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Interfaith Leadership: A Primer
Date Reviewed: August 11, 2017
To date, one thousand colleges and universities have engaged the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) to catalyze interfaith cooperation, educate interfaith leaders, and build knowledge of faith traditions. Authored by the founder of IFYC, Interfaith Leadership contributes to a key IFYC goal: to train seven thousand interfaith leaders by 2020.
Sharing his journey to interfaith leadership (Chapter 1), Patel discusses his theory of interfaith understanding (Chapters 2-3), shares his leadership vision (Chapter 4), and identifies leaders’ knowledge, skills, and personal qualities (Chapters 5-7). “Inter” in “interfaith” references “interaction between people who orient around religion differently”; “faith” stands for “how people relate to their religious and ethical traditions.” With the term interfaith, Patel highlights reciprocal influences: interactions with others impact how we relate to “our” religious and ethical traditions as well as to “theirs.” Interfaith leaders guide persons across a “landscape of religious diversity” toward “interfaith cooperation.”
Can religious studies programs play a role in campus interfaith leadership training? Patel’s understanding of religious studies is informed by Wilfred Cantwell Smith. As Patel understands Smith, the academic study of religion errs because it looks at “systems” divorced from religious practice. For Patel, “religious system” means faith viewed through a religious studies lens. By contrast, interfaith explorations engage personal practices.
Patel identifies two potential models of interfaith leadership: Stephen Prothero and Karen Armstrong. While Prothero focuses on systems (doctrines, texts, and rituals), neglecting the diversity and specificity of lived faith, Armstrong attends to “human-heartedness,” generalizing about spiritual traditions in ways that make these traditions unrecognizable to their adherents. Interfaith leaders, by contrast, support embedded dialogue. Patel illustrates: when the lone Muslim student in a world religions class declares he has never before heard the terms “Shia” and “Sunni,” his professor’s “abstract” approach to Islam is shown irrelevant to other students’ who comprehend “real world” Muslim faith.
Eschewing “deficits, problems, and ugliness,” interfaith perspectives “appreciate” the “beautiful, life-giving, and admirable” in religion, building relationships through story-telling. For example, Patel attributes changes in the US between 1928 and 1955 in attitudes about Jews to the NCCJ (originally the National Conference of Christians and Jews. It currently refers to the National Conference for Community and Justice), an interfaith entity, not to the scholarly study of anti-Semitism. Patel also highlights a case study. Doctors trained in Western medicine identify symptoms of epilepsy in a Hmong child. Her parents, believing she is becoming a shaman, do not comply with treatment plans. A seizure puts the child in a vegetative state. Patel ponders whether an “appreciative understanding” of Hmong faith by the doctors could have led to a different outcome.
IFYC does valuable work on campuses, promoting conversations about religion that make it safer for students of diverse traditions to express faith without fear. On some campuses, religious studies departments have been included in IFYC initiatives. However, participants in campus IFYC initiatives whose knowledge of the academic study of religion is drawn only from Interfaith Leadership will benefit from outreach by religious studies faculty. We can foster an informed understanding of our field as a vital resource for students seeking the knowledge, skills, and personal qualities needed by leaders in a religiously diverse world.
Over the past several weeks, we have seen over and over again violence against people, mostly women of color, presumed to be Muslim. The attackers have been white men who targeted their victims based on the victim’s presumed religion. Some of the increase in these hate crimes can be ...
After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
Professors of religion and religious studies may find a familiar link between this edited volume and aspects of their personal academic journey, especially if they are on the tenure track. Both represent texts that involve self-reflection and can embody intellectual wrestling. Most significant for this review: the former also offers tools for rethinking the World Religions Paradigm (WRP) that can challenge pedagogical strategies considered the norm of today and tomorrow. After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies represents a methodologically rigorous way to create a classroom that cements the study of religion as an integral component of both undergraduate and graduate study.
The twelve chapters in the volume – spread across three sections – are individually and collectively thought-provoking and intriguing essays. While I acquired the text for potential course adoption in my liberal arts undergraduate methods course, my engagement with the international cast of scholars (from the UK, Australia, Canada, Finland, and the U.S.) confirmed the importance of this work for professors of what might still be considered “world religions” as we strive to help our students “make sense of our world” (186).
