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Seminary Faculty Compare Notes on Religous Truth, Agree to Agree

Some 40 seminary faculty members from Catholic, Jewish and Protestant theological schools spent hours on Friday defining and discussing religious truth.

Fireworks? No, not even a few firecrackers.

Noting the “very civilized exchange” last year and at Friday’s fourth annual gathering of seminary faculty and guests from five Southern California seminaries, moderator Donald E. Miller, a USC sociologist of religion, said what most participants have known for years:

There is more similarity of religious views among what Miller called “progressive” Jews, Catholics and Protestants than there is between orthodox and progressive believers within each faith group.

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Jewish participants alluded to bitter conflicts between Orthodox Judaism and the religion’s relatively liberal branches. One seminary professor referred to “internecine warfare in evangelical circles.” A few Catholic professors mentioned new groups of “fundamentalists” challenging all but the most conservative priests and bishops.

The five seminaries, brought together by the Skirball Institute on American Values, are the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese’s St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College, the Conservative-related University of Judaism, the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and the Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist-run ecumenical seminary.

Eugene Mornell, executive director of the Skirball Institute, said that Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology had been invited the last two years but could not make it.

Miller ended discussions Friday at the Holy Spirit Retreat Center by asking whether “the orthodox camp,” which he did not identify, should be invited to next year’s conference.

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“This could have value because it would immediately sharpen our discussion of revelation, reason, tradition and experience,” Miller said.

“The downside? Probably there wouldn’t be another conference,” he quipped, evoking laughter from the professors.

A successful student version of Christian-Jewish discussions by the same quintet of Southland seminaries has been running since 1971. Some seminarians from the five schools attend a 24-hour retreat each year in the hills above Malibu at the Gindling Hilltop Camp operated by the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Sponsored by the organization formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the 1998 InterSem conference on Feb. 8-9 drew 77 participants, including some faculty and administrators.

The faculty discussions in Encino also got around to how seminarians handle truth claims.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism, said that Jewish seminarians 10 years ago wondered what was possible to say about religious truth “amid the debunking of classic truths” in intellectual circles.

“Today, that question hasn’t been resolved but they are not consumed by it,” Gordis said. “The critical question for them now is [the application of] Jewish law--what to wear, how to act, who to marry, and so on.”

The practical-minded seminarian has been observed also by Lori Anne Ferrell at Claremont School of Theology. “They see themselves as ‘answer-people-in-training’ for when they get out,” she said.

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Claremont colleague Kathleen Greider said she sees two kinds of students, “Those who are looking for the truth and those who came because they found the truth.” Seminaries are “trying to teach them all the same way and it hasn’t been working,” Greider said.


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