Dear graduates, families, faculty colleagues and friends. What a pleasure and a privilege it is to be with you today. I am grateful for the opportunity to return to a place that has been a big part of my life. I am particularly happy to do so on a day that honors you, the graduates of Emmanuel College.
Commencements, particularly at an institution like Emmanuel College that enjoys such a proud heritage, inevitably invite retrospective reflection. With the vantage—and the advantage—of distance in time, we can acknowledge the astonishing changes of the last half century. Imagine yourselves sitting here fifty years ago. Even without the benefit of the Emmanuel archives, I suspect there would have been a very different gender balance in the room. And I am quite confident that your curriculum would not have offered a course on “Global Perspectives on Violence Against Women” and a certificate in Muslim Studies. Especially in the realms of interfaith understanding and of attention to social justice, the changes that Christianity has experienced are remarkable.
I feel personally fortunate to have entered young adulthood in the decade that produced two extraordinary engines of social and religious renewal, a major Vatican declaration and significant adjustments to Canadian and US immigration law. On October 28, 1965, Pope Paul VI proclaimed Nostra Aetate, one of the most important documents of the Second Vatican Council. Nostra Aetate is much the shortest of the Council’s 16 documents, but it reversed centuries of religious rancor and distain. Here is a key section:
The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.
While Nostra Aetate acknowledges the “quarrels and hostilities [that] have arisen between Christians and Moslems,” it makes a positive plea “for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind, social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.” There is a clear and explicit call for dialogue and collaboration . . . carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life . . . .”
At a distance of almost fifty years it’s hard to realize what a revolution in Christian thinking these words represent. To this declaration, and similar statements from other denominations, we can trace a reorientation of attitudes that gave life and momentum to the vast and increasing network of interfaith activity at local, national and international levels. The consequences of change in Canadian and US immigration policy were less immediately evident but over the next several decades they transformed the religious landscape of North America. These theological and demographic reorientations also deeply affected my own intellectual and academic journey.
After sixteen years of Catholic education, I began graduate work at a Protestant seminary, Union Theological in New York. Union’s classrooms offered me a sustained experience of ecumenical immersion. As is true of Emmanuel, both faculty and students were drawn from across the major Christian denominations. Switching the adjective for all fields of the curriculum – theology, ethics, history and biblical studies – from ‘Catholic’ to ‘Christian’ was an important personal prelude to my eventual move into the world of interfaith study and engagement.
Even after moving from New York to Toronto and beginning a PhD in Islamic studies, that theological education continued to be formative. It shaped the questions that I asked in my research and the orientations that I brought to my study of the Qur’an. It also stimulated my interest in interreligious dialogue, an interest that I have now pursued for decades in many different forms and in many different forums.
The interconnection between theological education and Islamic studies continued in my first teaching position at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta. As an Islamicist, I brought a new area to the seminary curriculum and a major expansion to its academic horizon. This was a bold experiment for Candler and I know that the then dean did not escape criticism for allocating scarce resources to non-Christian instruction.
When I returned to the University of Toronto in 1992, I found a city undergoing rapid transformation, becoming even more ethnically and culturally diverse. The children of those families who had come to Canada as a consequence of immigration changes three decades earlier were now entering university classrooms. Unlike Emory, most of my students at the University of Toronto were Muslim. When I taught courses on Islam or the Qur'an, I might be the only non-Muslim in the room. Yet many of these students had little or no formal education in their own religious tradition. University classes were often their first exposure to the systematic study of Islam.
I also found myself engaged in another, and somewhat unexpected, form of interreligious dialogue, as students from different Muslim backgrounds encountered each other in the safe space of the secular classroom. Pakistani Isma'ilis, Egyptian Sunnis, and Iranian Shi'is learned from each other and, sometimes, confronted each other. Unqualified assertions that “Islam says this” or “Islam says that” were quickly challenged by classmates whose faith was equally sincere but differently comprehended and expressed. I am sure that all of you can speak to similar sorts of ecumenical and interfaith exchanges during your years here at Emmanuel. I am equally sure that these are but a prelude to the different kinds of interreligious engagement, both formal and informal, that you will experience as you undertake lives of Christian ministry.
Particularly since the tragedy of 9/11, many different Muslim-Christian dialogues have begun, so there are multiple models to explore if you choose to undertake this work within your own ministry. On Sunday, right after the Bryn Mawr College commencement festivities, I’ll fly to Qatar to participate in an international interfaith effort with which I’ve been involved for the last decade. The Building Bridges Seminar, which is led – and quite actively guided – by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, places scripture at the center. Each year a group of Muslim and Christian scholars gathers for intensive study sessions on particular passages from the Bible and the Qur'an. The topics have been as varied as revelation, justice and rights and science and religion. This year’s focus is prayer. Scholars from each tradition introduce the topic in plenary lectures open to the public. The scriptural study, however, is conducted in closed session so that the conversations can be as frank and free-flowing as possible. A key ingredient to their success is the trust that continuity can foster. Although the participant list changes from year to year, a core group of has attended annually, assuring a consistency of planning and approach.
A special benefit of the Seminar is the ecumenical character of both groups of scholars. Christian participants are drawn from several different denominations and Muslim participants reflect a range of Islamic groups and cultural backgrounds. Occasionally, our intra-faith dialogue overtakes the inter-faith exchange. This phenomenon signals an area of interreligious engagement that remains insufficiently developed. Speaking only from the Christian perspective, I think there is an urgent need for Christians of different denominations and affiliations to converse about their attitudes and approaches to Islam and the Muslim world and I hope that you graduates can stimulate such conversations.
Returning to Nostra Aetate, the Vatican declaration with which I began, I’d like to repeat its call to “dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life.” Thus far I have spoken of the “dialogue” part and of “dialogue” as an intellectual and academic activity. But now I’d like to stress the “collaboration” side, particularly collaboration in the cause of social justice. There are as many forms that interfaith collaboration can take as there are concerns that compel global attention. I’ll point to just one, but one that is very important to me: the education and empowerment of women worldwide.
Last year the New York Times editorialist, Nicholas Kristof, published a powerful manifesto entitled Half the Sky that issued a compelling call to conscience. Kristof argues, and I agree with him, that just as slavery was the preeminent moral challenge of the nineteenth-century, the brutality routinely inflicted upon so many women and girls around the globe is the paramount moral challenge of this century.
The brutality starts before birth. In some parts of the world, female fetuses are aborted at much higher rates than male, leading economists to talk about the 100 million missing women as they calculate the skewed gender ratios emerging from sex-selective abortion. For those girl babies who are born, millions more die in early childhood because they are not given the same nutrition or medical care as boys. In adolescence and adulthood, countless women face the horrors of sexual slavery, war-prompted rape and disabling or deadly childbirth. People have started to call this routine violence against women ‘gendercide’.
Our scriptures, both the Bible and the Qur’an, as well as the holy writings of other faiths, can be a powerful resource for the divine vision of human equality that must undergird all efforts at gender equity. As we work together in interreligious collaboration we can find ways to give these horrors the attention they deserve. We can find interfaith ways to erase the inequities that create them. In her latest book, the theologian Elizabeth Johnson presents a powerful image in “the crucified God of compassion.” My years on this campus were graced, as were yours, with the stunning sculpture of the Crucified Woman. Together these images convey the connection between interfaith activism and the work for social justice that can distinguish you as graduates of Emmanuel.