“But what if they lose their faith?” Creating Appreciative Multifaith Classrooms in Seminary

[1] I was invited by a congregation to lead an educational series on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations during one of the numerous politically controversial moments in our nation that fixated on Muslims. This is usually the time when I am invited to speak – when there is a political controversy. My intent, however, was to shift the focus away from national and international politics and help those present to think about local issues. Who were the Muslims in their community and how might they take steps to learn directly from and with their Muslim neighbors about their concerns? After the first session, the volunteer leader of the youth program approached me and asked if it would be okay for the youth to attend the next sessions. Excitedly, they thought that the students would benefit from the format and discussions. Of course, I agreed.

[2] The next week as I was setting up for the session, the youth director approached me and sheepishly apologized. The youth would not be joining us. Apparently, in their naive excitement the youth director had sparked a firestorm in the congregation. During the week, the director sent out a note to the parents letting them know about that the youth would be joining the adults for my following two Sunday sessions. It was then that the calls came into the pastor… “Why was the church teaching our youth about Moslems?” “I don’t want my child exposed to these terrorists.” “But what if they learn something they like and they lose their faith?” The simple invitation created a complex controversy.

[3] Clearly, there was a great deal of fear and anxiety about Islam among the parents. It is my belief though that the parents did not fully recognize the extent to which their youth experienced religious pluralism in their daily lives, which was more so than they experienced at their church. Nevertheless, that next Sunday, the room was filled with parents who had not attended previously, and I had to repeat the previous weeks’ material to bring the new attendees on board with the intent of the forums. In the first week, there was curiosity and interest. In the second week, there was outright anger in the room. I felt like I was Socrates, being charged with leading the youth astray…

[4] On another teaching occasion, I was leading a session on the latest sociological studies of American Muslim communities at a synod clergy gathering. The synod staff had invited me, again, because it was at a politically charged moment in our nation. They thought I might be able to help guide a conversation among the pastors. It was not long into the presentation before the questions popping up had nothing to do with the political issues. They were more practical and pastoral. Many of the clergy shared their frustrations about not knowing how to respond to the multifaith families in their congregation. One family had a Muslim father. Another family had a daughter who married a Jewish man. Another noted that a family came to them seeking reassurance because their child’s best friend was Hindu. The family wanted to be good hosts and provide a safe space for their child’s friend but were not sure if this was acceptable as Christians, or if they should be “sharing Jesus” with the child.

[5] I was amazed at the common threads running through the questions by my colleagues. They wanted guidance in how to help their families navigate religious diversity. “How do we include them in the life of the congregation?” “They are embarrassed because they feel like if they have a Muslim in the family, then they are not good Christians.” “How do I include this Jewish husband when some members say that the New Testament instructs us to tell them [the Jews] about Jesus?” They were not angry or anxious, they just wanted suggestions or guidance and theological rationale on how to be a good pastor and support their families in the midst of their congregational life.

[6] Christian ministry is done in religiously plural contexts. As I have argued elsewhere, one cannot do public ministry without awareness of, encounter with, and sensitivity to other religious communities, individuals, or families. It is not only that pastors serve in communities where there are Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, or Hindu communities, although this is an important recognition in and of itself. The local networks where pastors live and work, and the families they serve, are integrated within other multifaith relationships. Some members may even self-identify with multiple religious traditions. Being comfortable with these intertwined relationships is a competency that we should expect from seminary graduates. This article argues that denominational seminaries have unique opportunities and a variety of tools available to provide seminarians the necessary knowledge and skills to develop empathy, sensitivity, and wisdom to do public and private Christian ministry in multifaith contexts, to become comfortable with religious difference and to be appreciative of those differences.

