He continued, “The country is fearful; for many identities this is an oppressive time politically. People are suffering quite a lot. Serving historically underserved populations in the spirit of social justice can be a practice of spirituality. We are reaching out to people who are frequently excluded in the education process. As Americans we have a responsibility to learn about religious diversity and to understand that religious identity is often misrepresented in the media. One of my Muslim students told me, ‘I have to hold the door open for other students and look them in the eyes and smile to reassure them that I am not a terrorist.’ ”

A 2016 MA graduate with the GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies, Rania Shah said that putting together her course on “Humanities of the Middle East” was a fascinating learning project. “I had never before put all the pieces together, but the faculty at the GTU and at UC Berkeley (where Shah is now an undergraduate student advisor in the department of Near Eastern Studies) were all very supportive.” She continued, “You might think that seeing the history of the Ancient Near East come together might make you more secular, but it has strengthened my faith. Literature, written language, architecture, and art all began in what is now Iraq: Babylon and Persia. The stories of Gilgamesh and the flood are five thousand years old and shared throughout the Abrahamic religions. Even the earliest forms of Orientalism come from here, as the Greeks wrote about their encounters with these ‘exotic’ civilizations.”

Shah finds teaching nineteen-year-olds to be enjoyable and entertaining. She takes full advantage of the digital classroom to bring the ancient world alive for her students. An experienced early childhood and elementary teacher, Shah understands that it is important for students whose families come from the Near East—as well as those who don’t—to appreciate the region and its contributions to history. (Her own family comes from Pakistan.) Shah, whose MA work at the GTU focused on Islamophobia (a topic she addressed in a talk at ARC), is excited to be part of the academic community in Sacramento, her hometown. “I love being able to tie all the history together into how religion developed in the Middle East, especially now that so many places in the ‘Cradle of Civilization’ have been destroyed.” Many ARC students report that Zangeneh-Lester and his GTU colleagues are among the first people they’ve encountered with academic backgrounds. Zangeneh-Lester takes full advantage of this opportunity by structuring the program so that the ARC classroom looks and feels like a GTU classroom in many ways. “We read, talk, and discuss Talal Asad, bell hooks, Diana Eck, Diane Moore, Eboo Patel, Stephen Prothero, Paolo Freire, and Judith Berling. Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it. When students hear what the GTU has to offer, that’s the basis for some serious change—and some serious validation for our religiously diverse students.”

Daniel London felt that the panel discussion on the Abrahamic faiths was publication worthy. “The event was well attended,” he said. “The students and community asked engaging questions, and it was a pleasure and privilege to participate with Bill and Susan as well as Muslim clergy colleagues.” London, who recently accepted a pastoral position at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka, CA, reports that the evening included the uncomfortable but rewarding experience of having his perspective challenged by a Muslim leader. While such interactions may be difficult, London recognizes that true interreligious dialogue demands an openness to learning from one another and having our own perspectives challenged.

PhD student Cogen Bohanec is teaching a class at ARC on Humanities of Religions of Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia—in other words, the dharmic traditions. Before beginning his doctoral work in coordination with the Mira & Ajay Shingal Center for Dharma Studies at the GTU, Bohanec earned a degree at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, a GTU affiliate. Like Zangeneh-Lester, Bohanec is a community college graduate,  but says he struggled to study religion through history in the absence of classes in religious studies. “It’s great,” he said, “that the hybrid GTU culture, which has no taboo against the emic (inside) perspective, is foundational to ARC’s really interesting program. I’m able to present the traditions in a way that people from those traditions would recognize and approve.”

Bohanec values the GTU’s academic atmosphere for the unique way in which it holds the paradox of epistemological pragmatism, by challenging the idea that the etic (outside) perspective provides the only effective mode of understanding. He observed, “Bringing the radical epistemology of the GTU to the grass-roots level institutional setting promotes dialogic understanding of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and other dharma traditions. Mondays start off dragging, but the students are excited by the end of the day.”

Can interreligious learning happen in public spaces commonly defined as “secular”? Bill Zangeneh-Lester believes that it can: “When I tell a student at ARC that I go to the GTU, it opens the door to further conversation. It provides an opportunity for students to take ownership of their own religious identities in conversations with me.” He sees the role of encouraging religious literacy as essential in today’s culture: “The goal is not to erase fundamental differences so we can all hold hands and sing “It’s a Small World (After All)”; rather, this work is a commitment to promoting a culture of engaged civic pluralism and mutual respect, in which people can work together, in the fullness of their identities, across the reality of their differences, for the common good.”

Carrie Sealine is a doctoral student in the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies in Religion, with a concentration in new religious movements. She is a 2017 graduate of the GTU’s MA program in association with the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies. 

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