Starr King emphasizes interfaith understanding in new curriculum

Starr King emphasizes interfaith understanding in new curriculum

New approach to inter-religious education essential in post–9/11 world, says faculty.


When Perry Pike moved across the country to attend Starr King School for the Ministry three years ago, he didn’t think there would be room for all of him. A student of Sufism and a Universalist raised in the Bible Belt, Pike was used to covering up his religious beliefs as much as he covered up that he was gay.

But on his first day on campus, he heard there was a Sufi professor and he met “out” transgender people for the first time. “I knew right away that I wouldn’t have to hide here. I could be out religiously and in terms of gender orientation,” said Pike, now in his third year of the Master of Divinity program. “It has pushed me to a new level, and helped me define both my marginality and my privilege.”

Pike’s experience mirrors the widening scope of the curriculum at Starr King. The Berkeley, Calif., Unitarian Universalist seminary has long embraced progressive educational values, but its emerging curricular model is more explicit in its mission to provide theological education that is student-centered, counter-oppressive, and multi-religious. It is also increasing its online offerings and incorporating more “immersion learning”—trips abroad as well as internships in congregations, prisons, and hospitals.

“The new educational model is an evolution of longstanding educational priorities at the school,” said the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, president and professor of theology at Starr King. Prior to creating the new curriculum, Parker and the faculty developed a statement outlining the school’s commitment to educate “to counter oppressions and create a just and sustainable community.” The new model furthers that mission as well as a commitment “to educate for wholeness and liberation.”

Many factors have come together to create the new curriculum at Starr King, which is currently being rolled out and integrated into the existing curriculum, and will continue to evolve over the next six years. The factors include: a faculty and student body with a wide variety of religious interests and experiences; a growing need for greater opportunities for online education for students in Berkeley and around the country; and a deepening need for awareness of religious diversity following September 11.

Starr King is a member of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), a consortium of nine theological schools and eight affiliated centers, including a Center for Buddhist Studies and a Center for Jewish Studies. After the September 11 terrorist attacks and a growing suspicion of Muslims among some Americans, GTU academics turned to Starr King to help create a Center for Islamic Studies. “We had the longest track record of studying global religion in our curriculum” among the GTU schools, said Parker. “And we had the only full-time faculty member with expertise in Islamic studies: Dr. Ibrahim Farajajé.”

Starr King agreed to take the lead in developing the GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies. At the same time, it began to grapple more deeply with what faculty saw as a calling to develop multi-religious education at Starr King. “Farajajé conceptualized an approach to interfaith study that is a new way to teach about the study of global religious traditions,” Parker said.

This approach to religious study goes beyond the traditional comparative religious model and studies world religions in their intersections and in relationship to one another. For example, Parker said, Christianity has been shaped by its intersections with Judaism; and Zen Buddhism has its roots in how Japanese Buddhists responded to their encounter with western Monastic traditions. “Things we’ve thought of as monolithic traditions are more like living organisms that have been living and breathing in interaction with one another in a global ecology,” said Parker.

Farajajé recently traveled from Berkeley to Istanbul, where he’ll spend the fall semester. While he is there, he will teach online courses, advise Starr King students, and prepare a December immersion class in Turkey centered around the annual Sufi celebration of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi's death. He spoke by telephone about the significance of multi-religious education.

“It is important for Unitarian Universalist ministers and religious leaders to be trained in this way of thinking,” said Farajajé. “It doesn’t mean a new generation of ministers will know everything there is to know about religion, but their way of looking at religion will be different. They will look at the way religions overlap and inform each other. We are moving beyond an understanding of religious traditions of having essentialized purity so each one has a discreet definition. These notions have been imposed by certain scholarly opinions that have shaped how we look at things.”