[7] I am not the first person to have made such a claim. In 1999, M. Thomas Thangaraj, Professor of World Christianity at Candler School of Theology, put forward the argument that a globalized world and society requires new demands from theological education. Thangaraj noted that Christians now had to consider their faith in the context of and in relation to other religious traditions, that pastors were regularly finding themselves involved interreligious events (such as Thanksgiving services or interfaith weddings), and that congregations were engaging with other religious communities who had similar values about social injustices (about homeless or hunger, etc.) that led them to work together for the common good. In the end, Thangaraj noted, “Theological students need to be critically aware of the beliefs, practices, and presences of other religious traditions.”[1] Since that time, many have said similar things.

Multifaith competency in the curriculum

[8] As a result of the conversations around “globalization,” (i.e., religious and cultural diversity) in 2012 the Association of Theological Schools introduced Standard A.2.3.2.:

“MDiv education shall engage students with the global character of the church as well as ministry in the multifaith and multicultural context of contemporary society.”

[9] A cursory review of various current seminary curriculum (including those among Lutheran seminaries) will find the very diverse ways in which MDiv students are being exposed to ministry in multifaith situations. Some seminaries have included courses about other religions, others have brought in instructors of another faith tradition to speak on behalf of their tradition. Some seminaries have provided unique opportunities to create joint courses or experiences with rabbinical schools or Islamic colleges, for example. Yet, in most cases, regardless of the method of the course, these opportunities are still electives or options within the curriculum, offered to a select few students often during the final year of study. Some rare schools, however, have taken the challenge head on and require first year students to engage in an intercultural or interreligious course or experience their first semester of seminary!

[10] As schools have responded to this standard, and more importantly to the reality of multifaith contexts, new courses have been developed. They are often housed in the mission department, part of evangelism courses, or more popularly within the theology department under the heading of “theological pluralism.” And yet, the primary context out of which religious pluralism is encountered in congregational settings is the pastoral, which Thangaraj noted almost twenty-five years ago.  Also, rarely is interfaith learning a signature part of the curriculum, or as Kristin Johnston Largen has argued, part of the foundation of Christian theology, rather than simply “window dressing.”[2] I would argue that for the benefit of the students we form, the families and communities they will serve, and the Gospel that is preached in the midst of multifaith contexts, seminaries must find ways to create an appreciative multifaith curriculum and classrooms.

Doing ministry today

[11] Diana Eck’s groundbreaking work from 2001, A New Religious America, pointed out conclusively that the US is a pluralistic society. [3] And yet, religious pluralism is more complicated and much more prevalent than we like to admit. Certainly, graduates from MDiv programs go out and serve congregations and Christian ministries that are located where other religious communities and institutions are present. There is the local synagogue, mosque, and temple across town, or even across the street. This is even true in rural areas that we might assume are predominantly white and Christian. Since 9/11, most seminaries have tried to help students see the importance of reaching out to other religious leaders and striking up relationships as colleagues for the well-being of the community. The 2019 “A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment” underlines the importance of working in “multi-religious coalitions, organizations, and initiatives that seek the common good” and the importance of “loving the neighbor.”[4] Certainly, there are many things that can be done interreligiously with other communities – responding to mass shootings, working together to fight hunger, homelessness, and acting for eco-justice. 

[12] But these religiously others signify not only institutions and associations – but other adherents who are engaged in the local community on any number of levels and aspects. An Islamic Center signifies not only a building and a religious community – but a group of individuals and families who are enmeshed in all kinds of relationship, and more than likely with members of Christian congregations. Often, members of these other religious traditions are related to members of congregations or even members themselves (if a member self-identifies as holding multiple religious identities.) The 2019 Declaration provides only three sentences to address the pastoral considerations of “the common reality of multi-religious family life.” And yet, it is precisely in such pastoral consideration where both public and private ministry coalesce around multifaith issues.

[13] As sociologist Robert Putnam has so eloquently put it, Americans are commonly “switching, mixing, and matching.”[5]  Multifaith families and even multi-religious individuals are increasingly part of our congregational lives. How does a pastor respond to parents who want their children to attend confirmation class and Hebrew school? What to do with requests for co-officiating weddings between a Christian and Hindu family? Knowing of the strained Jewish-Christian relationships within an extended family, how does the pastor preach Christ at the funeral of a member? How does one counsel an interfaith couple who have come forward and complained that they do not feel welcomed by the congregation?

