Interfaith Dialogue and Higher Education

by S. Alan Ray

In the fall of 2009, I participated in the sixth conference of Interfaith Youth Core, an organization and social movement devoted to building “mutual respect and pluralism among young people from different religious traditions by empowering them to work together to serve others” (IFYC 2010). On that occasion, Dr.Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core, raised a significant question that has since set me thinking: Given how other social movements have deeply affected curricula, student programming, and institutional priorities, what is the highest aspiration we can set for colleges and universities around interfaith cooperation? As I see it, there are at least two main ways to understand and respond to this excellent question.

Model one: Interfaith cooperation as participation in a zero-sum game

The question can be understood to assume that interfaith cooperation is a social movement, like the racial equality–based civil rights movements in the United States in the 1960s and the feminist, gay rights, and disability rights movements of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. As interfaith cooperation comes on the academic scene in the twenty-first century, it must compete with institutional norms and practices established by these predecessor social movements. In an environment where other social movements have significantly affected university curricula, programming, and priorities, the question goes, what is the highest aspiration for proponents of interfaith cooperation? Here, “highest aspiration” means something like “maximum effect.”

In the highly occupied social terrain of our day, this model presents a kind of zero-sum game, where interfaith cooperation achieves its impact by displacing the effects of other social movements. Those effects are highly secular but, say some, they conduce to the common good in a way faith-based effects do not. Secular practices admit of no special pleading by religious adherents, who are perceived to be seeking to smuggle in private or parochial agendas that are unrelated to the public good. Thus, on this model, if one creates a place for interfaith cooperation in a college or university, one does so against competing agendas and philosophies and by displacing them to some extent. Those (secular) competitors are styled as rational, while faith of any kind is positioned as irrational; or, as objectively valued discourses versus subjectively espoused faith statements; or, as truth claims subject to public warrants and criteria of verification versus truth claims subject to verification by so-called “religious feelings,” or dogmas and doctrines based on supposed divine revelations.

In this zero-sum strategic vision of interfaith dialogue on campuses, if different religious faiths cooperate, it is in part due to a common enemy or enemies—rationalism, reductionist explanations of religion, perhaps materialism. At the level of tactics, public display of differences between faiths may be suppressed for strategic reasons or emphasized, depending on whether it is helpful or hurtful to signal the specificity of one’s religious tradition. Also within this model are overtly faith-based colleges or universities, enclaves of quite particular religious missions, that go about their work in a wholly different episteme or master frame than that utilized by nonreligious colleges and universities. Assuming, however, that we are talking about the penetration of interfaith activities onto a so-called secular campus, what is the most one may hope for? In such a situation, the highest aspiration is to acquire strategic space within the curriculum, within student organizations and other platforms, and within the administration in order to advance the cause of interfaith dialogue.

We have seen this model of religious “strangers” in a secular “strange land” played out time and again in the post-Enlightenment history of liberal education, but perhaps never with the intensity and polarization of the last forty years. Departments of religious studies, if they exist and their content is not dispersed to other departments in the humanities and social sciences, are problematic creatures, viewed with suspicion if not derision by their more “scientific” peers. Academic departments of theology would be a contradiction in terms. Support for student cocurriculum and activities, and administrators charged with overseeing student life, are viewed skeptically if their content or mission includes faith-based organizations.

Why is this so? The civil rights movement of Dr. King, Rabbi Heschel, Elmhurst College’s own alumni Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, and countless others was informed and drew strength from the words of the Christian and Hebrew scriptures. The work of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who inspired millions through a life of “contemplation in a world of action,” vividly embodied Catholic social justice teaching and the authoritative statements of Vatican Council II.

Yet through ethnic studies, women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies, intercultural studies, indigenous persons studies, critical race theory—all marvelous additions to American university life, in my view—the social movements of the last forty years have left their mark on the academy in a profoundly secular way. It is as though the rejection of religious belief as a relevant frame for truth-seeking is the price of admission to the academy and of acceptance as an interdisciplinary exploration or a free-standing department. Thus is inter-faith cooperation mooted as a legitimate resource for the core work of academic life.

