Category Archives: Religious Tolerance

The Big Bang Theory

Synopsis: This animated short, narrated by Gillian Anderson, summarizes the commonly accepted scientific hypothesis that the Universe came into being through a sudden explosion of energy. According to the Big Bang theory, the expansion of the observable universe began with the explosion of a single particle at a definite point in time. This startling idea first appeared in scientific form in 1931, in a paper by Georges Lemaître, a Belgian cosmologist and Catholic priest.

From the BBC Radio 4 series about life’s big questions – A History of Ideas.

This project is from the BBC in partnership with The Open University, the animations were created by Cognitive.

John Locke on Tolerance

Is it possible to persuade people to change their beliefs by force? John Locke thought not. People might say they believe in your God to save themselves from torture or being burnt at the stake, but you won’t change their actual beliefs that way. Narrated by Aidan Turner.

From the BBC Radio 4 series about life’s big questions – A History of Ideas.

This project is from the BBC in partnership with The Open University, the animations were created by Cognitive.

History of Ideas – Religion

Religion and Science have shared a complex relationship which has historically fluctuated between cooperation and conflict. Both disciplines arise from an intellectual desire to explain the natural world, but their paths have diverged over the nature of knowledge. Holmes Rolston III, a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University, sees their missions as complimentary, but different: “Science operates with the presumption that there are causes to things, Religion with the presumption that there are meanings to things.” Religion agrees that the world is intelligible and is capable of being logically understood. However, natural law alone provides only the beginning of illumination. Religion was an ingenious solution to many of mankind’s earliest fears and needs. The understanding gained through our senses is useful, but incomplete. Its full value is realized by imparting significance, or meaning to the phenomenon. Reality is subject to our conscious awareness; shaped by interpretation, as well as, by experience. Religion’s purpose is to supply the meanings for why things happen; to explain what is in order to evaluate what ought to be. Religion may seem irrational to many, but the needs remain.

Respect the Religious Beliefs of Others

Man, since the dawn of the species, has taken great consolation and joy in his religions. “Faith” and “belief” do not necessarily surrender to logic: they cannot even be declared to be illogical. They can be things quite apart. Religious tolerance does not mean one cannot express his own beliefs or must adopt the ideology of others. It does mean that seeking to undermine or attack the religious faith and beliefs of another has always been a short road to trouble.

Tolerance is a good cornerstone on which to build human relationships. One is at liberty to hold up his own beliefs for acceptance. One is at risk when he seeks to assault the beliefs of others, much more so when he attacks and seeks to harm them because of their religious convictions. When one studies the suffering caused by religious and ideological intolerance throughout human history, it is easy to see that intolerance is a very coercive and non-productive activity.

What Does It Mean to Be Me?

The words ‘know thyself’ – ‘gnothi seauton’ – were inscribed in stone above the Ancient Greek Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Philosophers have mused on self-knowledge and its uses ever since. But is it possible to ever ‘Know Thyself’? Psychologists, such as Bruce Hood, have even suggested that the self is an illusion and there may not be a self to know.

From the BBC Radio 4 series about life’s big questions – A History of Ideas.

This project is from the BBC in partnership with The Open University, the animations were created by Cognitive.

The Golden Rule (Ethic of Reciprocity)

The Golden Rule, referred to in Philosophy as the Ethic of Reciprocity, is a basic moral principle which states that individuals should treat others in the same manner they wish to be treated. It’s inverse, known as the Silver Rule, is that an individual should not treat others in a manner which they would not wish to be treated in. It is the essential premise underlying the Democratic concepts of human dignity and equality under the law. The six minute short introduces the different religious and cultural traditions which embrace this principle.

The Last Sermon of Archbishop Oscar Romero

March 23, 1980

Let no one be offended because we use the Divine words read at our mass to shed light on the social, political and economic situation of our people. Not to do so would be un-Christian. Christ desires to unite himself with humanity, so that the light he brings from God might become life for nations and individuals.

