Why We Need To Be Interreligious

by Arthur Holder

At its February 2014 meeting, the GTU Board of Trustees unanimously passed a resolution that affirms the interreligious nature of the Graduate Theological Union and opens the way for other religious traditions to join the Protestant, Catholic, Unitarian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim communities already represented here. The statement highlighted the representation of the world’s diverse religious traditions as essential to the GTU’s nature and integral to its mission. It went on to encourage the GTU President to work to “expand and foster representation of the world’s great religious traditions” by seeking out new candidates for consideration as program units, affiliates, and centers for inclusion in the GTU.

Our commitment to interreligious learning at the GTU goes back a long way. Some of our member schools (notably the Pacific School of Religion and Starr King School for the Ministry) were engaged in interfaith work for many years even prior to the formation of the GTU in 1962. The Center for Jewish Studies was established at the GTU in 1968; the Institute of Buddhist Studies became an affiliate in 1985; and the Center for Islamic Studies opened in 2007. 

Under the visionary leadership of John Dillenberger and Claude Welch, by 1971 the Graduate Theological Union’s doctoral program had expanded beyond its original focus on Christian theology with the addition of an area of study called History and Phenomenology of Religions, which was originally focused on Asian Religions (“particularly the Hindu-Buddhist complex”). More recently, in 2011, Interreligious Studies was added as an MA area of concentration; within two years it had grown to become the second largest area in that program.

Several of our member schools now require students to take at least one course on a religious tradition other than their own. Annual events such as the Surjit Singh Lecture on Comparative Religious Thought and Culture and the GTU Library’s Reading of the Sacred Texts invite the GTU community to explore significant common themes across a wide range of faith communities. In recent years the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences hosted a conference on “Jewish, Christian and Muslim Perspectives on Scientific Cosmology” while the Center for the Arts, Religion, and Education sponsored an exhibition of art works depicting the “Feminine Divine” in diverse cultural contexts.

Interreligious learning has always been part of our DNA at the GTU. For many reasons, we need to be even more interreligious now. After graduation, our students will be serving in pluralistic societies where people of many faiths interact in commerce, education, politics, and the arts. The globalization of life today means people who practice “other religions” are likely to be our next-door neighbors, business partners, friends, and relatives. But as Claude Welch wrote in a Christian Century article in 1965 (six years before he came to the GTU as dean), we also need to be interreligious just in order to be faithful to the truths at the heart of our own religious traditions. What Welch wrote from his own Christian perspective is true, I think, for all of us at the GTU today:


I am one not only with other members of a religious community but with all [humanity] (and indeed all creation). My interest, therefore, in a non-Christian religious view, a scientific, political or aesthetic view or any other human concern or view does not issue from an interest in apologetics or proclamation to the “world” but must be a part of my own self-understanding. Conversation with the world and ecumenical conversation are quite inseparable. Theologically, nothing is required for the address to the “unbeliever” that is not necessary for the Christian community's own understanding of its faith.


In other words, the practice of interreligious learning is not just something we do because it helps us to understand all those other people. Unless we engage at the deepest levels with practitioners of other religious faiths (and those who claim no faith at all), we cannot fully know either ourselves or the holiness of life around us. That is why we all need one another here at the GTU, and why we need to be open to new consortial partners as well.