Despite popular assertions that religion is at the root of the world's problems as at no other time in recent history, closer study reveals that it is not religion per se that is plaguing the world but the misunderstanding of religion.
Positing a divide between Islam and the West, or the religious and the secular, not only misrepresents Islam and Muslims, but the nature and mission of all faiths. Understanding and studying Islam is a matter of great urgency - it is, in fact, critical, if humankind is to have a peaceful future.
The Chronicle recently reported that despite an atmosphere of tolerance in the Bay Area and the long history of Muslims in the United States, many of the Bay Area's 200,000 Muslims worry that they are seen by non-Muslims as outsiders.
How is religion so prone to being misunderstood? All too often we see religion hijacked and twisted in the service of agendas wrought from deeply divisive issues, fueling fear and hatred, providing fertile ground for the politics of polarization, which serves only to further divide. Study, debate and open dialogue, on the other hand, offer the promise of understanding and living peacefully with each other.
Because our work is graduate education in religion centered on interreligious dialogue, engaging one another about difference is a way of life for us at the Graduate Theological Union. In our teaching, research and community conferences, as well as in our day-to-day operations as a consortium of ecumenical and interfaith graduate programs, we embrace, rather than avoid, the critical tensions that arise from different perspectives. A starting point for our work is the comparative study of sacred texts - the Torah, Christian Bible and Quran. Our end goal is the making of religious leaders and educators who will address issues of religious pluralism and difference in local communities, the nation and the world. Why? Because one role of religion is to cultivate civic character and virtue so differences in the public square can be peacefully navigated and negotiated. In this way, rather than being a dividing force, religion can be a powerful catalyst for finding resolutions to geopolitical, economic and social problems.
Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. To study and teach Islam and to learn from Muslims is to understand the world and its complex and diverse faith traditions. As the West unfortunately casts a wary eye on Islam, it is especially important to understand Islam in a broad, interfaith context. Today, the Graduate Theological Union will open a Center for Islamic Studies in Berkeley that will focus on Islam as a living world religion in a setting that includes the study of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and other religious traditions. (MORE)