I know many are shocked by this preaching and want to accuse us of forsaking the Gospel for Politics. But I reject this accusation. I am trying to bring to life the message of the Second Vatican Council and the meetings at Medellin and Puebla. The documents from these meetings should not just be studied theoretically. They should be brought to life and translated into the real struggle to preach the Gospel as it should be for our people. Each week I go about the country listening to the cries of the people, their pain from so much crime, and the ignominy of so much violence. Each week I ask the Lord to give me the right words to console, to denounce, to call for repentance. And even though I may be a voice crying in the desert, I know that the church is making the effort to fulfill its mission….

Every country lives its own “Exodus”; today El Salvador is living its own Exodus. Today we are passing to our liberation through a desert strewn with bodies and where anguish and pain are devastating us. Many suffer the temptation of those who walked with Moses and wanted to turn back and did not work together. It is the same old story. God, however, wants to save the people by making a new history….

History will not fail; God sustains it. That is why I say that insofar as historical projects attempt to reflect the eternal plan of God, to that extent they reflect the kingdom of God. This attempt is the work of the Church. Because of this, the Church, the people of God in history, is not attached to any one social system, to any political organization, to any party. The Church does not identify herself with any of those forces because she is the eternal pilgrim of history and is indicating at every historical moment what reflects the Kingdom of God and what does not reflect the Kingdom of God. She is the servant of the Kingdom of God.

The great task of Christians must be to absorb the spirit of God’s kingdom and, with souls filled with the Kingdom of God, to work on the projects of history. It’s fine to be organized in popular groups; it’s all right to form political parties; it’s all right to take part in the government. It’s fine as long as you are a Christian who carries the reflection of the Kingdom of God and tries to establish it where you are working, and as long as you are not being used to further worldly ambitions. This is the great duty of the people of today. My dear Christians, I have always told you, and I will repeat, that the true liberators of our people must come from us Christians, from the people of God. Any historical plan that’s not based on what we spoke of in the first point-the dignity of the human being, the love of God, the kingdom of Christ among people-will be a fleeting project. Your project, however, will grow in stability the more it reflects the eternal design of God. It will be a solution of the common good of the people every time, if it meets the needs of the people…. Now I invite you to look at things through the eyes of the church, which is trying to be the Kingdom of God on earth and so often must illuminate the realities of our national situation.

We have lived through a tremendously tragic week. I could not give you the facts before, but a week ago last Saturday, on 15 March, one of the largest and most distressing military operations was carried out in the countryside. The villages affected were La Laguna, Plan de Ocotes and El Rosario. The operation brought tragedy: a lot of ranches were burned, there was looting, and-inevitably-people were killed. In La Laguna, the attackers killed a married couple, Ernesto Navas and Audelia Mejia de Navas, their little children, Martin and Hilda, thirteen and seven years old, and eleven more peasants.

Other deaths have been reported, but we do not know the names of the dead. In Plan de Ocotes, two children and four peasants were killed, including two women. In El Rosario, three more peasants were killed. That was last Saturday.

Last Sunday, the following were assassinated in Arcatao by four members of ORDEN: peasants Marcelino Serrano, Vincente Ayala, twenty-four years old, and his son, Freddy. That same day, Fernando Hernandez Navarro, a peasant, was assassinated in Galera de Jutiapa, when he fled from the military.

Last Monday, 17 March, was a tremendously violent day. Bombs exploded in the capital as well as in the interior of the country. The damage was very substantial at the headquarters of the Ministry of Agriculture. The campus of the national university was under armed siege from dawn until 7 P.M. Throughout the day, constant bursts of machine-gun fire were heard in the university area. The archbishop’s office intervened to protect people who found themselves caught inside.

On the Hacienda Colima, eighteen persons died, at least fifteen of whom were peasants. The administrator and the grocer of the ranch also died. The armed forces confirmed that there was a confrontation. A film of the events appeared on TV, and many analyzed interesting aspects of the situation.