Farajajé’s work attracted the attention of the Luce Foundation, which in 2005 awarded Starr King a three-year grant of $300,000 to develop and implement the curriculum for a Master of Divinity degree in multi-religious understanding. Earlier this year, the Luce Foundation awarded the school a second grant of $375,000 over three years to integrate multi-religious understanding into the curriculum and all of the educational programs. That donation followed an anonymous gift of $500,000 in 2007 to support the new educational model. Additional donations followed, which, in addition to the second Luce grant, raised a total of $1 million for the new curriculum, according to the Rev. Kelly Flood, Starr King’s vice president for advancement.

The donations could not have come at a better time for Starr King. Traditionally, the Unitarian Universalist Association has been the largest benefactor of the two Unitarian Universalist seminaries: Starr King and Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Like Meadville Lombard, Starr King is watching grants from the Unitarian Universalist Association shrink.

In 2007, the UUA awarded Meadville Lombard and Starr King each $250,000. In 2008 the grants fell to $225,000 each. And in 2009, each school will receive $200,000. The reductions follow a motion passed by the UUA Board of Trustees in April 2007, directing the UUA Panel on Theological Education (POTE) “to present recommendations to the Board of Trustees that would make the funding of ministerial formation, development, and excellence the first priority for use of the Panel’s resources, rather than the current singular focus on support for theological schools.”

The Rev. Barbara Merritt is chair of POTE, which makes recommendations to the UUA board about how it should distribute theological education funds. She said the board was also taking into account that only 35 percent of students preparing for Unitarian Universalist ministry were enrolled in the two UU seminaries. (Others study at Andover Newton Theological School, Harvard Divinity School, and other seminaries and divinity schools.) “Nearly 70 percent of the POTE money was going to 35 percent of the ministerial students,” said Merritt.

In December, POTE is hosting a conference in Seattle to explore “Excellence in Ministry.” Among the most controversial topics slated for discussion is the best way for POTE to use its grants to fund ministerial excellence.

Parker, president of Starr King, will be in attendance. "We have a denominational commitment to antiracism and counter-oppressive values," she said. "My hope is that the UUA can see the significance of Unitarian Universalist theological schools for advancing our commitments, be proud of our schools, and continue to make it a priority to invest in them in a major way."

Starr King currently has six sub-committees at work on curricular goals, curricular vehicles, faculty, students, resources, and planning/evaluation. Each subcommittee includes faculty, trustees, graduates of the school, and current students. Second-year student Jodi Tharan has been serving on the educational model working group.

“The multi-religious approach is why I’m here,” said Tharan. She is a candidate for UU ministry but envisions becoming a religious leader as a Jewish woman. “I see myself doing UU religious leadership without letting go of my Jewish voice and Jewish practice and without dividing myself up into pieces.”

Although Tharan lives near the school in El Cerrito, Calif., she said she is practically a remote student, as she is both the director of special education services at the Center for Jewish Living and Learning and the religious education program coordinator at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley. She is also a single mother of two. She has taken one course online, and hopes to take others online as well.

As Starr King invests in its remote-teaching technology, it plans to offer more online courses and expand the size of its student body. Ten years ago, five students were taking courses online. In the 2007-08 academic year, 120 students took online courses. The enrollment goal is to increase the size of the student body to 100 full-time equivalent students, from its current number, 75 full-time equivalent students.

Farajajé notes that the remote learning provides access for people in many corners of the world, including people with disabilities and people whose schedules and life circumstances make it easier for them to combine online education with periods of intensive study in Berkeley than to uproot themselves entirely.

He is heartened by the opportunity to expand multi-religious education to more students. “It is important in the formation of Unitarian Universalist ministers and all religious leaders in the twenty-first century,” Farajajé said. “So much of the tension with which we live in the world today is grounded in interpretations of religious tradition, grounded in the notion of exclusivist identity. To be able to have religious leaders pick apart and interpret that for people and help people grow beyond oppositional ways of thinking would bring a level of sophistication and refinement to religious discourse that is really one of the hallmarks of the Unitarian Universalist religious heritage.”

This article is the second in a two-part series about changes at the two Unitarian Universalist seminaries.

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