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A century of Christian-Muslim dialogues across the globe.

A multi-religious presence: the United States

Since returning from Indonesia in 1999, I have regularly attended the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) .Since my experience at schools in the United States was limited to one semester as a guest lecturer at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, it seemed that this would be a good place to gain deeper understanding of the "ins and outs" of being a teacher and scholar of Islamic Studies in North America. On average 9,000 professors, students, religious leaders and interested laypersons, authors and publishers flock to the annual event that provides opportunities to learn about anything and everything to do with the study of religion. With so many scholars and presentations, the AAR conference is an exhausting event, where one can spend the day running between conference hotels from panel to panel and meeting to meeting.

It was during one of the AAR meetings held in Chicago that it struck me how change reveals itself in the most unexpected corners of life, and how fast change moves once a certain group of people agrees on its necessity. After one day worthy of a workout in the gym, I schlepped myself to a restaurant to join a group of Indonesian colleagues. Most of them were Muslims at various stages in their career, from an MA student to a full professor. Many of them were also active as religious leaders and regularly spoke or preached in mosques. Over the years, the number of Indonesian scholars, teachers, and students at the AAR has increased steadily. Their research findings presented in panels across the conference was of keen interest to colleagues in North America.

As we were discussing our current work in progress, all related to issues of interfaith dialogue and peacemaking, it dawned on me that in some indirect way, Mark Thomsens vision about the Lutheran-Muslim dialogue had contributed to the steady upswing of Indonesian speakers at AAR. It was during his tenure as Executive Director of the ELCA Division for Global Mission (DGM) that sometime in the early 1990s the idea had arisen to send teachers and other professionals to countries with substantial Muslim populations such as Madagascar, Tanzania, Senegal, Cameroon, and Indonesia. My husband Paul and I ended up teaching in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population on earth. Part of my job there would be to help create a program for the study of religion at Duta Wacana Christian University (UKDW). Over the years, this program has become a feeder for the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS), and the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) at Indonesia's most prestigious State University, Gadjah Mada. It was these two programs that had sent the Indonesian Muslim colleagues to the AAR meetings.

Interfaith service: Egypt

Before making the United States my new home, I had taught at UKDW in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, from 1993-1999. Prior to this, I had also worked as the coordinator of the refugee project connected to the inter-denominational, international congregation of Saint Andrews United Church and the Anglican All Saints Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt, from 1986-1990. One day at St. Andrews, Pastor Michael Shelley mentioned in passing that his boss, the executive director of ELCA's DGM was coming to visit our refugee project in Cairo. At that time, those words were just alphabet soup to me. Pastor Shelley and I worked at St. Andrew's Church in Cairo where I was the coordinator of the refugee work. Hailing from the Netherlands, I had no idea about church structures in the United States, but somehow I picked up that Dr. Thomsen had spent several years in Nigeria and that upon returning home he had started to act on some innovative, even radical ideas, about Muslim-Christian engagement. It was only natural then that this big boss should visit our refugee work since many of our clients were Christians and Muslims from countries in the Horn of Africa.

A few weeks later, I found myself accompanying Mark to a restaurant where we were going to have lunch. While trying our very best not to be hit by cars in the chaotic Cairo traffic, he fired off what seemed to be dozens of questions about our refugee work and how I had become qualified to be its coordinator. He was soft-spoken and unassuming, yet had an inspiring presence that was hard to forget. The year must have been 1988 or 1989, and I had no idea that one day I would be part of Mark's vision and plans for "a hundred-years" of ELCA dialogue with Muslims.

A few months later, an ELCA intern, Paul Harder, came to Cairo to work at St. Andrew's. We were eventually married at St. Andrews and moved to Minnesota, where in the early morning of Saturday, February 29, 1992, the phone rang. It was someone from DGM asking if we would be interested in moving to Indonesia to begin teaching at the theology department of a Christian university. After putting down the phone, we pulled out an atlas to see where Yogyakarta was. We decided that we should seriously consider this offer, but began to worry about having to learn a new language.

Learning and living interfaith: Yogyakarta

We had not expected Duta Wacana University to be quite ready for our presence. We were more or less prepared to spend a year of observing and learning. However, reality quickly overtook us. Paul had to prepare for the largest cohort of Lutheran students the university ever received. Hailing from Sumatra, many of them chose to study in the interdenominational school at Yogyakarta, while waiting for an internal conflict in their own church, the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP), or Batak Christian Church, to be solved. Being the only Lutheran teacher on hand, Paul had to hit the ground running.

Around that same time, Duta Wacana's Professor of Islam, Dr. Djaka Soetapa, was elected the University's president. Indonesia had only two Protestant scholars of Islam and since the second one was teaching in Jakarta, I had to take over Dr. Soetapa's classes. This baptism by fire turned out to have many advantages. Since I was now the only person designated to be "in the know" about Islam, students posed their many questions about its history, culture, beliefs, and tradition to me. Having lived in Egypt did not make me a specialist on Indonesian Islam, of course, so I solicited help from colleagues at the Islamic State University, the Universitas Islam Negeri (UIN). Their Muslim students also had many questions about Christianity, and so we decided to swap instructors; someone from UIN speaking to my students, while I or one of the UKDW colleagues would speak to their classes.