At least fifty people died in serious incidents that day: in the capital, seven persons died in events at the Colonia Santa Lucia; on the outskirts of Tecnillantas, five people died; and in the area of the rubbish dump, after the evacuation of the site by the military, were found the bodies of four workers who had been captured in that action.

Sixteen peasants died in the village of Montepeque, thirty-eight kilometers along the road to Suchitoto. That same day, two students at the University of Central America were captured in Tecnillantas: Mario Nelson and Miguel Alberto Rodriguez Velado, who were brothers. The first one, after four days of illegal detention, was handed over to the courts. Not so his brother, who was wounded and is still held in illegal detention. Legal Aid is intervening on his behalf.

Amnesty International issued a press release in which it described the repression of the peasants, especially in the area of Chalatenango. The week’s events confirm this report in spite of the fact the government denies it. As I entered the church, I was given a cable that says, “Amnesty International confirmed today [that was yesterday] that in El Salvador human rights are violated to extremes that have not been seen in other countries.” That is what Patricio Fuentes (spokesman for the urgent action section for Central America in Swedish Amnesty International) said at a press conference in Managua, Nicaragua.

Fuentes confirmed that, during two weeks of investigations he carried out in El Salvador, he was able to establish that there had been eighty-three political assassinations between 10 and 14 March. He pointed out that Amnesty International recently condemned the government of El Salvador, alleging that it was responsible for six hundred political assassinations. The Salvadorean government defended itself against the charges, arguing that Amnesty International based its condemnation on unproved assumptions.

Fuentes said that Amnesty had established that in El Salvador human rights are violated to a worse degree than the repression in Chile after the coupe d’etat. The Salvadorian government also said that the six hundred dead were the result of armed confrontations between army troops and guerrillas. Fuentes said that during his stay in El Salvador, he could see that the victims had been tortured before their deaths and mutilated afterward.

The spokesman of Amnesty International said that the victims’ bodies characteristically appeared with the thumbs tied behind their backs. Corrosive liquids had been applied to the corpses to prevent identification of the victims by their relatives and to prevent international condemnation, the spokesman added. Nevertheless, the bodies were exhumed and the dead have been identified. Fuentes said that the repression carried out by the Salvadorian army was aimed at breaking the popular organizations through the assassination of their leaders in both town and country.

According to the spokesman of Amnesty International, at least three thousand five hundred peasants have fled from their homes to the capital to escape persecution. “We have complete lists in London and Sweden of young children and women who have been assassinated for being organized,” Fuentes stated….

I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, “Thou shalt not kill.” No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The Church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.

The Church preaches your liberation just as we have studied it in just as we have studied it in the Holy Bible today. It is a liberation that has, above all else, respect for the dignity of the person, hope for humanity’s common good, and the transcendence that looks before all to God and only from God derives its hope and its strength.

Learn More about Archbishop Oscar Romero on his Bio Page 

Archbishop Oscar A. Romero

Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero (1917 -1980), was a prominent Roman Catholic priest in El Salvador during the 1960s and 1970s. After witnessing numerous atrocities attributed to the El Salvadoran government, Romero began to publicly denounce the corruption, exploitation of the poor and acts of state sponsored violence being committed by the military regime.  Continue reading Archbishop Oscar A. Romero

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

The Major Tenets of Liberation Theology

The Aims of Theology

“Theology is an understanding which both grows and, in a certain sense, changes. If the commitment of the Christian community in fact takes different forms throughout history, the understanding which accompanies the vicissitudes of this commitment will be constantly renewed and will take untrodden paths.”

Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (1973)

“Much contemporary theology seems to start from the challenge of the nonbeliever. He questions our religious world and faces it with a demand for profound purification and renewal.

…But the challenge in a continent like Latin America does not come primarily from the man who does not believe, but from the man who is not a man, who is not recognized as such by the existing social order: he is in the ranks of the poor, the exploited; he is the man who scarcely knows that he is a man. His challenge is not aimed first at our religious world, but at our economic, social, political, and cultural world; therefore, it is an appeal for a revolutionary transformation of the very basis of a dehumanizing society.