An example of this model in action is my own graduate school alma mater, Harvard University. In 2006, Harvard flirted with the idea of requiring its undergraduates to take a course in a category called Faith and Reason. The Preliminary Report of the Task Force on General Education (2006) contained the recommendation, but it was ultimately not adopted. I view this as unfortunate, since the major faith traditions are conspicuously playing an increasingly pivotal role in world and domestic affairs. Rarely if ever has faith been less “private” and more a legitimate part of the public discourse—even, indeed especially, on university campuses. Yet, interfaith cooperation remains marginal to the intellectual enterprise of this most famous of research universities, even as the university itself acknowledges religion’s importance to the lives of the vast majority of Harvard’s students. As the Report of the Task Force on General Education states, “Religion has historically been, and continues to be, a force shaping identity and behavior throughout the world. Harvard is a secular institution, but religion is an important part of our students’ lives” (2007, 11). Harvard’s Pluralism Project, under the extraordinary leadership of Professor Diana Eck, has long served as an example of vibrant interreligious dialogue and learning. However, because the university as a “secular institution” functions within the model of intereligious dialogue as a zero-sum game, speech and conduct denominated as religious will inevitably yield pride of place (and funds and prestige) to ostensively nonreligious discourse and practices, thus refracting religious studies among the disciplines and marginalizing or inadequately integrating statements by religious adherents about themselves or the world.

To appreciate the frustrating effects that cabining off discussion of religious issues qua religious can have, one need only read a recent story in the Harvard Crimson, the university’s award-winning student newspaper, entitled, “Religious Discussion Desired”:

“Challenges to Faith at Harvard,” a panel discussion moderated by the Harvard Political Union last night, examined the social and intellectual pressures that influence undergraduates’ religious life.

The panelists and audience were in agreement that more religious discourse should occur on campus in order to incorporate the diversity of religious viewpoints. Many of the panelists said that Harvard’s climate helped to ground their religious beliefs.”

“At Harvard, I am forced to think about what I believe, and to explain why I believe X, Y, or Z,” said Aneesh V. Kulkarni ’10, a member of Dharma, Harvard’s Hindu organization . . .

However, some panelists said that Harvard’s attitude towards religion is at times problematic. “At Harvard, we are told to think critically about every aspect of our lives, except for faith and religion,” said Stephanie M. Cole ’11, a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship . . .

The panelists in turn said that pluralism is included in each religious tradition.

“You don’t have to agree to a certain political opinion in order to be a member of the Catholic Student Association,” said Katherine J. Calle ’10. “The expression two Jews, four opinions is a good one, I think,” said Jason W. Schnier ’11, a member of Hillel.(Dibella 2009)

The “challenges to faith” described above are not limited to Harvard, but arise on most campuses where interfaith dialogue is seen as a competitor to nonreligious discourse and practices. Is there a way to bring interfaith cooperation more into the arena of academic discussion, without doing violence to the precepts of truth-seeking and open inquiry so valued in a secular liberal learning environment?

To move toward an answer, I think one must leave the first model, sketched above, which conceives of the academy as strategically organized zones of competing world views and social practices. Rather, on a second model, Eboo Patel’s question—to what can interfaith cooperation aspire in the academy?—can mean that interfaith cooperation as a social movement inherits a campus cultural environment that has been shaped by decades of specific social movements and their philosophies (of equal rights, due process, tolerance, and other institutional values derived from the Enlightenment). Within this matrix we ask, what is the highest aspiration that proponents of interfaith cooperation can hold and seek to advance?

Model Two: Interfaith cooperation as critical reappropriation of tradition.

This second model eschews stereotypes of the secular and religious, and it recognizes that all faiths, including secularism, are living realities conditioned by multiple cultural currents—currents that affect religious, non-religious, and even antireligious philosophies alike. The abstractions of theologies and of Enlightenment-based philosophies of the person and world are replaced by living individuals and concrete communities, like the Harvard students quoted above, whose members experience a complex world in similar ways. Strategic rationality and gamesmanship are replaced by communicative rationality and dialogue, and by the identification of common problems and threats in the environment. Religious traditions and nonreligious traditions are mined for rhetorical and performative resources—ways to say and do things—that stimulate mutual allegiances across religious boundaries and religious-nonreligious boundaries. Public displays of differences are not suppressed for strategic ends, but rather are subordinated to achieving common objectives through collective action. This is followed by reflection back within one’s tradition (secular or religious) on the meaning of this collective action for adherents of the tradition and, indeed, for the claims of the tradition itself. The critical reappropriation of tradition through reflection on collective action becomes a legitimate academic move, in fact a way of life and self-formation for students as well as for administrators and faculty.

