting the International community have been trying to resolve conflict.”
Rachel Watson '10 M.A.R.
“While at YDS, I have developed a taste for the study of the Bible as literature, and not as the kind of literature that makes Book-of-the-Month clubs, but as the kind of art that wrestles with the human condition in the most surprising, gritty, and stubbornly hopeful ways.”
Jesse Zink '12 M.Div.
“Divinity school, it turns out, is an excellent place to land after time as a missionary, and Yale Divinity School perhaps best of all. At Yale, I found a small group of folks who were also returning from overseas experience. In the Annand program, I found spiritual direction and support that helped me wrestle with what direction(s) I was headed in and the vocation to which God was calling me. In corporate worship—Berkeley morning prayer at the crack of dawn (or close enough), ecumenical worship in Marquand, or sung vespers with the richly resonant voices of my Lutheran colleagues in Nouwen chapel—I brought my anxieties and hopes before God.”
Ashley Hurst '12 M.Div.
“YDS became the laboratory for our calls. The place where we could mix and mingle new ideas, theologies, and perspectives together and see what happened. YDS was both a place of distillation—getting to the essence of faith, hope and love—and a place of expansion, creating a space to encounter different faith traditions, practices and experiences.”
Elyssa Kanet ’14 M.A.R.
“I came to the Divinity school at Yale because of my interest in pursuing future graduate study in religion as well as my interest in Religion and Ecology—a little-known but developing field! As an observant Jew the choice to attend divinity school may seem at the very least surprising or, at the most, heretical! However, my study of religion is not merely an academic endeavor; it is also something close to my heart and which guides my life. Many academic programs are known to promote an intellectual and detached environment for the study of religion. And while I acknowledge the clear ideological differences between myself and others at this school, I also acknowledge that a program which is both a community of faith and a community of scholars is a rare and beautiful thing. I feel privileged to be a part of it.”
The DivInnovations series represents an exciting new collaboration that State of Formation and the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue are embarking upon in an effort to capture dynamic research, initiatives, partnerships, and projects (particularly interfaith in nature) at seminaries, divinity schools, and graduate theological settings in general across the nation. We will be posting profiles of institutions both on the State of Formation blog through this account and in each issue of the Journal. We invite you to be in touch about nominating your institution for a profile by emailing our JIRD liaison and profile developer, Sophia Khan.