Liberal Education

Cultivating Student Learning Across Faith Lines

As educators, we face the important challenge of preparing students to live constructively in a religiously diverse world. At some institutions, a reluctance to allow issues of faith into the classroom creates an obstacle to cultivating the skills students need to understand, process, and engage a religiously pluralistic society. At faith-based institutions, by contrast, students are encouraged to see how what they believe connects with their academic learning and their social experiences, but students may not have many opportunities on campus to interact directly with persons who practice a religious or spiritual tradition different from their own. Reading about another religion in a book or hearing a guest speaker is no substitute for talking with, getting to know, and working alongside people with whom students might not initially think they have much in common.

This is a problem, particularly since immigration during the last third of the twentieth century has greatly increased religious diversity in the United States (Wuthnow 2005). As a result, notes Arthur Chickering (2006, 1), “issues of religious diversity and spiritual orientations have moved front and center in public forums and political decision making.” Concurring with this observation, Eboo Patel echoes W. E. B. Dubois’s famous statement that “the problem of the twentieth-century is the problem of the color line,” suggesting that “the twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line” (2007, xv). And, as Miroslav Volf argues, in a world of seemingly intractable disagreements and staggering needs, people of all faiths need to “learn how to work vigorously for the limited change that is possible, to mourn over persistent and seemingly ineradicable evils, and to celebrate the good wherever it happens and whoever its agents are” (2011, 83).

To address this increasingly relevant issue, we have encouraged students from our university to participate in interfaith dialogues and engage in acts of interfaith service in order to form community partnerships with those who don’t necessarily share worldviews. We believe that these encounters are crucial if we are to nourish an attitude of mutual respect amid difference and prepare students to navigate a diverse world constructively upon graduation. In this article, we argue for the importance of interfaith dialogue and service as means to cultivate students who will promote “human flourishing and the common good” (Volf 2011, xvi). Part of this work requires that we reflect as educators upon the kind of people we all need to become if we hope to interact graciously across often divisive faith lines.

Virtue ethicist Martha Nussbaum’s work, particularly her book Cultivating Humanity, has been instructive for us in this regard. Nussbaum describes three interrelated capacities that those of us in higher education need to help our students develop: the capacity to examine one’s own beliefs critically, the capacity to see oneself as part of a larger human community, and the imaginative capacity necessary to see and feel as another person might.

In Cultivating Humanity, Nussbaum does not specifically address the topic of educating for interfaith partnerships. She advocates a broader model of education that allows students to learn about and see themselves within different traditions, while at the same time recognizing what is common to all persons and what unites us as human beings. She affirms education that “allows a variety of different views about what our priorities should be but says that, however we order our varied loyalties, we should still be sure that we recognize the worth of human life wherever it occurs and see ourselves as bound by common human abilities and problems to people who lie at a great distance from us” (1997, 9). We believe this model can appropriately be applied to issues of religious diversity on college campuses in a manner that seeks to affirm students’ own religious traditions, while simultaneously engaging them in constructive interaction with different views. In what follows, we describe Nussbaum’s three capacities more fully and illustrate ways in which these capacities can be further developed through interfaith dialogue and service.

Capacity one: Critical self-examination

The first capacity Nussbaum outlines in Cultivating Humanity is what she calls “Socratic scrutiny.” According to Nussbaum, a democracy needs citizens who can think, “who can reason together about their choices rather than just trading claims and counterclaims” (1997, 10). The need for this capacity is clearly relevant to our current social and political climate, where claims made by political opponents seem to be increasingly divisive and, at times, amazingly disconnected from rational thought. Even though the stakes are so high, some claims that are made are even humorous (and, in fact, fuel wildly popular shows such as The Daily Show and Colbert Report). This is true not just at the level of elected officials, but increasingly the general public is losing its ability to engage in healthy civil discourse.

What does Socratic scrutiny look like? It is well described by Catherine Cornille as “cognitive vigilance,” a willingness to be “open to constant correction” (2008, 10). Miriam McCormick calls this mindset “responsible believing,” the ability to “think deeply and critically about fundamental questions in general, as well as about [one’s] own fundamental beliefs, attachments, and presuppositions” (2008, 32). Responsible believers, says McCormick, reflect on “their grounds for holding the beliefs they do as well as the grounds for doubting them (10). Through such reflection—and through interaction with others—responsible believers come to see that a person doesn’t need to “abandon those beliefs which [she] is still investigating or allowing others to question” (McCormick 2008, 38). We just need to learn to “approach our beliefs with humility, aware of the limits of our own understanding and experience” Cornille 2008, 9).

