Teaching World Religions in the Age of the Clash of Civilizations

by Ronald Brown

Unification Theological Seminary is not only in the middle of New York City, the Empire City, but is literally in the middle of the world because of its unique student body. The Reverend Sun Myung Moon founded the institution in 1975 as a seminary where students, scholars and clergy of all the world’s religions would meet, interact, and hopefully engage in creative dialogue. As an  adjunct UTS faculty in world religions for the last ten years, my students have been drawn from every continent, included all age groups, and claimed worshippers of all the world’s faith communities.

Since the Seminary’s founding, the planet has moved from “The American Century” to what Samuel P. Huntington characterized in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, as a world engaged in a cataclysmic “clash of civilizations.”  This clash of civilizations takes place daily in my UTS classroom as well as at Touro College, a largely Jewish school where I teach, and in lectures I deliver throughout the city.

This article summarizes three separate battlefields: 1) The struggle for my students to understand their own religion from a historical and academic perspective; 2) the struggle for students to keep an open mind while studying other religions; and, 3) the struggle to elaborate new strategies in  teaching world religions in a multi-religious environment.

Understanding one’s own religion

Studying the major religions of the world sounds like a good idea to most of my students, at least until it comes to a scholarly and historical study of one’s own religion. Students are inevitably fascinated by and curious about the other religions of the world and rarely if ever doze off. But as soon as I begin lecturing about their own religion the going gets tough.

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