From the Dean’s Desk

Gregory E. Sterling The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean of Yale Divinity School & Lillian Claus Profess

It would be irresponsible to think of Christianity in less than global terms in the 21st century. By extension it would be irresponsible to think in global terms without considering the ways in which Christianity relates to other religions.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 report on “Global Religious Diversity,” in 2010 Christians comprised 31.5 percent of the world’s population, Muslims 23.2 percent, Hindus 15 percent, Buddhists 7.1 percent, folk religionists 5.9 percent, and all other religions less than 1 percent. Some 16 percent had no religious affiliation. Thus Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists comprise almost half the globe. While Jews are only 0.2 percent of the world’s population, Christians cannot afford to ignore our relationship to them – after all, we include their Scriptures as the first half of our own Scriptures.

Global thinking is a pressing need for a Christian divinity school. The issues we face range from the dynamics of intermarriage to violent conflicts that use religion to justify bloodshed.

Almost every minister today will face the question of counseling couples from different religious backgrounds. Before 1960, according to a Pew Research Center report last year (“Interfaith marriage is common in US …”), 81 percent of people married a spouse of the same religion. Between 2010-2014, this number dropped to 61 percent. Although the most common forms of intermarriage are between Christians and a “none” (18 percent) or a spouse from a different Christian tradition (15 percent), 6 percent were to individuals of another religion, double the percentage prior to 1960. We have to prepare ministers who can respond to these realities.

We also need to prepare ministers who can address the horrific episodes of violence in the name of religion that recur with alarming frequency. We want to do this by creating a new model for thinking about the relationship between religions.

There are two widely known models today. In academic circles, religious studies departments use the comparative religion approach. This approach brackets all commitments of faith and compares religions largely through social scientific methods. Although there is an important place for the academic study of religion, we cannot afford to reduce religion to a social construct and expect practitioners of other religions to take us seriously – they will not.

A second model is an interfaith approach used in ecclesial circles. Its multiple incarnations range from single meetings to dedicated units within a denomination. Again, this is important work, but an ecumenical divinity school like Yale Divinity School cannot speak for a particular church or a group of churches.

As a school within a major research university, we want to create an approach to issues from a rigorous intellectual perspective – yet within an environment of faith or practice. We are not interested in identifying the lowest common denominator among religions but in exploring both the points of agreement and disagreement. It is shortsighted to avoid issues that divide. Further, our approach needs to include experts from other fields, such as anthropology, law, and political theory. We want to draw on the University’s full range of resources to address the issues that drive wedges between practitioners of different religions.

This issue of Reflections is a step for us to think about issues we need to address. The contributors are diverse: Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims. We all share at least two convictions: We are loyal to our own religion and, at the same time, we are committed to live in peace with one another. This is not simply an academic exercise. The lives and well-being of millions of people are at stake. I invite you to read these articles with the same level of seriousness out of which the authors have written them.