Hartford Seminary’s mission to prepare “students to understand and live in today’s multifaith world” permeates every aspect of campus and classroom. The Seminary’s commitment to approach theological education holistically is reflected in dormitories where Muslims and Christians live side by side and in academic settings where the encounter of commitments sparks lively interfaith and intrafaith conversations. In this model both academic and experiential knowledge are valued, informing and enhancing formation. Hartford Seminary’s robust multifaith programming attracts members of the Hartford community and matriculates students from around the world, including Singapore, Turkey, the Middle East, and the Netherlands. As a Protestant institution, Hartford Seminary stands as a model of how educational institutions rooted in a particular religious tradition can prepare leaders for today’s religiously diverse world.
Hartford Seminary was founded in 1834 as a Congregationalist seminary, its founders establishing the institution in protest to their perception of the increasing liberality of Yale. As the 19th century wore on, Hartford Seminary became an ecumenical hub and the first Protestant seminary to admit women.This trendsetting has only continued. In 1990 the school was the first non-denominational institution in North America to name a female president and in 1991 the first to name a Muslim to its core faculty. Hartford Seminary’s engagement with the religious other began early in the 20th century, primarily for missionary purposes. Duncan Black Macdonald, for whom the Seminary’s Center for Christian-Muslim Relations is currently named, became a premier Christian scholar of Islam, putting Hartford Seminary on the map for its focus in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations. The Seminary’s focus began to change from “proselytizing to dialogue” over the course of the twentieth century, a process that accelerated from the 1960s onward, explains Yehezkel Landau, Faculty Associate in Interfaith Relations at Hartford Seminary. It was then, Landau explains, that the Seminary “began hiring Muslims to teach about Islam, to learn from them and to be in conversation with them.” Today, roughly one-third of the student body is Muslim. In addition to its Master of Arts and Doctorate of Ministry degrees—both of which can have an interfaith focus—the Seminary offers a graduate certificate in interfaith dialogue (among other focus areas) and the only accredited Islamic Chaplaincy program in the nation.
Described as “…the liveliest and most active center for interfaith engagement in the city of Hartford,” the Seminary invites members of the Hartford community to educational outreach events, many of which are focused on interfaith topics. These events are hosted by the Seminary’s Public Communications Department several times a month and usually draw anywhere from thirty to one hundred and thirty people depending on the topic. Often, community members will start by coming to an educational outreach event, sign up for the newsletter, and then take the next step of auditing a course or even enrolling in a degree program.
In 2004 Landau founded the Building Abrahamic Partnerships program (BAP) at Hartford Seminary, a program he has directed thirteen times over the past seven years. BAP is a week-long intensive course that seamlessly blends academic and experiential learning with the goal of introducing participants to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam not only through textual study but also seeing these traditions “embodied in real people” while “getting to know those real people.” Throughout its history, the program has taken shape in two levels: BAP 1 and BAP 2.
BAP 2 is an advanced seminar with a focus on building a tool kit for religious leadership that includes training for facilitators and introduction to trauma healing. BAP 2 also included the opportunity for participants to collaborate on creating an inclusive interfaith devotional experience. Often these liturgical offerings were from traditional readings and practices within one of the three faiths; sometimes participants created something wholly new. Laundau remembers one team’s contribution in particular where leaders blended colored glass balls—green for Islam, blue for Judaism, and red for Christianity—into a common bowl at the center of the room, a visual reminder, explains Landau, that they “were all making deposits in a common spiritual bank.”
During the introductory seminar, BAP 1, the cohort spends one day on each of the three traditions, each culminating with a “fish bowl exercise” in which the Jews, Christians, and Muslims on their respective day are asked to answer the question: “What do you need to experience from the other two faith communities in order to trust them more?” The culminating event is an actual “building” exercise with LEGOS where three interfaith teams are formed and tasked with “constructing a sacred space in which everyone feels included.” Landau describes this as an opportunity to put into practice the skills they’ve been cultivating, since the process of negotiation “is more important than the architectural result.”
The Hartford Seminary is well aware that this experiment in educating leaders for the world’s multifaith reality is not always smooth sailing. “The basic challenge,” according to Landau, “is sensitizing people to what is required for listening respectfully and engaging with empathy and respect.” These skills are put to the test when politically volatile conversations arise (especially regarding the conflict in the Middle East) and when members of the same religious tradition disagree. At the same time, Hartford Seminary attracts faculty and students precisely because of this diversity of opinion. Many faculty members, Landau explains, “choose to be here because of the interfaith dimension” because it challenges them to present their subject matter and facilitate conversations in ways that are often new to them. Speaking of his own experience directing the Building Abrahamic Partnerships program, Landau is clear that tension can be harnessed for positive gain. “If our comfort zones haven’t been stretched we haven’t done what we came here to do…We don’t want to just leave after a week with our pre-conceptions confirmed. We are here to learn, to grow, and to change.”