There are four moments in this dialectical model. The first is marked by the creation of robust intrafaith occasions for learning about and interpreting one’s own religious tradition—liturgical, educational, communal, and individual—and inviting alienated or disaffected nominal members to join the conversation. I call this moment charging the batteries. The second moment in the dialectic involves naming issues of concern to the college or university community that are shared among faiths and persons and groups of no faith tradition, and then offering religiously based interpretations of these issues, listening to interpretations offered by those who reject religion or a particular tradition, and doing so on and off campus—indeed potentially around the world. Such issues include, for example, environmental and economic justice, poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia as well as issues related to getting a meaningful job and starting life as a young adult. This second moment, which focuses on engaging in issues-based discussions with all college stakeholders and stakeholders worldwide, can be called issues-based dialogue. Working together to address the issues with all stakeholders and engaging in critically informed social reform—in short, taking collective action—is the third moment. The fourth moment is marked by each stakeholder’s critical exploration of the meaning of this collective action either for one’s own religious tradition and its theologies of self and world, or for one’s own secular tradition and its philosophies of rights and ethical systems. The objective is to educate and to open oneself to the possibility of deep change and thus incipiently to reform those theologies and philosophies themselves. In this final moment, one engages in dialogue aimed at personal change through reflection on collective action—or, in a phrase, self-formation.

Note the model presented above does not strive for a consensus of philosophies or theologies. It begins in the specificity of traditions and returns there, but invites tradition transformation through issues-based dialogue, working together on common problems, and reflection on shared experiences. In short, I believe that our highest aspiration for interfaith cooperation on campus is to create tradition-based opportunities for radical change of self and world, which include the possible transformation of one’s own tradition.

Interfaith dialogue at Elmhurst College

I would like to sketch what my campus has been doing recently to try to achieve that aspiration. But first, a word of framing. Elmhurst College is an affiliate of the United Church of Christ (UCC). In 2008–9, the year I began my presidency, we initiated and completed a broad-based strategic planning process. We named for the first time five core values: intellectual excellence; community; social responsibility; stewardship; and faith, meaning, and values. With regard to the last of these—faith, meaning, and values—we state that “we value the development of the human spirit in its many forms and the exploration of life’s ultimate questions through dialogue and service. We value religious freedom and its expressions on campus. Grounded in our own commitments and traditions as well as those of the UCC, we cherish values that create lives of intellectual excellence, strong community, social responsibility, and committed stewardship” (Elmhurst 2010).

Regarding the first moment of the aspiration to interfaith cooperation, “charging the batteries,” I note that Elmhurst students voluntarily engage in religious services appropriate to their needs and responsive to their religious calendars. These services are coordinated by the college chaplain and numerous cochaplains representing the major faith traditions. For example, recent work has gone into enhancing liturgical and social opportunities for Catholics, who make up 40 percent of the student body. At this UCC-affiliated college we now have monthly Masses, a start-of-the-year Mass, and inclusion of Catholic priests and lay leaders in ceremonial roles at college events such as graduation and baccalaureate. Last year, we reviewed the adequacy of prayer spaces on campus for our Muslim students. We are currently looking for a Buddhist cochaplain. To “charge the batteries” and educate the community, we host annual public lectures focused on major religious traditions: the Al-Ghazali (Muslim), Bernardin (Catholic), Heschel (Jewish), Niebuhr (Protestant) Lectures and an Evangelical Lecture. We honor religious figures whose lives and work align with our mission, such as our award in September 2009 of our highest honor, the Niebuhr Medal, to Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, founder of Latin American liberation theology. And for those students who wish to explore questions of ultimate meaning through intentionally nonreligious frames of thought, we also support a strong and visible secular student association.

As to the second moment of interfaith cooperation, issues-based dialogue, we offer a number of forums for naming and exploring issues of concern to the educational community. Because “where” is often crucial to successful discussions, we moved the office of the chaplain to its own house on campus in order to increase its visibility and to facilitate the creation of sacred space and interfaith conversations. We support a spiritual life council, an interfaith group consisting of and led by students and our chaplain that engages in dialogue on traditional religious questions and issues of social justice. We also administer the Niebuhr Center. Named for our two alumni and funded in part by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, the Niebuhr Center offers students from all faiths the opportunity to explore careers of service, whether as ordained religious leaders or as laypersons. Through the Niebuhr Center and outside it, we offer numerous study abroad opportunities through which students come face to face with world issues and alternate points of view, and we host an increasing number of students from outside the United States who eagerly engage in issues-based dialogue with their American counterparts.

For the past two years, the Niebuhr Center has sponsored events entitled “Sacred Conversations on Race.” Held on campus and at Bethel Green Church, a largely African American congregation in Chicago’s west side, these events bring together members of the Elmhurst College community, church members, and national leaders on race relations to discuss this important topic from Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim perspectives. In the fall of 2010, we will launch the Niebuhr Forum on Religion in Public Life, which will bring prominent writers on religion together with panels of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scholars and movement leaders to discuss the contemporary salience of Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought. In addition, a large and growing number of academic courses—such as our campuswide first-year seminars—and cocurricular student groups focused on world peace, hunger, disease, gender justice, and sexual orientation provide concrete opportunities for students, faculty, and administrators to identify shared issues of concern and to engage in dialogue from their various religious and nonreligious perspectives. Our faculty, chaplain, administrators, and I are also very active in interreligious dialogue throughout the Chicago area and beyond, and we frequently collaborate with Chicago Theological Seminary, a leading progressive Christian voice that shares our affiliation with the UCC.

