Georgetown has not been without its share of religious controversies in recent years. Conservatives claim Georgetown has forgotten its Catholic heritage with its support of initiatives for the LGBTQ community on campus, while liberals bemoan the school’s stance on issues related to abortion. Even President Obama couldn’t escape the criticism when his speech in Gaston Hall last year became ground zero for an argument over religious symbolism and the presidency. However heated these arguments may become, though, the Georgetown community should take pride in knowing that religious education and diversity are what separate Georgetown from its peers.
There are almost no issues today of national or global significance that escape being shaped or influenced by religion. From the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East to the debate over stem cell research here in the United States, the moral and political collide to produce issues that are tough to tackle.
It is impossible to speak comprehensively about the crisis in Israel without understanding the Jewish connection to the land, just as it is impossible to debate stem cell research without considering how many Christians will see it as issue of destroying innocent life. Even discussions concerning global warming and the environment are entering the religious realm, as evangelical Christians debate their stance and reaction to the issue of global importance. A firm understanding of many faiths is therefore necessary to participate in today’s diverse world.
Unfortunately, not all students are able to build this foundation. A recent Newsweek article reported on the troubles our friends in Cambridge, Mass., are having in deciding how to teach religion (“Harvard’s Crisis of Faith,” Newsweek, Feb. 11, 2010). While students can major in religion – a whopping 33 undergraduates did last year at Harvard compared to the 704 who majored in economics – the program lacks its own department ,and students not majoring in religion are not required to take any classes on it.
Harvard isn’t alone in the Ivy League, however. Of the eight Ivy League schools, only Columbia requires students to read religious scriptures as part of its mandatory Contemporary Civilizations class. (Ironic, considering that Columbia is considered one of the most liberal of the Ivies.) How do these schools expect to prepare their students for the future if they don’t have any background in one of the most important fields of today?
Georgetown, on the other hand, has gotten it right. The university offers students a wide variety of topics to fulfill the requirement of not one, but two theology courses. The Problem of God class isn’t perfect, but it gives most students a good snapshot of the religious landscape. Moreover, even though Georgetown is a Catholic school, it rightly employs religious leaders from most branches of Christianity, as well as Judaism and Islam.
The curriculum can be improved, however, by mandating that every student take Interreligious Encounter and Dialogue. I was a student in the class last semester, which was team-taught last by Rabbi White, Imam Hendi and Fr. McManus. The course gives all students a firm understanding of not only the core features of the three monotheistic faiths, but also what the faiths share in common and how they’re different.
Moreover, the three faith leaders did not shy away from the hard issues; the Middle East conflict was discussed, as well as issues like sexuality and biblical prophecy. As far as anyone knows, it’s the only class of its kind in the country, and it’s providing Georgetown students a needed understanding on the intersection of the three faiths in the public arena.
Some on this campus and elsewhere would argue that Georgetown is headed in the wrong direction. These individuals would point to a school like Notre Dame, with its strong Catholic and conservative credentials, as the right model to follow in educating America’s youth on issues pertaining to all religions. That, however, is wrong. While Notre Dame and similar Catholic universities may offer a few classes outside of Catholic or Christian theology, they lack the diverse faculty that Georgetown has that makes this school special. It’s one thing to learn Islamic theology from an academic; it’s quite another to learn it from an imam who is a leading authority in his faith.
It’s rare today to find a school that both realizes the importance of theology but also promotes robust dialogue and interfaith interaction. Georgetown, though, fits this model. In the future, let’s hope that more schools follow suit. The world will be better off for it.
John Thornburgh is a senior in the College. He can be reached at thornburghthehoya.com. Worldwise appears every other Tuesday.
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