New Faculty Award Given to Judith Berling

Judith Berling, who has been at the GTU since 1987, is the first recipient of the Sarlo Excellence in Teaching Award, given by the Sarlo Family Supporting Foundation. She is professor of Chinese and comparative religions, and has also served as GTU Dean. This annual award honors a core doctoral faculty member whose teaching incorporates the values of interreligious dialogue and an interdisciplinary approach to teaching.

Berling’s own faith journey crosses a diverse terrain. Raised as a Presbyterian in the Midwest, she attended a United Church of Christ college. She became very involved with that church, and even planned a career in ministry. However, troubled by an incident of Asian racism at a local church, Berling changed her path. Seeing that the racism was rooted in ignorance, she set out to educate and immerse herself in Asian language and culture, with the intention of equipping herself to “interpret Asia back” to her fellow Americans.

Now Episcopalian, Berling treasures her parish in part for its openness to other faiths. She comments that she herself could be considered a “Confucian or Taoist Christian.”

The key to teaching with interreligious and interdisciplinary values at heart is, she says, to “find ways for the teacher to get out of the way and create a collaborative learning environment. I design courses so that people know from the first day that each of them has something to contribute and to learn from each of the others.”

Berling teaches courses in her field of Chinese religions, as well as courses organized around themes with interreligious dimensions. Recent courses have covered pilgrimage and story; how scripture is honored in various traditions; and the history of God in the monotheistic traditions and in the varieties of Christianity.

Interdisciplinary values tend to threaten entrenched academic territories. Berling relates that UC Berkeley’s Robert Bellah, who worked on many GTU committees, “used to say that students here asked questions that couldn’t be asked across the street—because of the power of the disciplines. Certain questions require boundary-crossing. The challenge is to do that responsibly.”

Responsible boundary-crossing means that interreligious and interdisciplinary components can’t be add-ons. For instance, Berling says, just adding a book on Buddhist meditation to a course on prayer isn’t enough. Prayer and meditation have to “come up against each other, so that students wrestle with the sameness and the difference.” When this is done well, students come to better understand their own discipline and religion, as well as the other.

While noting that there is still a way to go, Berling believes the GTU “pushes at the boundaries better than anywhere.”

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