[14] Even though seminary students often face various interreligious experiences in CPE, they usually do not learn to expect such experiences within the confines of their church walls, and yet such occasions are now becoming commonplace. One thing is for certain, if seminary students are not exposed to the reality religious pluralism as part of their theological education – if they do not become comfortable with religious difference and expect it – they will be poorly equipped to do ministry![6]

Creating appreciative multifaith classrooms

[15] Denominational seminaries have a unique opportunity and a variety of tools available to develop appreciative classrooms that recognize and respond to religious diversity. There are numerous articles and publications that provide examples of good pedagogical methods to help students think through their faith as public ministers in multifaith realities.[7] And, in many cases seminaries are trying to implement these learnings. However, far too many seminaries still meet the “multifaith and multicultural” standard by offering courses as electives for students, for those who have successfully passed Confessions class and have their theological house in order, or senior students who demonstrate an interest in religious pluralism. It is still possible for many students to graduate from seminary without having to address religious difference in a classroom – or more importantly in their contextual education ministry. It is important that the formation of students for multifaith ministry should not only be required, but it must become a central part of curricular outcomes. To do this, it requires not only students learn to become comfortable with religious difference, but that faculty as well.

[16] One of the most effective ways for denominational seminaries to form Christian ministers to meet the challenges and opportunities of multifaith ministry is to have students from different religious traditions in the same classroom, especially in courses that deal with central topics, such as the Bible or theology. It is also helpful to have faculty of other religious traditions as part of the whole educational process, not just one course. This may mean, in some cases, hiring faculty members who self-identify with other religious traditions, or altering institutional documents to allow non-Christians into academic programs.

[17] While divinity schools or university religious studies programs have been doing this for some time, denominational seminaries are in a unique and enviable situation to assist students’ experience and examine religious diversity within a confessional theological setting. This can be done by creating appreciative multifaith classrooms, where difference is not a threat, but an opportunity. Multifaith classrooms are an incredible laboratory for deep learning. Such opportunities will, in the end, assist seminarians to learn more about their own tradition and beliefs than if they were to study only within the safe confines of a theologically homogenous community. It is one thing to think, reflect, and talk about other religious traditions, it is something quite different to think, reflect, and talk with those of other religious traditions. This can be challenging, and probably does not come naturally for many, especially when we are learning and teaching about the central foundations of one’s faith. But what better way to learn about Christology than with those who don’t speak our theological language or in the end do not share our ultimate convictions. Do we not do ministry in such contexts anyway?

[18] Several years ago, while teaching at another institution, I posed the question to our faculty about the opportunity for several Muslim students to enroll in our MA program. One of my colleagues noted matter-of-factly, “David, you don’t teach enough courses on Islam for them to earn a degree in that.” I responded, “They don’t want to come here to study Islam, they want to come here and study the Bible.” My colleague was genuinely confused.

[19] There are students from other religious traditions who want to learn about Christianity from “Bible-believing” Christians. They are genuinely interested. If we allow ourselves to appreciate this genuine interest, it will not take long for us to learn what is truly meaningful for others, to learn how important the Prophet is to a Muslim student’s daily life or how emotional another can become about one’s prayer life. In return, Muslim students will find out what the Cross means to our students. It might even help Lutheran students articulate what a theology of the Cross actually means for their own faith.

[20] Krister Stendahl is widely noted for coining the phrase “holy envy.”  Stendahl’s concept has been become popular recently by Barbara Brown Taylor, whose book Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, encourages Christians to examine that which that we might admire in another’s tradition.[8] There can be plenty to appreciate in the beliefs of others: their commitment, their sincerity, and their theological rationale. Of course, there are some beliefs that lead to dehumanization and subjugation. There are those who hold racist, misogynist, and nationalist ideologies that must be challenged. In fact, we might find that such views may be held within those our own tradition! Think of Luther’s antisemitic and Islamophobic views that have been repudiated because of conversations Lutherans have had with Jews and Muslims.