For the third moment, collective action, the Niebuhr Center is again an example of critically informed work toward social justice. Last fall, we co-organized a rally with Bethel Green Church against gun violence in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. Our students went into the neighborhood to urge residents to attend the service, which featured an impassioned speech by social activist and local pastor Rev. Michael Pfleger.

Liturgy and ceremony can also be moments of collective action. After all, “liturgy” means “the work of the people.” As a Native American and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, I have tried to create occasions for ceremonial engagement by our non-Native community members with members of Chicago’s Anawim Center(a traditional Native American spirituality and service organization), the American Indian Center of Chicago, and other indigenous peoples’ groups including the Cherokee Nation. As part of a week-long Native American Awareness Week, we brought together students, faculty, prominent scholars, and representatives of indigenous peoples’ communities to educate ourselves about the history of colonization in America and, with members of traditional Native American communities, to celebrate their—by which I mean our—religious, political, and cultural self-determination today. A highlight of the week included a traditional smudging ceremony, which was held in our chaplain’s office, conducted by members of the Anawim Center, and attended by students from a variety of traditions—religious and secular.

More than a hundred of our students travel annually to multiple sites around the country to work with Habitat for Humanity, an experience that brings religious and nonreligious students together in the service of the homeless and communities lacking adequate facilities. Finally, the college has embarked on an annual theme-based set of service and education projects. For 2009–10, our focus was on poverty, both worldwide and close to home in DuPage County, and we gave service and educated both the college and the general public in myriad ways throughout the year.

Finally, in the fourth moment of interfaith cooperation, self-formation, our students engage in personal transformation through reflection on their collective action. Back in their spiritual “homes”—whether through the Spiritual Life Council, faith-based groups, or the Secular Students Association; through other meetings of affinity groups; or informally and alone—our students ask themselves what they have learned about their faith and value systems through their many experiences of collective action. For all students, every year, the college will provide what we call the Elmhurst Experience, a model of intentional liberal learning that has student self-formation as one of its two focuses. We are doing this even now through the Big Questions Orientation, an intensive, multiday, small-cohort, new student orientation that asks first-year students to act cooperatively; to reflect on themselves, their world, and their values; and to engage in off-campus service learning, which is followed immediately by their first formal academic experience, the credit-bearing first-year seminar. The first-year seminar brings together the same cohort and the same set of instructors—one faculty member and one staff member—who led the orientation, and the seminar pedagogy, focused on an interesting, interdisciplinary topic, encourages students to take intellectual and social risks and, hopefully, to begin a lifelong love of learning. The college is also focusing on residential campus communities as sites for student self-formation. In terms of sparking interfaith cooperation—or, at least, constructive conflict resolution—few experiences compare to living in residence halls!

Through our recently adopted new program of general education, the Elmhurst Experience will be extended beyond the first year. The new program requires each undergraduate to complete a course in the category Religious Studies in Context, which has replaced a narrower requirement in Judeo-Christian Heritage and Religious Faith. In all these ways and others, Elmhurst College is aspiring to generate opportunities for genuine interfaith dialogue and student self-formation.

The opportunities for changing student lives through changing the world, and changing the world through changing student lives, are immense. The challenges to this work are inherent in a model of higher education that pits religious against secular faiths, thereby marginalizing religion and impoverishing liberal education. An alternative model, which I have sketched here, grounds action in communities of faith and commitment, religious and non-religious, and transforms both communities and their members through collective action and reflection on shared experiences. In such a radically transformative dialogue, anyone and anything may be changed. But a commitment to such deep change, I believe, is a principle that unites rather than divides most religious and secular communities and is, therefore, a cause for optimism.


Dibella, G. A. 2009. Religious discussion desired. Harvard Crimson, November 4,

Elmhurst College. 2009. Elmhurst College strategic plan 2009–2014,

Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences. 2006.Preliminary report of the task force on general education.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University,

———. 2007. Report of the task force on general education.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University,

IFYC. Interfaith Youth Core,

S. Alan Ray is professor of religion and society and president of Elmhurst College.

A printed copy of this article originally appeared in the American Association of American Colleges & University publication, Liberal Education, Summer 2010, Vol. 96, No. 3

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