Graduate Theological Union

M.A. in Interreligious Studies: Engagement at the intersection of religion and cultures

Interreligious Studies

The Graduate Theological Union is “where religion meets the world,” but for 50 years, it has also been a place where the world’s religions engage each other. The establishment of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies and the Center for Islamic Studies, and the partnership with the Institute of Buddhist Studies allows and encourages students to critically engage faith traditions inside and outside the classroom. Despite this culture of dialogue, there has not yet been an explicit field of study.

“As faculty, we can bring in the interreligious component to ‘regular’ classes, such as ethics or art.”
— Marianne Farina, C.S.C.
Assistant Professor, Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology

The M.A. in Interreligious Studies resulted from a faculty-led initiative inspired by the work that students were already doing. Thomas Cattoi, Assistant Professor of Christology and Cultures at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, said “In my six years at the GTU, I’ve served on a number of thesis committees with interreligious topics, especially Christianity and Buddhism. Much of this research has been under the guise of theology, history, or spirituality.”

By formalizing this work into an official concentration, students can focus their coursework rather than cobbling components together from other areas. They will also be able to take more courses in interreligious dialogue, comparative religions or theologies, or simply in different traditions which they then synthesize on their own.
Marianne Farina, C.S.C., Assistant Professor at the Dominican School for Philosophy and Theology, adds, “The interreligious perspective is not exclusive to classes designed to be comparative or dialogical. As faculty, we can bring in the interreligious component to ‘regular’ classes, such as ethics or art.”

The term Interreligious Studies is a break from the commonly used terms like Comparative Theology or Comparative Religion. Dan Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, Associate Professor of Church History at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, who also served on the proposal’s committee, noted the distinction, “The word theology is Christian specific. Colleagues from Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism didn’t recognize themselves in the word theology. We also did not want a course of study in which Christianity was the primary reference point with another tradition. So, in choosing the term “interreligious” (acknowledging the problem with the very term “religion” as a Western category), we wanted to describe this area of study as inclusive … not theological study per se, but rather critical reflections upon the intersection of religious traditions and cultures.”

Five students have been admitted to the new M.A. in Interreligious Studies for fall 2012.

“The methodology of comparative religion is one legitimate approach in Interreligious Studies. Comparative religion often assumes the role of an outsider observing religious phenomena. In Interreligious Studies, a committed practitioner of one tradition can engage and study with other traditions while maintaining their religious subjectivity. Not to say that’s what everyone will do, but it’s another approach one could take,” Joslyn-Siemiatkoski explains.
The potential for this area is promising as practitioners of the world’s religions are in closer proximity than ever, particularly in the developed world. Joslyn-Siemiatkoski hopes that eventually Interreligious Studies will become a doctoral area. And Cattoi thinks it might lead to theological immersion trips or exchanges with international theological schools. Farina hopes that it will draw more students of various faith traditions into the classroom where they can foment the interreligious experiences.

The proposing committee noted growth in this academic discipline in the past decade. Other institutions, including Boston College, Georgetown University, and Catholic Theological Union have begun offering concentrations in comparative theology, religious pluralism, and Interreligious Dialogue, respectively, in their graduate degrees.
The creation of an Interreligious Studies area at the GTU places the school among only a few theological institutions embracing this emerging field.

To learn more about Interreligious Studies, visit the GTU website and look under Academics > Areas of Study.