Religious studies faculty define 'interreligious studies' in new book

Amy L. Allocco, Geoffrey Claussen, and Brian Pennington co-wrote a chapter that characterizes the distinctive approach taken by Elon's new interreligious studies minor.   

Three Elon faculty members have authored a chapter in the just-released book, Interreligious/Interfaith Studies: Defining a New Field.

Amy L. Allocco, Geoffrey Claussen, and Brian Pennington co-wrote the piece to characterize the distinctive approach taken by Elon’s new interreligious studies minor. Production of the volume was spearheaded by the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) and edited by its president and founder, Eboo Patel, IFYC Senior Director of Learning and Partnerships Noah Silverman and Jennifer Peace, associate professor of interfaith studies at Andover Newton Theological School.

The volume, published by Beacon Press, features 25 authors located in distinct contexts where this relatively new field is being produced.

In the last five years, supported to a significant degree by funding from IFYC, dozens of academic programs—majors, minors, and certificates—in interfaith studies and related fields have been developed at colleges and universities in the United States. This book aims to characterize what some call interfaith studies but others, including Elon, call interreligious studies, at this early moment in the field’s evolution and to establish its contours.

The authors seek to address the relationship of interreligious/interfaith studies to other related fields, such as religious studies, theology, and peace and conflict studies. The book also asks, in the words of IFYC, “what are the field’s signature pedagogies and methodologies? What are its motivations and key questions? What is the shape of interfaith and interreligious studies, and what is its distinct contribution?” 

In their chapter, “Constructing Interreligious Studies: Thinking Critically about Interfaith Studies and the Interfaith Movement,” Allocco, Pennington, and Claussen describe the rationale for Elon’s academic minor and the direction they hope the field takes. They argue for a field that demands a rigorous study of the historical and contemporary causes of interreligious cooperation or conflict. They distinguish their approach from the important work done in the interest of interreligious understanding by student life professionals and IFYC itself, which can often foreground the importance of consensus between communities and the spiritual or religious experience of individuals.

Three things, they maintain, are especially important in fostering critical thinking among students: an understanding of the history of relations between religious groups, reflection on firsthand experience in faculty-mentored contact with living religious communities, and the ability to critique current interfaith efforts themselves to promote improved strategies of interaction.

“In our view,” they say, “a field of interreligious studies that sets its sights on understanding the nature of the problems that give rise to the perceived need for an interfaith movement and on reimagining a social order not predicated on an acceptance of the very values that got us here is a field of interreligious studies worth pursuing.”

Amy L. Allocco, associate professor of religious studies and director of Elon’s Multifaith Scholars program, is an ethnographer whose research focuses on everyday religion, ritual, and gender in South India. Geoffrey Claussen, whose research focuses on Jewish ethics and theology, is associate professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies and Lori and Eric Sklut Scholar in Jewish Studies. Brian K. Pennington, professor of religious studies, is a historian of modern Hinduism and director of the Elon Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society.