In Defense of Shopping Cart Spirituality, Part 4 (Finale)

Or, Ruminations on the Claremont School of Theology University Project

As promised, the last post in my blog series about religious pluralism will be about Claremont School of Theology’s (CST) newly unveiled University Project. For those not in the know, the University Project (UP) is the name given to a wide range of CST’s institutional goals for the next decade or so. These goals generally center around school expansion, as CST hopes to grow enough in size to transform into a full university.

Perhaps the most controversial (and exciting) element of the UP is the intent for CST to become one of the first multireligious centers for practical religious education.  While the project has been in the making for over a year, most recently it was announced (to the media at a press conference) that certain practical goals have been met, namely that CST has entered into a relationship with both the Academy for Jewish Religion, California and the Center for Advanced Islamic Scholarship. This will allow, among other things, cross-registration by students at the three schools in order to encourage further inter-religious dialogue.

For more information, please refer to CST’s description of the University Project and the LA Times article on the University Project. One of my friends, Eka Tupamahu, also wrote a very thoughtful, favorable reflection upon the University Project that is well worth reading.

After my more abstract musings on religious pluralism in my previous posts, I wanted to consider some more practical issues of religious pluralism at play in how the University Project has been lived out so far.

Up to this point, CST has done many worthwhile things in the name of the University Project. Administrators have been clear that one of the central points of the UP is to cultivate compassion and live toward a world of peace. In other words, pluralism on campus is not just a weak tolerance, nor is it just empty theory. While I am skeptical of making religious pluralism just about moral outcomes (i.e. religious dialogue is just about working together on constructing a better world), I think practical outcomes are a necessary element for successful interfaith dialogue. After all, there is suffering aplenty in this world of ours.

Because of criticism from the right, CST has been increasingly clear that the UP will not result in a blended concoction of faiths. While, perhaps, overemphasized, I think it is very important (in light of my previous reflections) that the inherent differences in the religious stories we tell do not simply get removed or ignored. Religious differences in our stories open up the very possibility of religious and moral dialogue. While it might be tempting to remove all the wrinkles in our complicated tapestry, so-to-speak, so that we can live toward great moral accomplishments unimpeded, we should remember with caution that removing difference would violently destroy any such a possibility for a better world. CST has, rightly, resisted this urge.

On the other hand, the danger of overemphasizing the value of difference is the tendency to enshrine particular differences as artifacts to be maintained in pristine condition, artifacts to be held in museums, behind bullet-proof glass, breathing recycled air, to be admired, but not touched. There is nothing more deadly to living religions than stale air. After all, stories live, they change, they transform. No religion, no story, has a pure, perfect form, not in the present, past or future. In order to live fully within a pluralistic environment, one has to put one’s own, admittedly fragile, religious stories up to the danger of dialogue. Certainly, there is no greater risk than the threat of transformation. And yet, there is no greater hope. In regards to CST, I am hopeful on this front, simply because students with different religious stories to tell in close proximity of each other will find it difficult not to engage each other. The trick will be that CST will have to maintain the value of difference without trapping such difference within cages of glass.

However, in light of all of these reflections on religious pluralism, I have many questions about the University Project. I don’t generally have answers for these questions, and often they are problems exactly because the answers are elusive.

First, within the scope of the University Project, I want to inquire as to the place of the multireligious, or the so-called “hybrid” religious. In the end, would Yann Martel’s Pi be welcome at CST? So far, it has seemed to me that, like the religious leaders in Life of Pi, staff and students here simply do not know how to encounter multireligious individuals. I’ll be open about the fact that this is a very personal issue for me; after all, I am a multireligious individual myself. I have often felt as though many here at CST are ashamed or uncomfortable with my multireligious identity. I feel as though I have to be very vocal about both my Buddhist and Christian identities, or they are both ignored or awkwardly talked-around. Even when I am vocal, folks here often quickly change the subject. Despite the fact I am one of the few individuals who practices a non-Abrahamic religion at a school that is attempting to become a fully inter-religious seminary, I feel as though there have been no attempts to draw upon my religious background to further the growth of the school. When I approach staff (in particular, although students at times, as well) about helping out in the growth of the UP, as a multireligious individual and as a Buddhist, I am often awkwardly shooed away.