The question is not therefore how to speak of God in an adult world, but how to proclaim Him as a Father in a world that is not human.”

Gustavo Gutierrez, “Liberation, Theology, and Proclamation” (1974)

“In our theological efforts we have called this ‘Theology of Liberation’ because ‘liberation’ is very often translated to ‘salvation.’ How do we say to the poor, ‘God loves you’? This question is larger than our answers. It means it is an open question, and we try in this liberation theology, and I can say in the different liberation theologies, to try to answer this point.”

Gustavo Gutierrez, remarks at Elmhurst College (2009)

Love of Neighbor

“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:28-31, New International Version

“Love of neighbor is an essential component of Christian life. But as long as I apply that term only to the people who cross my path and come asking me for help, my world will remain pretty much the same. Individual almsgiving and social reformism is a type of love that never leaves its own front porch.

… On the other hand my world will change greatly if I go out to meet other people on their path and consider them as my neighbor, as the good Samaritan did… The Gospel tells us that the poor are the supreme embodiment of our neighbor. It is this option that serves as the focus for a new way of being human and Christian in today’s Latin America.”

Gustavo Gutierrez, “Liberation Praxis and Christian Faith” (1979)

Christian Duty to Address Social Injustice

“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Psalm 82:3-4, New International Version

“The Christian faithful are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor.”

1983 CIC, canon 222.2

“According to Catholic teaching, through one’s words, prayers and deeds one must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor. Therefore, when instituting public policy one must always keep the ‘preferential option for the poor’ at the forefront of one’s mind. Accordingly, this doctrine implies that the moral test of any society is; ‘how it treats its most vulnerable members.’ The poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. We are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor.”

Option for the Poor, Major themes from Catholic Social Teaching, Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis.

“I am not refusing the necessity, even today, of immediate help to the poor, but I say it is not enough. Today the call is to try to change the social structure and to change some mental categories—to be clearer about mental categories, the feeling of superiority, for example, to some cultures. This is a mental category and we need to change this.

In the ultimate analysis, poverty means death; unjust and early death. Missionaries of the 16th century, some years after their arrival on this continent, said, ‘The Indians are dying before their time.’ Well, it was true certainly, but it’s true today also. The poor are dying before their time because poverty means death—unjust and early death.”

Gustavo Gutierrez, remarks at Elmhurst College (2009)

“It is not a question of idealizing poverty, but rather of taking it on as it is—an evil—to protest against it and to struggle to abolish it. As Paul Ricoeur says, you cannot really be with the poor unless you are struggling against poverty. Because of this solidarity—which manifests itself in specific action, a style of life, a break with one’s social class—one can also help the poor and exploited to become aware of their exploitation and seek liberation from it.

Christian poverty, and expression of love, is solidarity with the poor and is a protest against poverty. This is the concrete, contemporary meaning of the witness of poverty. It is a poverty lived not for its own sake, but rather as an authentic imitation of Christ; it is a poverty which means taking on the sinful human condition to liberate humankind from sin and all its consequences.”

Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (1973)

Keep Hope Alive

“But God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish.”

– Psalm 9:18, New International Version

“We must also engage in our work hopefully. Hope is not the same thing as optimism. Optimism merely reflects the desire that external circumstances may one day improve. There is nothing wrong with optimism, but we may not always have reasons for it.

The theological virtue of hope is much more than optimism. Hope is based on the conviction that God is at work in our lives and in the world. Hope is ultimately a gift from God given to sustain us during difficult times. Charles Péguy described hope as the ‘little sister’ that walks between the ‘taller sisters’ of faith and charity; when the taller sisters grow tired, the little one instills new life and energy into the other two. Hope never allows our faith to grow weak or our love to falter.”

Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutierrez, America Magazine (Feb. 3, 2003)

Edited by L. Christopher Skufca (Camden Civil Rights Project)

Learn more about Father Gustavo Gutierrez on his Bio Page