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RELIGION / Exploring issues, answers and beliefs

A Wealth of Diversity in Faith

The Claremont School of Religion, striving to become a bastion of comparative research, builds on Southern California's multitude of cultures. Interest in Eastern beliefs is expanding.

May 20, 2000|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Il-Koo Cho represents the future face of religious studies in America.

The engaging Korean scholar and Christian minister is pursuing a doctoral degree in the history of Christianity at Claremont Graduate University. But he knows that Christianity cannot be accurately understood in isolation from other faith traditions--not in today's global village, certainly not in Southern California, the most religiously diverse place on earth.

His specialty, for instance--Korean Christianity--is heavily influenced by Confucianism and shamanism, Cho says. A case in point: In 1996, a Korean woman was beaten to death in Santa Monica during a Pentecostal exorcism ritual. Why? Certainly such brute-force rituals had no place in the Bible or in the North American Holiness or Pentecostal traditions.

The search for answers eventually became Cho's dissertation topic: He is examining how age-old Korean shamanic traditions--including exorcising demons by physical force--have influenced faith healing among Korean Pentecostals both here and in Asia.

As the joint program in religion between Claremont Graduate University and Claremont School of Theology celebrates its 40th anniversary, faculty members aim to make comparative religious research like Cho's the wave of Claremont's future.

"With globalism and cultural diversity, religion is no longer geographically isolated; in the L.A. Basin all these religious traditions are present and interacting," said Karen Torjesen, dean of the Claremont School of Religion. "The question is, how do you train students to understand that?"

Claremont's answer is to become a bastion of comparative religious research. The elevation of Claremont's graduate program from a religious department to a full-fledged school--a change officially announced at last week's anniversary festivities--will help achieve that goal by bringing the school more freedom to raise its own funds. The immediate target, Torjesen said, will be to seek endowments for chairs in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism and, eventually, a new doctoral degree program in comparative religion.

Eastern Religion Class Is at Capacity

The scramble to study America's growing religious diversity is not confined to Claremont. USC is "desperately hoping to hire a Buddhologist knowledgeable about Buddhism in America," according to John Crossley, director of the school of religion there. Crossley said the school intended to increasingly focus on Asian religions, in part because of student interest. Its "Religion of East Asians" course consistently draws capacity enrollments of 150; it's the most popular religion course in its general education program.

Some East Coast schools report similar trends. At Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., Mark Silk of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life said that non-Christian religion courses are attracting the most student interest "by orders of magnitudes."

"Students don't feel drawn to basic Christian stuff," Silk said. "There is steady growth of interest in Islam and Eastern religions. . . . It strikes students that Eastern religions are somehow less institutional and more about spirituality."

In his keynote address at Claremont's anniversary celebration, Union Theological Seminary President Joseph C. Hough Jr. issued an emphatic call for more scholarship on non-Christian faiths--not only in religious studies programs, but also in the theological education and training of Christian ministers as well. "The old cultural hegemony of heretofore 'mainline' Protestant religion in America is coming to an end," Hough declared. Future clergy must be exposed to non-Christian traditions so they can "work for the social good of harmonious relations among religious traditions."

The interest in comparative religions at Claremont isn't new. The university offered a world religions degree program 30 years ago but dropped it; today its Blaisdell Program in World Religions and Cultures still sponsors a variety of seminars, conferences and lectures aimed at understanding religion in Eastern and Western civilizations.

But the religion program--which has doubled its student body to 70 and doctoral programs to six in the last 10 years--is renowned for its Christian scholarship. Among other things, Claremont is internationally recognized for its biblical studies research, with scholars such as James Robinson directing the bulk of the translation and editing of the Nag Hammadi Library. The library's 52 Gnostic gospels and secret texts, discovered by an Arab peasant in 1945, date to the beginning of the Christian era and are considered among the most important archeological discoveries of modern times.

The school's Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center houses more than 2,500 manuscripts, including the only complete set of negatives of the Dead Sea Scrolls available for study outside Jerusalem.

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