Understanding and appreciating diversity. It’s something most colleges and universities take for granted.

Except, oftentimes, when it comes to faith.

“Even though Presbyterian institutions have long held commitments to open and free inquiry, ecumenism, and education in the pursuit of social uplift and righteousness, there’s still some discomfort across our campuses when it comes to the notion of embracing ‘faith-related’ diversity,” says Jeffrey E. Arnold, executive director of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges & Universities (APCU).  “Whether it’s because faith is ‘one of those things you don’t talk about,’ or simply because there hasn’t been any guidance offered to encourage a dialogue, it’s time to come face-to-face with the range of faith perspectives represented across all Presbyterian institutions.”

Toward that end, APCU is joining with the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, Monmouth College (Illinois), the Presbyterian College Chaplains Association, and Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, to co-sponsor a conference that will confront this opportunity head on.

Presbyterian & Pluralist: Equipping Presbyterian Colleges and Universities for Interfaith Leadership—to be held April 6–7, 2016, at Fourth Presbyterian Church—is a gathering of college leaders, including administrators, faculty, and chaplains, and experts on interfaith dialogue that will enable Presbyterian institutions to engage religious pluralism for purposes of mutual understanding, service to others, and social action.

Conference leaders include Eboo Patel, president and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, a former stated clerk of the PC(USA) and a leader in the global ecumenical movement, the Rev. Dr. Christine J. Hong, assistant professor of worship and evangelism at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Rick Ufford-Chase, co-director of Stony Point Center and a former PC(USA) moderator, and the Rev. Nanette Sawyer, associate pastor for Congregational Life at Fourth Presbyterian Church.

“Although the conference is designed primarily for college chaplains, faculty, staff, and other senior campus leaders, I would imagine that pastors would also benefit greatly from the dialogue, since many are probably dealing with misinformation about various faiths—Islam in particular—and concern or confusion over how to engage church members about the reality of pluralism in the world,” Arnold says.

The Rev. Joseph L. Morrow, campus engagement manager for the Interfaith Youth Core and a member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, agrees that while the daytime gathering is specifically for  higher education personnel at Presbyterian campuses, the outcomes should be of interest to other Presbyterian leaders—such as pastors, mid council staff, and young adults—who can look to our campuses for models of how interfaith engagement can be done in faithful and fruitful ways in challenging times.  

“Wednesday (Apr. 6) evening’s panel is open to the public and will serve as the conversational and conceptual bridge between the higher education focus and the broader concerns about the church’s response to religious diversity,” Morrow says. 

The Rev. Rob Spach, a PC(USA) teaching elder and chaplain of the Presbyterian-related Davidson College, will be part of a panel focusing on strategies for building interfaith leadership among Presbyterian campuses. He, along with Presbyterian Christian and other faith tradition leaders, will share their interest in the wisdom traditions of various world religions.  Spach spoke with Presbyterian News Service this week from his office in Davidson, N.C.

How important is it to understand one’s own faith before exploring the faith of others?

On the one hand, being grounded in and familiar with our particular faith tradition is helpful because it provides perspective, vocabulary, and lived experience of God from which to engage with people of other religions. On the other hand, we often learn about our own faith when having candid, authentic conversations with people of other religious traditions. In fact, getting to know and respect people who practice another faith may be vital to most deeply appreciating, understanding, and faithfully living out our own deepest commitments to and beliefs about God.

How have current world events influenced the topic of pluralism?

First and foremost, pluralism needs defining. I understand pluralism to begin with a commitment by each person to his or her own particular tradition, a recognition that there are genuine differences between traditions, and a willingness to engage with and converse across difference openly and respectfully in the public sphere. Current events have made pluralism an inescapable task for all of us. Since 9/11, the importance of religion on the global political scene—and in neighborhoods in our own country—has been undeniable. Watch TV and you can’t miss what is being said about Muslims and about refugees of various religions. Dig a little deeper, and you learn about the tensions in the world between Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims, as well as atheists and secularists. Yet we often know next to nothing about other traditions. We rarely have meaningful, trusting relationships with devout people of other faiths or who are secular. We react out of this lack of knowledge, which can lead to misunderstanding, fear, and condemnation. The diversity of religions and secular worldviews isn’t going away, so if we are going to find peace and thrive, we’ve got to live together well. Engaging with pluralism is essential for that to happen.

Why is pluralism an important topic for Presbyterian colleges to understand and appreciate?

When it comes to pluralism, Presbyterian colleges are ideally positioned to be in the vanguard of American higher education. Many public schools or secular private schools are wary of engaging their students around questions of faith. Our Reformed heritage and confessions, however, affirm openness to and respect for the world’s various religious traditions and secular worldviews. We therefore welcome people of all religious backgrounds, or none at all, into full participation in the life of our communities—and we encourage them to practice and speak about their faith as an aspect of that participation. Recognizing that pluralism can provide students with perspectives and skill sets that are vital in a religiously divided world, Presbyterian colleges can foster an education that prepares them to serve and lead in challenging, complex contexts. Our students must have opportunities—and an institutional ethos that encourages them—to encounter diverse religious convictions, texts, and practices seriously and openly, and to engage them both as academic topics, and as authentic expressions of the deepest commitments of the majority of the human race. Moreover, our colleges can help students of all traditions develop a deeper knowledge and practice of their own personal faith. 

How can PC(USA) pastors and congregations more effectively engage religious pluralism for the purposes of mutual understanding, service to others, and social action?

PC(USA) pastors and congregations can acquaint themselves with the many resources on interfaith relations on the denomination’s website. If they are in a religiously diverse area, pastors would find it enriching to set up a time to meet for conversation with clergy of houses of worship from diverse traditions—and approach those meetings with the intention of listening, learning, seeking to embody love of neighbor. Congregations could partner with other houses of worship if they engage in a “day of service” or any kind of service in the community, seeking to work alongside neighbors of other religious traditions—and follow that service with conversation together over a meal. And in light of much that is being done and said during this political season, all Presbyterians can commit to outspoken loyalty to and protection of others who are religiously different from themselves—especially Muslims right now—when those people or their houses of worship are attacked or belittled.