new Mennonite Life logo    March 2003     vol. 58 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

Engaged Christian Education in a Multi-Faith World

by Jayne Seminare Docherty

Jayne Seminare Docherty is associate professor of conflict studies in the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Let us begin with Professor Huebner's premise that what a Mennonite university "is for" cannot be separated from "its church mandate which is to assist in the task of creating a people with the resources to live faithful Christian lives in whatever world we find ourselves." What challenges does the contemporary world offer Christians? And, what does this imply for Mennonite universities?

We live in a world where major shifts in social and economic structures have been accompanied by an upsurge in religious fervor. On our "shrinking globe," religious traditions bump up against each other on a daily basis; religious identities have become enmeshed in deeply-rooted, violent social conflicts; and weapons of mass destruction are all too readily available to persons and groups that feel compelled to facilitate the final scenario intended by their god. In this world, numerous Christians are encouraging a conflict with apocalyptic potential by contributing money to construct Jewish settlements on Palestinian land and rebuild the temple. U. S. political leaders - while claiming not to be targeting a single religious group - enact domestic and foreign policies that belie their claims of religious tolerance. In other countries politicians are even more blatant about inciting inter-religious violence for their own political benefit. Today, seeking converts (no matter what one's faith tradition) fuels violent responses from communities that are besieged and threatened by social, political, and economic changes beyond their control. Religion is often described as a source of violent conflict while religiously based non-governmental organizations are ever more deeply involved in working for the peaceful transformation of conflict.

I teach in a Mennonite university program that is trying to meet the challenges just described. The Conflict Transformation Program (CTP) at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) is a graduate professional program rather than a liberal arts undergraduate program. And, unlike the entirely Christian or predominantly Christian student populations one normally encounters in a Mennonite university, my typical class is a multi-faith gathering where Christians are a slim majority, sometimes even the minority.

CTP became a multi-faith learning community when we accepted an invitation from the United States Department of State to become the designated conflict resolution program for Fulbright scholars from the Middle East and South Asia. Most people in conflict resolution education thought the invitation would go to one of the many secular university programs, because the Fulbright students are predominantly non-Christian. But, in my opinion, CTP was selected because of - not in spite of - its faith-based approach to peacemaking.

Secular conflict resolution programs undervalue the role of religion as a source of conflict and a resource for peace. When they consider religion, they approach it from an "outside" perspective - subjecting religion to analysis, but never really engaging the language and logic of faith. At CTP, we understand the importance of faith as a motivation for human action, and we recognize that one can only engage faith effectively from inside a faith framework. At the same time, we practice religious tolerance and eschew any missionary endeavors.

In this setting, we have been able to create a highly effective program for equipping peacemakers to work in a world where questions of religion and faith are integrally related to issues of violence, conflict, peace, and justice. I am not suggesting that Mennonite universities should become places where Christian students are in the minority. But, I think the experience at CTP can help us think about "how the Christian faith should properly interact with the disciplines of today's liberal arts curriculum," particularly when we locate that problem in the multi-cultural, multi-faith reality of the twenty-first century.

First, there is the problem of language. Professor Huebner's problem of finding a language that can "handle the truth" is exponentially complicated in a multi-faith-based classroom. In my classes, faith languages encounter one another as well as secular disciplinary languages while we wrestle with extremely difficult social problems. Yet, this is a reality of the world we occupy today. Persons from many faith backgrounds must work together to address serious scientific, ethical, political, economic, and social problems. We surely have an obligation to equip Mennonite university students to lead and to participate in such encounters. So, what language or languages should our students be learning and what norms about faith language should we be instilling in them?

At CTP, we could have restricted classroom discussions to models of conflict and conflict transformation that have no faith component. We use these models all the time. But, in our experience, when persons speak about difficult issues such as conflict, justice, violence, and peace - particularly when they speak from personal experience that contains more than a small amount of trauma - a neutral, secular, academic language is completely inadequate. In these circumstances, persons turn to their "native tongue," and for most individuals that native tongue includes a language of faith.

The following language norms have evolved at CTP - enforced primarily by the example of faculty, staff, and second year students: Individuals are free to speak their own faith language, but they should not expect others to speak that language. Participants are discouraged from making pronouncements about faith traditions other than their own, but they are encouraged to ask questions - even critical questions - about every tradition, including (perhaps especially) their own. Individuals may pray (even aloud) in their own faith language, but community prayers are couched in language that expresses common faith sensibilities.

A second problem is what Professor Huebner calls the "metaphor of engagement" between faith language and secular language. From his list of metaphors, dialogue comes closest to the CTP model, although in our multi-faith setting it would be more accurate to speak of a multi-logue. However, Professor Huebner parses dialogue in a manner that is closer to debate - where the expectation is that someone or some viewpoint or some language will "win" the day. A better way to describe the encounters in a CTP classroom is "critical engagement and shared discernment."

We begin with the premise that the values of peace and justice exist in each faith tradition, even when faith institutions distort those values. We distinguish revealed truth from the flawed institutions that arise out of faith communities. Since we assume that our students will return to their own communities, we do not try to convert them to our faith; we help them discover the resources for peace, justice, and non-violence in their own traditions. We do this by modeling and encouraging engaged, critical reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of specific faith traditions and religious institutions. We encourage critical reflection within faith traditions as well as between faith traditions. This year, for example, the Muslim students have enriched our theory class with internal debates and discussions about the nature of the Islamic state, Islamic pacifist traditions, and Islamic assumptions about the nature of justice.

I'll let our recent graduates describe the personal fruits of this educational experience. A practicing Muslim student said, "If I am not a full Mennonite, then I am at least half Mennonite now." He also trained with Christian Peacemaker Teams and is returning to work on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. His classmate from India said, "I am Hindu by birth. I found the space here to explore Hinduism to a much greater extent than I did at home." While their colleague from Sri Lanka notes that, "CTP is built upon Mennonite values. Nobody should feel apologetic about this. I believe Gandhi said, 'be open to other cultures and let them flow through, but don't let your inner core go,' because that is what holds things together. Even though EMU is a Christian institution, it is open to others. People outside need to know this."

The multi-faith learning experiment at CTP raises some useful questions for Mennonite universities. How do we help undergraduates - who are at a different developmental stage than peacebuilding professionals in their mid-thirties - master the skills of critical engagement and shared discernment in a multi-faith world? Perhaps we begin by equipping them with the skills to critically engage their own faith tradition and religious institutions, while also exposing them to other faiths. Should Mennonite universities hire non-Christian faculty members? CTP students have, thus far, accepted that we are unable to hire non-Christians as full-time faculty members. But, how long can we sustain our credibility if we won't hire a full-time colleague from another faith? Even the CTP faculty and staff are divided on this issue, so we recognize that it won't be an easy discussion. Finally, how do we explain this kind of a program to the wider Mennonite constituencies, many of whom believe that Mennonite universities are supposed to help maintain the boundaries of Mennonite faith and perhaps expand the membership of the Mennonite church? Are we prepared to say that Mennonite universities should help a Hindu student become a better Hindu peacemaker or a practicing Muslim become a Muslim peacemaker with Mennonite sensibilities?