[21] Our educational process needs to help students learn to investigate and examine their own confessional beliefs while they are confronted by those alien or contradictory to their own. They need to learn to speak intelligently about their faith not only within their own community, but as Mary Hess has noted – as a “community within communities.”[9] It is important not only to explicitly recognize religious plurality with our students but to model respect and humility in its midst of such plurality. What better way to assist their learning process than to incorporate this into theological education from the very start?  Contrary to what we may expect, developing such appreciative multifaith classrooms does not require softball questions or watered-down answers. Difference or disagreement can be shared respectfully with humility and respect. As we and our students respond to questions that are “outside of the box” or have to reframe our responses to those who do not intuitively understand our theological language, we have the opportunity to discover our own faith anew. And we will be the richer for it. It is not what we say, but how we say it. It is not the content but the tenor and tone of what we say.

[22] I am indebted to Mary Hess, who has described these processes in a way that has helped me put educational theory behind what I have experienced with students for years. Hess describes a pedagogy for “transformative adult learning” by using the model of Robert Kegan. Kegan has proposed that adults learn through a process of “confirmation, contradiction, and continuity.” As Hess notes, seminary students often face contradiction in their Bible classes, when they are introduced to a variety of critical interpretive frameworks that challenge their previously held views. I guarantee this also happens in respectful and appreciative interfaith conversations. As educators, we need to assist our students find “continuity,” that is, to find comfort when “certain underlying beliefs can be maintained even as they are critiqued, deepened, and perhaps shifted.”[10]

[23] I have found that having students or instructors from different religious traditions in the same classroom provides an excellent model for learning “continuity.” It requires the Christians in the room to not use code language or shorthand but to be explicit and clear. And it provides students or instructors from other traditions the opportunity to seek and respectfully ask those questions that may not generally be asked. Creating a classroom that appreciates religious difference and diversity that makes space for “continuity” is a pastoral skill. Thus, it is important for denominational seminaries to create such an atmosphere of religious inclusion. After all, theological heterogeneity is the context in which our students will serve.



[1] M. Thomas Thangaraj, “Globalization, World Religions, and Theological Education,” Theological Education 35, no. 2 (1999), 151.

[2] Kristin Johnston Largen, Finding God Among Our Neighbors: An Interfaith Systematic Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 1.

[3] Diana Eck, A New Religious America: How a “Christian country” has now become the world’s most religiously diverse nation (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001).

[4] ELCA,  “A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment: A policy statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America” (2019), 4 (accessed May 21, 2023).

[5] Robert D. Putnam, and David E. Campbell. American Grace: How Religion Divides us and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

[6] See David T. Gortner, Katherine Wood, and J. Barney Hawkins IV, “Faithful Christians, Faithful Neighbors: How do Episcopal parishes relate to other faiths – especially Islam?” Virginia Theological Seminary Journal (December 2013) 57–66.

[7] For several examples see, the special issue ‘Multifaith Theological Education,’ Teaching Theology & Religion 16, Issue 4 (October 2013) 305-405; Eleazar S. Fernandez, ed., Teaching for a Multifaith World (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017); and Lucinda Mosher, ed., The Georgetown Companion to Interreligious Studies (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2022).

[8] Barbara Brown Taylor in Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others (New York: HarperOne. 2019) 63.

[9] Mary E. Hess, ‘Designing Curricular Approaches for Interfaith Competency or Why Does Learning How to Live in a “community of Communities” Matter?,’ in Teaching for a Multifaith World, ed. Fernandez (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017) 35.

[10] Hess, ‘Designing Curricular Approaches,’ 43.

David Grafton

David D. Grafton is the Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Duncan Black Macdonald Center, Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, Hartford, Connecticut.