Socratic scrutiny doesn’t mean that “there are no cross-cultural moral standards,” says Nussbaum (1997, 33). Nor does it “require that we suspend criticism toward other individuals and cultures” (65). Rather, it involves educating students to develop a more reflective understanding of their own position in light of an increasingly more accurate understanding of another’s position. As Nussbaum remarks, “All too often, people’s choices and statements are not their own. Words come out of their mouths, and actions are performed by their bodies, but what those words and actions express may be the voice of tradition or convention, the voice of the parent, of friends, of fashion” (28). To foster this Socratic capacity, Nussbaum says that educators must “challenge the mind to take charge of its own thought” (28). Deeper reflection on one’s own views and the reason one holds them helps students learn to talk about their own values and beliefs in ways that can make sense to others.

In our own attempts to foster Socratic scrutiny among our students, we have developed a project titled “Learning to Listen” that engages students in researching and evaluating a belief, tradition, or practice very different from theirown. The objectives of the project include learning from another tradition before critiquing it, applying what one has learned to a reflective critique of one’s own tradition, and drawing conclusions about one’s responsibility as a Christian in a diverse world. As part of this project, students produce a paper in which they must answer three questions: How might a believer from your own religious tradition relate to and learn productively from the beliefs and/or practices of the religious tradition you learned about in this project? How are the views or practices of your own religious tradition different from the religious tradition you learned about in this project? What general conclusions do you draw from this project about the opportunities, challenges, and responsibilities of living as a Christian in a diverse world? Although students can complete this assignment entirely through library research, we encourage them to supplement their reading with participation in interfaith dialogues or service activities.

We have found this assignment to be incredibly effective at helping students learn the important capacity of critical self-examination. “By gaining exposure to a variety of foreign and conflicting worldviews,” wrote one of our students, “we are forced to consider other religious traditions and reexamine our own faiths. Even though some discussions can feel uncomfortable or even threatening, it isthat very feeling of discomfort that leads us to truly discover the reasons behind our beliefs” (quoted in Larson and Wilson 2010, 8).

One such conversation occurred at an off-campus interfaith dialogue in which each member of a panel of local religious leaders made a brief presentation on conversion—a particularly sensitive topic—followed by a question-and-answer session and then small-group discussions facilitated by a team of religiously diverse volunteers. The Christian representative on the panel advocated a contextual view of missions that acknowledges the many ways in which God reveals himself, including in religions other than Christianity. This speaker said that a person can come to be a faithful follower of Christ without leaving behind all that she has known and valued in her home culture and her home religion. Just hearing this position challenged many of our students who attended the dialogue, students who worry that they may have compromised too much of the Gospel in their efforts to respect other cultures and religions.

The representatives from other faith traditions began to express in strong terms that they were deeply offended by this Christian panelist, because he made it clear that, ultimately, Christ is the Way and Truth. Several of our students were shocked and confused. They weren’t sure whether to feel angry and defensive or guilty and ashamed. This instance drew us into some serious reflection. Should the presenter have censored his views out of respect for those in attendance—even if they were truly what he believed? Is it possible to talk about an issue like contextual missions without incurring deep offense? How do we genuinely listen to and respect those who have different religious beliefs while retaining commitment to our own? How would I feel if a Muslim told me that anyone who loves God actually is, in her heart, a Muslim?

If we had stayed on campus amongst our religiously homogenous student and faculty population, we absolutely could not have had a conversation prompting the kind of Socratic scrutiny and reflection that this event made possible!

Capacity two: Seeing self as connected with others

It is necessary to cultivate the practice of Socratic scrutiny, but alone it isn’t sufficient. We also need to develop the ability to see ourselves as “human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern” (Nussbaum 1997, 10). Without such recognition and concern, we will not be able to overcome the fear that characterizes our world—a fear that creates a division between “the vulnerable yet all-important Us and the dark, besieging Them” (Nussbaum 2004, 42). We each need to come to see ourselves as “not only a member of a particular community of belonging” but also as people who have obligations to others “beyond our kith and kin,” inextricably connected to each other, says Robert Nash (2008, 70). Part of what’s needed in developing this capacity, says Nussbaum, is learning to become a “sensitive and empathic interpreter” of others’ beliefs, values, and practices (1997, 63).

