Arts / Faith and Humanities

Big Step Forward

Written by Mike Thee

September 16, 2014

looking upwards at the entrance to the Administration building and colorful fall trees

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The School of Theology and Ministry hosts a gathering of international scholars even as it mourns a close friend.

It may have seemed like just another quiet stretch of summer days here at SU, yet last month our campus was host to some of the world's leading scholars on interreligious dialogue. 

The School of Theology and Ministry teamed with the Lutheran World Foundation to hold a gathering on the topic of "Religious Identity & Renewal: Jewish, Christian & Muslim Explorations." More than 20 participants representing South Africa, India, Indonesia, Germany, Israel, Tanzania, Sweden and other countries converged at SU-many of them overcoming significant obstacles to leave their countries of origin. 

"This is about as high a level an international gathering as we've had," said Mark Markuly, dean of the School of Theology and Ministry. He called the conference "another big step" in cementing the school's "strong national and international reputation for interfaith dialogue." 

There was something cosmically bittersweet about the timing of the gathering. Its first day, Aug. 10, coincided with the passing of Marcia Halligan, a 1999 graduate of the School of Theology and Ministry's Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies program. In 2010, Halligan established a professorship at the school in her and her father's names to promote ecumenical collaboration and interreligious dialogue. Markuly said that the Spehar-Halligan Professorship "has set into motion a whole string of events that have allowed us to better engage with interreligious dialogue." He added that the professorship has also helped catalyzed an additional $3.5 million in gifts to support interfaith dialogue. 

The School of Theology and Ministry's Michael Trice, assistant dean of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in the school, and Rabbi Anson Laytner, were key in facilitating and organizing the gathering, respectively. The current holder of the Spehar-Halligan Professorship, Rev. Michael Kinnamon, was also involved. Kinnamon, who formerly served as executive director of the National Council of Churches, was largely drawn to SU by the professorship and the opportunity to engage in interreligious dialogue, Markuly said. 

Participating scholars explored the meaning of religious identity and renewal in light of current cultural demands-interpreting past, present and future challenges to themselves, society and the world. Markuly expects that the conference will yield a significant publication, perhaps a book, on the topic. 

Halligan spent much of her life doing pastoral work with area Catholic churches, and yet it was a trip to the Middle East a number of years ago that enkindled her passion for interreligious collaboration and dialogue. When health problems made it necessary for her to extend the visit, she met a Muslim man and spent the better part of a day conversing with him. It was an experience that "radically transformed her perspective," Markuly said. She was "tickled pink that we were having this gathering." 

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