My guess is that many (most?) at CST simply don’t know what to do with multireligious individuals – perhaps there would be more active engagement with my religious stories here if I was just Buddhist. Do I (and other multireligious individuals) unsettle because I live between the acceptable (read: safe) boundaries of religious identity? Is it only ok to dialogue with the religious other when they are easily identifiable as a religious other in a particular group? Do I serve as a blatant and uncomfortable reminder to others that we all live multireligious lives? I don’t know. Regardless, I will admit, despite my excitement for the University Project, this element of my experience at CST has hurt me more than anything else. CST needs to sort out (on the institutional and personal level) how to encounter multireligious individuals ethically – I certainly won’t be the only one in the future history of the University Project.

Second, on a related, but also very different topic, I wonder how CST will construct the University Project to welcome individuals from religions that are not officially “recognized” as religious traditions as well as the non-religious. One student asked at convocation whether non-religious individuals would be welcome in the UP. President Campbell said yes. Still, as several polls have shown, the non-religious are the most commonly vilified “religious” group in America. Religious identity, even religiously pluralistic identity, is often identified in contrast to the non-religious. That is a serious problem. CST will have to do much to put strength behind President Campbell’s yes. A verbalized affirmative is not enough; the non-religious must be fully welcome at this pluralistic table of ours.

Beyond that, however, as I mentioned above, CST will also need to discover how it can welcome people that are not officially “recognized” as within religious traditions, namely the ‘great faiths.’ After all, the whole concept of the ‘great faiths’ (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, occasionally a few others) was a 19th century Western Christian construction designed to either  a) illustrate the superiority of Christianity, b) show a universal moral whole by watering down difference, or c) legitimate certain stories while delegitimating others (or a mixture of the two). While comparative religion (as a discipline) can survive these damaging origins, in practice here, the University Project cannot remain within those unethical beginnings.

Not all religions have the same structure. So far, CST has expanded the UP by reaching out to other clergy training centers. What about religions that do not have clergy training centers, or that do not have clergy, period? What about religions that have often been wrongfully excluded from interreligious dialogue as non-religions (or, worse, anti-religions), such as Native American traditions and/or Wiccan traditions? The list could be expanded to near-infinity. And certainly the difficulties of adjustment abound. Still, as Derrida might have said, justice knows no bounds. If the UP only welcomes the ‘great faiths’ to the table of interreligious dialogue, and only on Christian terms (i.e. the need for clergy, clergy training centers, etc.), it will only serve to further worsen the damage that some interreligious dialogue has done in the past by excluding groups as non-religious. I do not claim that such an expansion of the interreligious table will be easy. And yet, I do claim it is necessary.

My last point I want to highlight is that so far (unfortunately) the UP has been incredibly top-down in construction. I am mournful about the fact that, for the most part, students here are an untapped resource. I do not think I speak beyond myself in saying that nearly all of us are very excited about the future of the University Project. Still, as far as I know, students have had little to no voice in the development, future or implementation of the University Project.