Catherine Cornille notes that empathy “has both affective and cognitive dimensions” (2008, 144). It involves a desire to learn intellectually about another religion and the people of faith who follow it, but also a “willingness and ability to penetrate into the religious mindset of the other and understand him or her from within” (138). For this to occur, says Cornille, one must have sympathy for the religious other, which includes not only “personal warmth and affection toward the other person” but also openness to the “meaningfulness and worth of his or her religious life. It thus includes respect for and interest in the beliefs and practices of the other” (153). In other words, it is a process of humanizing the other, seeking to get to know members of other religious communities so that “they become real people and not simply representatives of certain other religious traditions” (Takim 2004, 348).

Engaging our students in interfaith dialogue and service has helped foster the capacity to recognize one’s connection to the larger world in many ways. At a very basic level, it’s an accomplishment when students learn that the Baha’i faith exists or when they realize that not all Muslims are terrorists. These moments of recognition then allow for the cultivation of deeper awareness about issues of religious privilege; the intersections of race, class, gender, and religion; and the complexity of the role of religion in contemporary democracies.

One of the vital objectives of engaging students in actual dialogue and service with diverse groups of people is that it helps them learn how to speak in diverse contexts. As Nussbaum explains, in order to cultivate connectedness, we must learn to pay attention to the “imagery and speech one uses when speakingabout people who are different” (1997, 63). Additionally, we must learn to develop what Diana Eck calls “bridging speech,” which she describes as “the speech that enables communication with people whose religious presuppositions may be quite different” (2003, 253). Just as one might read about giving a well-crafted speech, the skill hasn’t been developed until it is actually put into practice. Similarly, we believe that we are doing our students a disservice if we never take them beyond the walls of the classroom and the words of a text in order to engage with real persons.

As a recent interfaith service event, we took students from our institution to work in the community gardens of a neighborhood marked by significant cultural, economic, and religious diversity. Digging, planting, and weeding alongside members of that community offered our students the opportunity to reflect on both the similarities and the differences of their lives in comparison to the lives of others. They were able to connect with others about shared values of service, providing for one’s family and neighbors, and caring for the environment. At the same time, they discovered the variety of reasons one might have for holding these values. During a time of fellowship and dialogue with community elders, our students expressed the importance of leaving the comfort of their own community in order to learn about and engage with the world beyond, a world that many of them had never before encountered. Our students develop empathy for these different views, because they have developed the capacity for seeing connections with other persons and communities.

Capacity three: Narrative imagination

The first two capacities, Socratic scrutiny and awareness of human interconnection, both rely on a third capacity, which Nussbaum calls “narrative imagination.” According to Nussbaum, “This means the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and desires that someone so placed might have” (1997, 11). Narrative imagination could be described as the flip side of Socratic scrutiny. When cultivating narrative imagination, we are developing the skill to understand difference or, as Nussbaum describes it, “to comprehend the motives and choices of people different from ourselves, seeing them not as forbiddingly alien and other, but as sharing many problems and possibilities with us” (85). This requires us to be welcoming and charitable to other beliefs and values, even ones with which we disagree. Nussbaum explains that, even though we seek to understand—cognitively and affectively—through taking time to listen and empathize, entering in to another person’s story imaginatively, “this does not entail a hands-off attitude to criticism of what one encounters” (259). At the same time, we do seek to think respectfully about various ways of life.

For Nussbaum, the cultivation of narrative imagination is largely done by engaging students in the study of literature and philosophy. While this is an effective way to engage students in attempting to understand different perspectives, Miroslav Volf provides a helpful expansion of this idea when it comes to encountering religious difference. Being able to place oneself in the shoes of another person—what Volf describes as the view “from there”—involves “listening to how others perceive us as well as how they perceive themselves.” It requires a mindset that entails in part “step[ping] outside ourselves…distanc[ing] ourselves for a moment,” an inversion of perspectives in which we “enter sympathetically into others’ efforts to interpret their scripture” and make sense of their world (Volf 1996, 251; 2004b, 43). In addition, says Volf, we pay “receptive attention to their own story about who they see themselves to be” (2002, 19). This attitude is necessary if we are to “see the meaning of an action as the person intends it” and then come to see this person as “sharing many problems and possibilities with us” (Nussbaum 1997, 85).

