Lessons in faith

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McGill Reporter
May 22, 2003 - Volume 35 Number 16
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Lessons in faith

Religious schools teach academics, theological schools teach faith and never the twain shall meet, at least not along University Street. However, this separation of devotion and academics is being challenged by a McGill affiliate in Jerusalem that seeks to bring believers and the curious together for intense, open interfaith discussions.

The Elijah School for the Study of Wisdom in World Religions is not a typical university; in fact it's not even a real school. This four-year-old affiliate of McGill's Faculty of Religious Studies is an umbrella organization of twelve Jerusalem theological colleges of various faiths that acts as think tank, seminar host and, most importantly, summer school.

"At McGill," explained Religious Studies professor Richard Hayes, and former Elijah guest, "we present the material and let students guess what our convictions are." Not so at the Elijah School. The scholars there are expected to share with students both their academic expertise and their religious faith.

In two weeks of intense discussion sessions and field trips, scholars representing all of the major religions and approximately fifteen to twenty graduates and advanced undergraduates from across the world meet to debate and reflect upon a theme like sainthood or mystical prayer.

"Each of us who was there," said Hayes, "was there to talk about an issue from our own personal perspective."

This approach initially worried Religious Studies professor Katherine Young, who was invited to the 2001 program. "I was concerned that the academics would be weak," she said, "but I was pleased to find that they were actually quite strong."

McGill can take much of the credit. "When we got interested [in affiliating ourselves with the project]," said Dean of Religious Studies Barry Levy, "we imposed certain academic requirements [such as term papers] that didn't exist before."

Nonetheless, most students do not come for scholarly reasons alone. "Oftentimes these people are engaged in a personal religious quest," Levy said. "They come to the program and re-examine their own tradition and discover aspects of it they never knew, something most people find personally enriching. They begin to poke at a level that they've never experienced before."

They also begin to explore each other's faiths, and this is one of the principal reasons Levy helped bring about the link with McGill. "I think it's a good idea," he said. "It broadens horizons. Students who are studying religion these days tend to be very narrowly focused." As a result, he said, they do not get much exposure to other faiths. "The only way to understand the other is to visit the other, talk to the other, be with the other."

Religious Studies student Mary Fowles, took last year's class on Diaspora in World Religions because "it dealt with a topic in religious studies that was not only philosophical or metaphysical but also rooted in practice, in the lived realities and experiences of religious people living in Montreal." Calling it "probably the best class I've ever taken at McGill," Fowles says the diverse mix of students (including a preacher, ministers-in-training, post-graduates) and professors "led to a really fascinating and intimate classroom environment, extremely divergent from the norm."

"We visited a Hindu temple, an African-Canadian church, an Armenian church, a synagogue, a Christian monastery, a Sikh temple and a mosque. To be able to witness the worship of so many of the world's different faiths in Montreal gave me a great perspective on the city and country in which I live, and I think also opened doors for people who come from one tradition to understand and accept the practices and beliefs of another."

Unfortunately, the instability in the Middle East makes this increasingly difficult for the Elijah School. Previous years have tackled such politically sensitive issues as religious identity and conversion, and religion and territory. Since the most recent Intifada -- the Palestinian uprising for a homeland -- began two years ago, the school has been geographically divided for security reasons. McGill now hosts the international seminars; a summer session continues to be held in Jerusalem for local residents only.

At McGill this July, a baker's dozen of students will explore dying, death and beyond, led in their discussions by a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu and a Buddhist alongside palliative care workers, and funeral home directors. Students will spend their mornings and afternoons in class and then take field trips to various religious organizations in the city to discover how they address death.

Meanwhile, the seminar in Jerusalem will address the thorny issue of leadership and authority in world religions—who has the spiritual and political authority to lead and direct a people?

Young recalls the stress of being in Jerusalem in 2001 when the current problems flared up. Muslim students who had signed up to participate couldn't attend because of travel restrictions and a local Muslim teacher worried he wouldn't be able to return to his village the evening he taught.

While the school's literature expresses a hope for eventual peace through understanding, Levy is sanguine about the effect of the school on the region.

"Are we going to change the world?" he asked. "One person at a time."

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