One of the more teachable moments was delivered by Teemu Taira. In “Doing things with ‘religion,’” Taira sets out to “instigate an exploration of how something came to be understood and classified as ‘religion’ and why,” as it simultaneously questions the inclusion and exclusion of traditions such as Confucianism, Shintoism, and Scientology (84). For example, the formation of Confucianism as a religion is connected with Western scholarship. Yet it “was regarded as a religion in China in 1949,” until the Communists took power in China when they “established the current system in which only Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam are considered as religions” (86, 85).
Michel Desjardins provides another significant moment of illumination with “The Desjardins Diet for World Religions Paradigm Loss.” In a post-presidential-election season during which many Americans are threatening to emigrate to Canada, it seemed apropos to gain new insight from a classroom on our shared northern borders. It was easy to be hooked by the chapter’s focus on food and religion as the sole doorway to an introduction to religion seminar. Not only does Desjardins employ his own qualitative research, but he also challenges readers to reimage food – and, thereby, create “more nuanced views of religion” – “as a rich site for examining human nature” (124, 123).
Additionally, useful resources are either embedded within the chapters (such as difficult to locate work on Sikhism) or as part of the references with which each ends. The “Afterward” by Russell McCutcheon, a stalwart in the field, concludes the work with a compelling goal: “If what we’re teaching these diverse students in our World Religions courses is not just the names and dates that these students are probably focused on, but, instead, subtly demonstrating to them how scholarship happens,” then we are more likely to teach skills “that are useful in unanticipated settings.” Who among us doesn’t yearn to accomplish that!
A conversation about scholarship and teaching with Dr. Roger Nam of George Fox University, Dr. Eric Barreto of Luther Seminary, and Dr. Kate Blanchard of Alma College.
Teaching the I Ching (Book of Changes)
Date Reviewed: March 14, 2016
The I Ching (or Yijing, Book of Changes) is one of the great works of world literature, but at first approach it can be perplexing at best. Geoffrey Redmond is a scholar of textual criticism and Asian spiritual traditions (he is also an MD). Tze-ki Hon, professor of history at the State University of New York at Geneseo, is a specialist in Chinese cultural history and classical Chinese thought, including the commentaries on the I Ching. Together these authors provide a judicious, illuminating account of this classic Chinese text. Teaching the I Ching is a valuable reference for scholars and students alike, and a superb sourcebook for teaching the I Ching at the undergraduate level.
The authors trace the complex history of the I Ching’s development through three millennia, beginning with its Bronze Age origins in divinatory practices using yarrow sticks, precursors of the hexagrams of the traditional work. The earliest texts, preserved on bound bamboo strips, are first attested to around 300 BCE, but they hearken back to much earlier exemplars. The first authoritative collection, known as the Zhouyi, was composed in the Western Zhou period, 1046-771 BCE. An expanded version of this text was “canonized” by royal decree in 136 BCE, deemed as a classic under the authority of Confucian tradition. In the modern era, archaeology has turned up many early witnesses to the text, largely from ancient tombs. These have spurred new assessments of the textual tradition.
In the modern era the I Ching has met varied fates. It came under sharp criticism at the hands of the Chinese “Doubting Antiquity Movement” of the 1920s. Mao Zedong banned the text, at times. During the Cultural Revolution the use of the I Ching for divination was widely regarded as a superstitious, “feudal” practice. Yet by the 1980s and 1990s a popular movement called “Yijing Fever” widely introduced new mass populations to the I Ching. There is also a survey of the reception of the I Ching in the West, from Christian missionaries encountering the work in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, to C. G. Jung’s engagement of the text, to the I Ching’s (dubious, perhaps?) status as a countercultural icon.
The book gives special attention to the role of women in the I Ching, especially the subordination of the feminine in the traditional Chinese yin/yang duality. There are also valuable chapters on the cosmology and ethical principles of the I Ching. The book closes with an extensive “Readers Guide” to the I Ching, describing the standard translations of the work, bilingual editions, concordances and reference works, online versions of the I Ching, and other digital resources. There is also a working orientation to the structure of the text, with instructions on how to consult the I Ching, should one wish to pose a question to this ancient, still vital text.