Last fall, we took a group of students to a mosque attended primarily by Somali Muslims. Although only a few miles separate our campus from the mosque, the two locations can seem worlds apart in terms of class, culture, and religion. Most of the students had never visited a mosque before, nor had they had much opportunity for interaction with Somalis or with Muslims. At the entrance to the mosque, we split into groups of male and female, removed our shoes, donned headscarves, and embarked on a new experience. Two hours later, we left having experienced many new things. We had toured the mosque, learning about Islamic religious practices as well as the community services that take place each day through the Da’wah Institute. During a time of tea and cookies, students were able to converse informally with each other about many topics,including the experience of being Muslim in the United States, gender roles and relationships, and views of prayer and religious practice.

>Through a period of intense discussion about similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity, our students came to understand the sincerity of devotion and commitment held by people of other faith traditions, the importance of dialogue as a way of overcoming misperceptions and stereotypes, and the need for interfaith dialogue and service as a means of fostering healthy civic partnerships in the twenty-first century. One of our students remarked, “I learned that people are so much more than the labels I paint them with. Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews—they all have hopes, fears, and dreams, just as I do. People are people. They need to be loved by me, and I need to be loved by them no matter what color their skin is, what culture they have grown up in, or what ideas they hold as true.” This student had begun to have an imaginative capacity for understanding another’s life.


It is important to recognize that the three capacities described by Nussbaum inCultivating Humanity are interrelated. The development of one supports and requires the development of the others. Educating students for productive engagement with the world must involve fostering the growth of these traits. “It is up to us, as educators,” Nussbaum says, “to show our students the beauty and interest of a life that is open to the whole world, to show them that there is after all more joy in the kind of citizenship that questions than in the kind that simply applauds, more fascination in the study of human beings in all their real variety and complexity than in the zealous pursuit of superficial stereotypes, more genuine love and friendship in the life of questioning and self-government than in submission to authority. We had better show them this, or the future of democracy in this nation and in the world is bleak” (1997, 84).

This idea is echoed in Public Faith, where Volf references President Obama’s famous Cairo speech to remind us that individuals, communities, and nations are comprised of “complex social identities.” Because of this complexity, we shouldn’t simply focus on “religious and cultural ‘differences’” but also need to consider “‘overlaps’ and ‘common principles’ as well” (2004a, 140). Interfaith dialogue and joint acts of service can help make these overlaps and common principles evident both to those who participate and to those who watch us learn to cooperate with each other in promoting the common good. We can also help to demonstrate that people of faith can and do—and should—bring their religiously motivated acts of service to the public square.

As educators, we have an opportunity to build bridges between different faith communities in order to promote the common good. By actively encouraging an ongoing dialogue between citizens from various religious and secular perspectives, we foster the possibility of shared understanding and open the potential for social and political solidarity. This requires active partnership, and a refusal to reduce all beliefs to a lowest common denominator. n

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Chickering, A. 2006. “Strengthening Spirituality and Civic Engagement in Higher Education.” Journal of College and Character 8 (1): 1–5.

Cornille, C. 2008. The Im-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue. New York: Herder and Herder.

Eck, D. 2003. Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras. Boston: Beacon.

Larson, M. H., and A. Wilson. 2010 “Room at the Table: Cornille and the Possibility for Religious Dialogue.” Journal of College and Character 11 (1): 1–10.

McCormick, M. 2008. “Responsible Believing.” In Toward a Pedagogy of Belief and Doubt: A Teagle Foundation White Paper, edited by S. Watts, 32–40. Richmond: University of Richmond.

Nash, R. 2008. “A Faculty Member’s View on Moral Conversation from the Classroom.” In How to Talk about Hot Topics on Campus, edited by R. Nash, D.L. Bradley, and A. Chickering, 65–97. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nussbaum, M. 1997. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

———. 2004. “Liberal Education and Global Community.” Liberal Education 90 (1): 42–7.

———. 2006. “Political Soul-Making and the Imminent Demise of Liberal Education.” Journal of Social Philosophy 37 (2): 301–13.

Patel, E. 2007. Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. Boston: Beacon.

Takim, L. 2004. “From Conversion to Conversation: Interfaith Dialogue in post-9/11 America.” The Muslim World 94 (3): 343–55.

Volf, M. 1996. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.

———. 2002. “Living with the ‘Other.’” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 39 (1/2): 8–25.

———. 2004a. A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos.

———. 2004b. “Your Scripture Meets Mine.” Christian Century 121 (21): 43.

Wuthnow, R. 2005. America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity.Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Marion Larson is professor of English, and Sara Shady is associate professor of philosophy, at Bethel University.

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