Claremont seminary reaches beyond Christianity


In a bow to the growing diversity of America’s religious landscape, the Claremont School of Theology, a Christian institution with long ties to the Methodist Church, will add clerical training for Muslims and Jews to its curriculum this fall, to become, in a sense, the first truly multi-faith American seminary.

The transition, which is being formally announced Wednesday, upends centuries of tradition in which seminaries have hewn not just to single faiths but often to single denominations within those faiths. Eventually, Claremont hopes to add clerical programs for Buddhists and Hindus.

Although there are other theological institutions that accept students of multiple faiths, or have partnerships with institutions of other religions, Claremont is believed to be the first accredited institution that will train students of multiple faiths for careers as clerics. The 275-student seminary offers master’s and doctoral degrees.

“It’s really kind of a creative, bold move,” said David Roozen, director of the Institute for Religion Research at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. “It kind of fits, to some extent, California.... I think there will be a lot of us who will be watching that experiment.”

Claremont’s administration sees the multi-faith expansion as the wave of the future in American theological training. But it is straining relations between the school and more conservative elements of the United Methodist Church, which this year was expected to provide about 8% of Claremont’s $10-million budget. The church suspended its support for the school earlier this year pending an investigation.

Marianne E. Inman, president of the church’s University Senate, which oversees Methodist seminaries, declined to comment on Claremont’s plans, referring a reporter to a January statement in which she took the school to task for failing to consult with the church body on budget matters and on “a substantial reorientation of the institution’s mission.”

Mark Tooley, a conservative Methodist who is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington-based ecumenical organization, was more outspoken in his criticism.

“Claremont seems to be moving away from its responsibility to the United Methodist Church,” Tooley said. “It almost seems that they’re trying to fulfill the stereotype that many in the church have of liberal Methodism on the West Coast.”

Claremont President Jerry Campbell said he is optimistic that the University Senate will relent and restore funding. Partly to meet those concerns, the school is establishing the Muslim and Jewish programs as separate entities under the larger umbrella of what is being called the University Project. Regardless of the Methodist decision, he said, he intends to launch the new programs this fall, relying on a $10-million pledge from philanthropists. A decision from the church is expected later this month.

“We want our future religious leaders to understand the landscape in which they will be leading,” Campbell said in remarks prepared for Wednesday’s announcement. “We want them to be able to see ‘the other’ as neighbor, friend and co-worker. We want to be able to facilitate love among our different traditions in order that we can begin to solve the big problems.”

In making the announcement, Campbell identified the Muslim and Jewish organizations that will partner with Claremont to create the programs: The Islamic Center of Southern California, a well-established mosque in Koreatown, will help oversee the Muslim curriculum, and the Academy for Jewish Religion-California, a 10-year-old, nondenominational rabbinical school in Westwood, will be the Jewish partner.

The Muslim curriculum is expected to become one of the first programs in the United States to train imams, the clerics who lead Islamic prayer. Zaytuna, an Islamic college in Berkeley that is scheduled to open this fall, also plans to begin clerical training.

Previously, most imams at U.S. mosques have either emigrated from predominantly Muslim countries or have been sent from the United States to train in those countries. Scholars and some Islamic leaders said there has been a growing need for training imams that will reflect the particularities of Islamic society in this country, where there is a movement toward a more progressive approach to Islam, with a greater emphasis on a pastoral role by the imam.

“Our community is growing,” said Muzammil Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, a body that issues interpretations and answers questions about Islamic law. “And many people are realizing that we need to have locally trained, homegrown imams.”

Jihad Turk, director of religious affairs for the Islamic Center of Southern California, said he did not expect any opposition from Muslim groups to the mosque’s new partnership. “There are always going to be those who are uninterested and mistrustful of working with other faith traditions, and so we don’t expect participation from those,” he said. “But we’re not anticipating any kind of backlash or controversy.”

It is not entirely clear how much time students at Claremont will spend with students of other faiths and much of the new curriculum has yet to be determined. Participants in the project said it is important that the school provide authentic training in each faith. Some classes will have obvious crossover potential: All three faiths, for instance, include the Hebrew Bible in their scriptural canon. Other classes, such as a class in prayer, would be specific to a given faith.

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, president of the Academy for Jewish Religion-California, said he is excited about the potential for students to learn about other faiths, and to create lasting bonds with the future leaders of different faiths. But he said it was paramount that students receive a solid grounding in their own religion.

“In no way are we going to water that down,” he said.

His organization already faces, in microcosm, some of the challenges awaiting Claremont. The academy is open to Jews from all four of the major branches of the religion, but Gottlieb conceded that Orthodox Jewish graduates do not qualify for ordination as Orthodox rabbis, and few graduates wind up leading major congregations of any branch.

Most of those involved in the project acknowledge that there will be difficulties. There are those in every faith who believe that theirs is the only true way, a position that could lead to obvious tension. Many Christians believe they have a duty to try to “save” those who have not accepted Jesus as their savior. And there will be inevitable political tensions, especially surrounding events in the Middle East.

Still, there is growing interest in multi-faith dialogue in many theological institutions. The Assn. of Theological Schools, the main accrediting body for Christian seminaries in the United States and Canada, recently launched an effort to reconsider how Christian theological institutions should teach about other faiths.

Roozen, at the Hartford Seminary — which has begun its own program to provide continuing education to Muslim imams — said liberal Protestants in particular have been growing more interested in multi-faith dialogue, which he sees as part of a continuum that includes race, gender and sexual orientation. “Multi-faith is the new ‘other,’ ” he said. “It’s kind of the next step.”