The president of the Graduate Theological Union explains the school’s vision as a unique center for multi-faith studies

By Riess W. Potterveld

The graduate theological union in Berkeley, California, where I serve as president, is the largest interreligious and interdisciplinary graduate school in North America, offering masters and doctoral programs. Comprising over twenty schools, centers and institutes, it is a consortium begun in 1962 and accredited by the Western Senior College and University Commission and the Association of Theological Schools. Graduate students at the GTU enjoy cross-registration privileges with the University of California, Berkeley, Dominican University, Holy Names College and Mills College.

Started as a joint PhD program and common library by Protestant and Roman Catholic seminaries, the GTU has always considered itself ecumenical and interreligious in mission. It added a Center for Jewish Studies in 1968, an Institute of Buddhist Studies in 1985 and a Center for Islamic Studies in 2007. Last December the GTU announced the opening of a new Center for Dharma Studies with an inaugural gift of $4.4 million from Mira and Ajay Shingal. Dr. Rita Sherma has been named the first Director and faculty member of the Center.

In the Center for Dharma Studies’ first year of operation, seven students applied to undertake a PhD with Hinduism as a concentration. This is just the beginning, of course, and the school hopes that many other students will enroll in the masters or doctoral program. The GTU is also offering Jain and Sikh studies for the first time, in cooperation with these communities in the Bay Area, and an MA concentration in interreligious studies. This interreligious expansion recognizes the profound importance of these Asian religions over millennia and their important role in the contemporary world, and underscores that interreligious education today needs the robust presence of all of the major world religious traditions at the table. 

To support these changes, the faculty members of the Graduate Theological Union adopted a major revamping of the doctoral- and masters-level curriculum that will go into effect next fall. Traditional academic categories like Biblical Studies (long associated with Judaeo-Christian approaches) have been replaced by broader categories, such as Sacred Texts and Their Interpretation; likewise, Preaching and Worship has become Religion and Practice. These curricular changes are intended to be more inclusive of the variety of religious traditions and to create a better framework for students and faculty to pursue interreligious and comparative study. 

There are four departments in the revised doctoral curriculum: Sacred Texts and Their Interpretation, Theology and Ethics, Religion and Practice, and Historical and Cultural Studies of Religion. Under these four departments, students can invest in 30 different areas of concentration, such as Hindu Theology or Comparative Ethics in Hinduism, Jainism and Indian Buddhism. 

In the past, when courses here have addressed the religions of India, they were often taught by Christian scholars who had become interested in and intensively studied Hindu theology and traditions and who then expanded their repertory by including consideration of Hindu traditions in a course. Our teaching faculty now are largely comprised of scholar practitioners. A professor teaching the New Testament is likely to be an adherent of a particular brand of Christian belief, while a professor teaching the Vedas is apt to personally engage in contemplative practices of Hinduism. While the normative standards of academic scholarship are rigorously practiced and valued, it is very common that faculty and students understand themselves as adherents of a particular religious tradition that informs their own personal identity, beliefs and practices. The distinction here is that meditation or contemplation can be studied by a careful neutral observer who describes what he or she sees or understands from external study, but the GTU also welcomes consideration of the interior knowledge that comes with actual religious experience and practice.

This is an key distinction that separates a secular university context from that of the Graduate Theological Union. In my own case, I taught courses in religious studies at a large state university in California for twelve years, mostly in the 1980s. At the time I was also a minister in a Protestant church in the same community. It was subtly suggested that I keep my “pastoral identity” as concealed or cloaked as possible so that the university students would not see me as biased or as having lost my objectivity and neutrality in dealing with theological questions or biblical material. In that context there was a certain pride in being a scholar in the religious studies department where students were unable to determine whether the instructor belonged to a particular faith tradition or to no faith tradition at all. One student finally saw my name and church affiliation on a billboard and said, “Really…..I thought Potterveld was a Buddhist.” That cloaking of identity was taken as a mark of value and academic professionalism–it was considered important not to let one’s own belief system intrude on the classroom presentation or discussion or to exhibit even a subtle bias.

A professor of Hindu Studies and Sanskrit at a major university confided to me her decision to record a traditional chant on her university phone as a blessing to those who would call her when she was out or unable to answer a telephone call. She reported that this created quick pushback from colleagues because, they stated, the practice revealed her own personal belief system and this was considered an incursion on the objective, scientific study of religion that dominated the culture of the university department. 

What is different at the GTU is that it is expected that faculty and students can both be located within a particular religious tradition and still be able to express critical views and interpretations that vary according to the particular lenses utilized. Being clear about one’s starting point or frame of reference helps others to account for a given viewpoint.

The task of finding and hiring a scholar practitioner comes up with every new religion that we add to our graduate programs. For example, we are working with a Mormon Higher Education Council in Northern California to fund a Chair in Mormon Studies. Questions emerge from the donors: Will the professor always have to be Mormon himself or herself? Does being a “member” automatically mean that the professor is incapable of critical judgment or of holding non-orthodox positions? These are questions that are particularly asked when new religions or less familiar religions are being introduced into the GTU’s educational platform. In an educational environment where academic freedom is essential and rigorous scholarship and critical thinking are high values, it is important for search committees to find candidates who are comfortable living in both the academic world and within a particular faith tradition. At the GTU we have learned over the past 50 years that persons can function as teachers, researchers and mentors while being transparent about their own religious affiliation. We have also learned that there are a plurality of interpretations and beliefs that operate within the core of every human religion.

In addition to the centers and institutions already comprising the GTU, two more schools are currently pondering whether or not to become members of the consortium. The Institute of Buddhist Studies is currently an affiliate of the GTU but is in the process of seeking separate WSCUC accreditation and might choose to become a member school in the future. The addition of these schools would add even more educational resources to this unique consortium dedicated to the study of the world’s major religious traditions. 

Today students may choose to study religion even when they do not situate themselves within any particular religious tradition. An increasing number of persons classify as “nones” (not affiliated with any particular religious tradition) and may not go to church, synagogue, mosque or temple. They may practice a wide and eclectic set of religious or spiritual ideas drawn from multiple traditions. All of these realities suggest that a formal program of religious graduate education needs to provide flexibility and an opportunity for students to shape their own study. 

Our hope is that the capacity to offer deep study of Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh traditions along with the other major religions of the world will create a unique and needed platform for interreligious and interdisciplinary study in the 21st century.