If I could sum up this unsettling problem in a few words, I would say this: Claremont treats its students like clientele rather than partners in justice. Certainly, there is money involved, and yes, we, as students, are still learning. It is understandable that there is a hierarchy here. I am open about that fact. The problem is that the hierarchy is simply too sheer. It is a problem when students’ voices are not trusted, or worse, are ignored. It is a problem when the UP is generally constructed above our heads, where we have no input, and we have no knowledge about developments until after the fact. It is a problem that I often feel we have no say in the future of the UP even though we are fully invested in it and we are part of it. It is a problem that I feel that the student body had more voice about policy decisions, implementation, and the future of the institution at my undergraduate college. Perhaps the most damning fact is that at the very press conference that announced the University Project publicly to the press, students were not welcome. (EDIT: Some) Staff and faculty were present at the announcement– but not one single, token student. Instead, students were relegated to a nearby classroom where they could watch the press conference through tele-link. (EDIT: Since this post, I have learned that the University Project committee has one student representative, one student was present at the press conference and two student representatives sit on the board of trustees. While this mitigates my concern somewhat, I want to be clear that I remain deeply frustrated about (what I feel to be) the general inability for student voices to be heard on campus. Communication (between the administration and students, between the student representatives and students, etc.) is clearly still a problem).

I do not believe that there is malicious intent behind these actions. No, I think it is just a (dangerous) misconception of the student body that leads to these actions. I feel as though CST functions as though the University Project is just a product to be marketed to the student body. From that perspective, we are not partners in that project. Yes, students here could be more active, less apathetic. But the student body is not just student life, something to be pushed to the fringes of university life as a whole. Simply put (and this goes well beyond the the University Project), I do not feel as though the student voice here is viewed as essential to the future of the university. And that is a problem.

If the University Project is going to work, if hope is to be more than hope, there must be trust and empowerment. CST needs to let students be more than just a consumer of a product. Invite students to press conferences. Rather than sell the school to us, let us sell the school. Empower student voices to be heard. I’ll confess that I do not know much about the inner workings of the University Project in the administration, but find ways of placing students in that process. If there are committee meetings (even board meetings) related to this process, make sure a student or two is present at each step. On one hand, it will be a teaching experience for us as students. On the other hand, I think we would surprise the institution at exactly what we could do when we were empowered to speak and live fully.

I am very hopeful about the future. It would be unwise to criticize the University Project too much in its infancy for being underdeveloped. At this point, it is no surprise that theory is ahead of practice, that the student body, faculty and staff are all still predominantly Christian (all of which, to reflect a fully broad pluralism, must change with time), nor that the official language at CST is still fairly singularly Christian. Time will do much to the future development of the university. With all of that said, however, like any future, this particular hopeful future will need some work.

There is much to be hopeful about. Other issues, like the cases of multireligious, non-religious, and non-officially religious individuals, will take a desire for full dialogue and creative, imaginative transformation. Changing how students are viewed on campus will take a difficult change of mindset, both in terms of the students and the administration. After all, the University Project must be a collaborative project if it is to find success. In a world of broken dialogue and dreams, there can be no doubt that projects like this one are absolutely necessary. With all of that in mind, can I but help to look to the open, multiplicitous future with hope, ever active hope?

For this week, open to discussion:

1) How might the UP overcome the Christian tendency in inter-religious dialogue to only include the so-called ‘great’ faiths?

2) How do you find yourself navigating the difficult ground between maintaining the value of difference without entombing any particular difference in a frozen crypt for the sake of its safety? Or am I wrong that religious differences and religious transformation are equally important in inter-religious dialogue?

3) Any general or specific thoughts you might have on the University Project and/or my reflections on the University Project.


~ by Drew Baker on September 10, 2010.

2 Responses to “In Defense of Shopping Cart Spirituality, Part 4 (Finale)”

  1. […] also had a great conversation inspired by a blog post of Drew Baker.  I encourage you to read it.  Drew raised a few points of conversation that we spent a fair […]

  2. After learning about several reporting-errors in my original post, I have introduced a couple of marked-edits in order to correct my misreporting. I apologize to anyone wronged in such a misreporting. I also hope that no one dismisses any of my points/questions because of my erring. I still believe that each concern stands upon firm ground, despite my particular errors. Toward that belief, I am happy to continue dialogue about any or all of those concerns in order to further the growth of CST.

    I am glad that my limited post has sparked so much dialogue. I hope that communication between all sectors of CST life continues to be cultivated.

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