Indonesia seemed ready for these types of activities. A visionary teacher at the Islamic State University who also served as Minister of Religion, Professor Mukti Ali (1923--2004), had translated his experience of studying under the supervision of the great scholar of religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith at McGill University in Canada, (1) into a program for the Comparative Study of Religion at the Indonesian Islamic State Universities and Institutes. While everyone agreed on the importance of such studies in a multi-religious environment, the human resources to give this vision hands and feet were sorely lacking. (2) As a result, universities that were training the future leaders and scholars of Islam had begun to encourage their students to focus on interreligious topics for their MA and PhD studies.

An array of projects that studied "how to be Muslim" in a religiously plural society had made Yogyakarta into one of the most vibrant scenes of new interpretations of the Qur'an, and its related religious texts. Students, teachers, and religious leaders met regularly to discuss the unending list of topics related to religion. The formats for such meetings ranged from small discussion groups to large international conferences. In 1991, a colleague whom we had met in the Netherlands on our way from Egypt to the United States, Sumartana had just launched an interfaith institute called Interfidei. Interfidei's goals were to encourage and develop a pluralistic religious thinking through dialogue, to stimulate a dynamic network of dialogue and interreligious cooperation, and to encourage religious transformation as a solution to humanitarian issues faced by the society. Every week the institute held discussions on a variety of topics, from the economic woes in Indonesia to Saint Mary in Islam and Christianity. Interfidei was the place to be, not in the least because meetings always ended with a buffet packed with Indonesian delicacies! The institute also addressed questions that were on the forefront of everyone's mind at that time: how to counter radical Muslim ideas. I could not have found a better environment to learn about Islam and interfaith living than here.

Having to jump into teaching about Islam in Indonesia without a safety net was the reason I sought help from the Muslim colleagues at the Islamic State University. They were interested in linking up with classes of Christian students. What followed were seven years filled with exciting and fruitful interfaith learning and activities. Groups of students from each university would visit mosques or churches, celebrate feasts together, and create reading groups to study topics, such as Abraham in the Bible and Qur'an. At one point, we organized a series of seminars discussing the "five pillars" of Islam from a Muslim and Christian perspective. The excitement was palpable and ultimately attracted students to the MA program at UKDW. This program was specifically geared towards pastors working in religiously plural environments. UKDW was an inter-denominational school, so students hailed from across the archipelago of Indonesia. Through that program, we aimed to train a new generation of Christian teachers and scholars of Islam. Upon returning to their own contexts, each of them would face very different circumstances. Thus, it made sense to allow them to focus on the interfaith questions that arose in their own dioceses. Many of our students faced extreme violence when after the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998-1999 sectarian strife broke out across Indonesia. Yet, they applied the theories and practice of their interfaith studies, keeping the channels of communication open between the members of their churches and the Muslim population. By 1999, things had quieted down in Indonesia but there was much work left to do.

In 2000, the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies (CRCS) was launched. It was and is a unique program in the Muslim world where students of different faiths learn together and are taught by teachers from multi-religious backgrounds. The three main sponsors of the project are the Gadjah Mada State University, UKDW, and the Islamic State University. According to its website, the goal of the program is to provide MA degrees for students who "ask what each of us can learn from other religious believers that add to our own spiritual insight and heritage, to seek deeper understanding of each other, and to work together for a just and peaceful future." (3) In 2006, the ICRS program was added as a venue to the PhD degree in Religious Studies.

Two decades ...

We left Indonesia in 1999 for Valparaiso University. Paul and I have now been involved in interfaith engagement since 1993, for one-fifth of Mark Thomsens time line of "one hundred years." Back in the United States, Paul went on to do graduate studies on the Lutheran denomination of Indonesia, the HKBP. He eventually returned as a Fulbright Scholar and as a guest teacher at the Lutheran Seminary in Sumatra.

I could not but apply the valuable lessons about living in a religiously plural society learned in Yogyakarta. Just like my Indonesian colleagues, I have become a scholar-activist, and continue to be involved in all types of interfaith activities, regularly returning to Indonesia to teach, to be part of workshops, and to visit the many friends made during our time there. Professor Roland Miller, who worked for many years in India, and wrote the blueprint for sending Lutheran professionals across the globe to engage with Muslims, always insisted on the importance of "friendship." (4) Mark Thomsen's vision made it possible for us to make many new and unexpected friends in Indonesia, some of whom I now meet here in the United States at the annual AAR conference.

I do not think that we ever thanked Mark Thomsen for the hard work he did on our behalf. Nevertheless, I am sure that he feels our gratitude as it moves around the universe.

(1.) Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916-2000) founded the Institute for Islamic Studies at McGill University, and also taught at Harvard Divinity School. He was influential in Comparative Religions. See his The Meaning and End of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1962), and Toward a World Theology: Faith and the Comparative History of Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981).

(2.) Indonesia officially recognizes seven religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and since September 2014 the Baha'i faith as well.

(3.) ICRS (accessed 26 October 2014).

(4.) See Roland Miller, Muslim Friends: Their Faith and Feeling: An Introduction to Islam (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1996). Miller served as academic dean and professor of Islamic Studies and World Religions at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada from 1976-1993. In 1992, he was charged by the ELCA to develop a proposal for a "Focus on Islam." He founded the Islamic Studies program at Luther Seminary, which he directed from 1993-1999.

Nelly van Doorn-Harder

Professor of Islamic Studies, Wake Forest University
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Author:van Doorn-Harder, Nelly
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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