United Methodists are currently somewhat abuzz over the decision of Claremont School of Theology (UMC) to launch their new "Multi-Faith" project. This endeavor which has now received the belated nod from the denominational University Senate, will seek to provide clerical training for persons who are entering ministry in a variety of religious expressions. These offerings will initially target Christian, Jewish, and Muslim candidates for ministry. According to the July 9 "United Methodist Reporter", Claremont's "University Project" will seek to expand to include Buddhist and Hindu options. Predictably, this has raised concerns from United Methodists who question whether it constitutes a loss of clear focus upon the historic mission of the educational efforts of United Methodist seminaries.
Could all of this be the breeding ground for a tempest in a teapot? How big a deal is the so called University Project? Perhaps the answer could be in the details. Details are admittedly scarce at this point, but here are some ruminations for those who like to engage in "could be's".
The Claremont program could be fairly benign if it emphasizes understanding and dialogue between the clergy of various living world religions. In such a context, one could benefit from exposure to the actual practitioners of a religion as ideas are explored, practices are examined, and strengths and weaknesses are highlighted. One could conceivably obtain the benefits of both faith confirmation and corrective in light of the insights brought to bear by other traditions.
On the other hand, there could be problems. One might discover that the emphasis is upon a leveling of the theological field. The goal in such a circumstance could be to create a worldview in which there is no clear superiority of one faith over another. In such a setting, the clerical candidate would find it expedient to not emphasize any ascendancy of their particular faith over an alternate system. It could be considered boorish to affirm that one's faith tradition expresses a unique truth claim. Evangelicals of any faith tradition could quickly discover that she or he is the "odd man out". Such possibilities could be experienced either because the institutional mission statement for the program mandates it, or as any post-seminarian knows, the various instructors for the courses or seminars carry their philosophical baggage into the session expectations.
It remains to be seen how this will play out for Claremont, but it will doubtless be interesting. For those who find Claremont's experiment to be unsettling, let me offer a word of comfort. The program is not likely to be a really big deal. I may be wrong, but I suspect the persons who will be drawn to this program will be few. Anyone who is passionate about their faith is not likely to be enthusiastic about doing their core study for ministry in a setting that appears to minimize the rich distinctive of their faith. Further, the more evangelical one is, the less comfortable will be any setting in which bedrock beliefs and core values are perceived to be repressed.
All of this remains to be determined as the program plays out, but it could be that the multi-faith educational program at Claremont will simply be one more reason for seminarian's to attend some alternate institution.