A United Methodist seminary is the first in the U.S. to become multi-faith.
A United Methodist school in California is reportedly the first seminary in the United States to become multi-faith. Featured in a recent Los Angeles Times article, Claremont School of Theology outside Los Angeles will begin clergy training for Muslims and Jews this fall, and hopes for future Buddhist and Hindu programs.
Concerned about the new direction, United Methodism’s oversight agency for its 13 official seminaries cut off funding to Claremont early this year and will reevaluate the cut-off later this month. Claremont was getting about $800,000 annually from the denomination. But the school says it has been offered $10 million from private supporters for the interfaith initiative. About 70 of Claremont’s 275 or so students are United Methodists.
“Eventually, I suspect we will have a cluster of seminaries,” Claremont President Jerry Campbell told a church publication early this year. “Each with its own specialty, but in an environment that emphasizes mutual understanding and makes religion the parent of peace rather than the parent of conflict.”
At a press conference on June 9, Campbell officially unveiled the multi-faith plans, joined by Jewish and Muslim partners. “This is a very American approach. It’s an expression of American religion and American religious attitude,” enthused Jihad Turk, religion director for the Islamic Center of Southern California, which is partnering with Claremont. An imam who has studied in Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turk promised: “We promote a theology that is inclusive, that is cooperative, and that is pluralistic in tone and tenor.” Citing “fanatics” who “promote theology of death,” he asserted that Claremont’s interfaith project is the “strongest counter argument” to “fear, hate and violence.”
Claremont’s first Muslim professor is a woman who declared at the press conference: “We are redefining what it means to be righteous in the 21st century.” Najeeba Syeed-Miller insisted Claremont’s goal was not to “dilute our faith but to be better Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Hindus, Protestants or whatever faith you bring.” She urged a “theology of courage” focused on “collaborative action” on issues like homelessness and hunger.
Having struggled with financial solvency and even its accreditation in recent years, Claremont seems to see the multi-faith project as its redemption. Founded in 1885 as a Methodist seminary, in the 20th century it followed most other Mainline Protestant seminaries into theological liberalism, which morphed into radicalism in the 1960s. Claremont became especially renowned for Professor John Cobb, one of the architects of Process Theology, which asserts that God is constantly evolving and mutating rather than immutably sovereign. In the early 1970s, Cobb founded the Center for Process Studies at Claremont, partnering with Professor David Ray Griffin, who is now a leading 9/11 conspiracy theorist. Griffin, who now heads the center and remains at Claremont as professor emeritus, believes the Bush Administration exploded the World Trade Center to justify its imperialist wars. Process theology, with its notion that God is incomplete, is especially susceptible to vast and dark conspiracy theories, since it rejects orthodox Christianity’s confidence that a sovereign God ultimately defeats all evil.
Besides Process Theology, Claremont has been host to countless other theological fads and isms over the last half century or more, with its main stumbling block being primarily orthodox Christianity. California continues to host numerous robustly evangelical congregations, such as Rick Warren’s Southern Baptist Saddleback Church, which regularly draws about 20,000 worshippers. But thanks partly to Claremont’s revisionist theological influence, which de-emphasizes evangelism and Christianity’s uniqueness, United Methodism has lost about half its membership in California and elsewhere on the West Coast over the last 40 years. Less than 4 percent of all United Methodists are now on the West Coast or in Rocky Mountain states. The few remaining evangelical United Methodist clergy in that region typically attend a non United Methodist seminary, including evangelical Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, which has about 4,500 students.
At less than 10 percent of Fuller’s size, and having struggled financially for years, despite a United Methodist subsidy equal to about $10,000 per each United Methodist student, Claremont envisioned institutional salvation outside Christianity. But Claremont still hopes to reclaim its United Methodist funding by placing its non-Christian programs under a legal umbrella called The University Project. Claremont insists it will continue to cherish its Methodist “presence” on campus and will remain under the governance of the United Methodist Church. The school’s board includes the United Methodist bishops of Phoenix and Pasadena, both of whom presumably supported or did not resist the new interfaith direction when the board approved it in 2008. Unsurprisingly, both bishops preside over dwindling flocks and are renowned advocates for homosexual causes and liberalized immigration advocacy, while failing to attract many homosexuals or immigrants to their United Methodist churches.
Producing ministers who actually win converts and sustain congregations may recede in importance if Claremont can gain liberal donor dollars for its multi-religious path. As one Claremont board member has explained: “The confessional seminary is a dead duck.” The $10 million interfaith gift is coming from a liberal Methodist couple in Phoenix and compares to Claremont’s less than $8 million total budget in 2006-2007, when Campbell was first becoming president and struggling to save the school.
Another issue is whether Claremont’s multi-faith initiative will reproduce new adherents of religious pluralism or provide an opening for orthodox Muslims who, unlike the liberal Methodists who run Claremont, believe in proselytism and the objective truth of their own religion. And if the latter, how will dedicated pluralists who largely reject Christianity’s unique truth claims accommodate Islam’s own potent truth claims?
Bedazzled by a $10 million gift and a dramatic financial reversal after a near implosion, Claremont’s momentarily celebrating president, faculty and board may not have thoroughly pondered the ultimate repercussions of a multi-faith seminary whose only core dogma is seemingly self-preservation.
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