Nations First Multi-religious Graduate School Opens in Claremont

For nearly two millenia, many Christians, Jews, and Muslims have engaged in ideological and cultural disputes, some of which continue to this day. But on Sept. 6, a new and experimental theological school that takes a different perspective on the differences and similarities between these three religions opened just north of Harvey Mudd College (HMC).

Claremont Lincoln University, a project of the Claremont School of Theology (CST), is the first multireligious graduate school in the country. It will bring together Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the same classrooms in an attempt to “make possible what once seemed impossible: finding the common threads among religious and ethical traditions—while honoring the distinctiveness of each,” according to the university’s website.

Although CST is affiliated with Christianity, Claremont Lincoln was designed for cooperative, multireligious education. In addition to CST, organizations that helped found the university were the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJRCA), and the Islamic Center of Southern California (ICSC).

According to Najeeba Syeed-Miller, Professor of Interreligious Education at Claremont Lincoln, while AJRCA already offers post-graduate Judaic studies, there are no graduate programs for the study of Islam in the country.

“One of the reasons [for Claremont Lincoln’s founding] is that, for Muslim students, there is no graduate education program that provides them with the skills for leadership in their own community,” she said.

According to CST President Jerry Campbell, the idea for Claremont Lincoln materialized after a 2006 assessment of his school that revealed, among other things, that many CST students associated religion with conflict.

“We segregate religious education and then hope that religious leaders will work together for peace, but we give them no foundation or tools,” Campbell said. “So the question was: could we change the model of religious education?”

In 2008, CST faculty and trustees developed the model for their new project, which Campbell described as an intersection of three tiers: tradition, interreligious education, and applied religion.

“These three religious schools are going to educate students about traditions from Islam, Christianity, and Judaism,” Campbell said of the first tier. Regarding the second tier, the element most novel to Claremont Lincoln, he said students and faculty will be required to “try to create understanding and respect and collaboration.” The third tier, Campbell said, is designed to investigate how “religion can help solve problems and work with governments.”

Neither Campbell nor Syeed-Miller said they felt the current religious climate in the U.S. played a large role in motivating the founding of Claremont Lincoln, but Campbell acknowledged that the timing of the event was fortunate.

“[Because] there is so much conflict that is religion-based… the external situation demands some kind of action that doesn’t exacerbate the problem,” he said. “We’re trying to say that religion isn’t a competitive sport.” Syeed-Miller agreed.

“We might have to be an adaptable organization where we are open to conflict,” she said. “One of the downfalls of interfaith dialogue has been that people are pushed to an unanimous theology… In my classes, I don’t say we are searching for common ground; I say we are searching for common respect.”

Syeed-Miller also said she was hopeful that the principles behind Claremont Lincoln would spread to other areas of society.

“I think the biggest gift Claremont Lincoln can have is not really in the world of religion,” she said. “In our world today we are divided along so many lines, whether it’s political, class, race, gender… and I hope that what happens at Claremont Lincoln encourages people from different backgrounds to sit at the same table.”

According to Campbell, because Claremont Lincoln is still a division of CST, its courses are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the body that enforces academic standards among California institutions. But he said that eventually Claremont Lincoln will diverge from CST, at which point it will undergo an independent accreditation process. After this occurs, accreditation granted to Claremont Lincoln will be retroactive, so students entering CST this year and those already attending will be able to decide whether they want their degrees certified under the new university’s name.

Currently, organized curricula exist only for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, but Campbell said that the plan is for Claremont Lincoln to expand the number and diversity of religions that students may study in future. The Jain Center of Southern California (JCSC) has already begun developing a Jain Studies program with CST, and local Buddhists, Hindus, and Bahá’ís are in talks with the university as well.

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