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Muslim, Jewish college presidents focus on common goals with Christian educators

Brigham Young University President Kevin J. Worthen, from left, Yeshiva University President Ari Berman, Regis College President John Fitzgibbons, Zaytuna College President Hamza Yusuf, and Houghton College President Shirley Mullen participate in an interfaith panel on Feb. 1, 2019, during a conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities at the Washington Court Hotel in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

WASHINGTON (RNS) —  Like most college presidents, Ari Berman and Hamza Yusuf care about giving their students the best education possible in the classroom.

They also want to support their students’ rights as people of faith.

Faith-based schools help students “to contextualize our lives in a greater mission, to have a sense of holiness about everything that we do,” Berman, president of Yeshiva University in New York, told a gathering of Christian college presidents in the nation’s capital last week (Feb. 1).

The Yeshiva University president’s comments prompted an “Amen” from an audience member.

Berman and Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College in California, took part in an interfaith panel focused on what faith-based schools from diverse backgrounds have in common. The panel, which also included presidents of Mormon, Catholic and Protestant schools, took place at the end of the Presidents Conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, an evangelical consortium of more than 180 schools.

Like their counterparts, both Zaytuna College and Yeshiva University aim to reinforce their religious traditions to a younger generation as they educate them in fields of study ranging from liberal arts to law, their presidents said.

They defended their institutions as alternatives for students of faith who may be met with hostility from college professors at secular schools who consider their religion to be superstition or fellow students who don’t understand their beliefs.

“For me, just having safe places where people that actually are devotional can come to and not be offended,” said Yusuf, “I think that’s extremely important.”


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Brigham Young University President Kevin J. Worthen also spoke of the connection between faith and learning.

“Our goal at Brigham Young University is not simply to prepare students for their first job — though that is not unimportant to them or us,” he said. “And it’s not even to prepare them for their last job. It’s to prepare them for their eternal destiny.”

Although attendees hailed the unusual gathering as historic, more than one panelist noted that connections between great thinkers across faiths dates to medieval times.

Regis University President John Fitzgibbons, the leader of a Catholic school in Denver, and Yusuf noted that Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas benefited from the teachings of Muslim philosophers Averroes and Avicenna, who interpreted Aristotle’s theories.

Berman provided a fresher example of academicians making connections across faiths.

Soon after he became president of Yeshiva in 2017, he sought out Worthen — as well as the presidents of Fordham University and Catholic University of America — to compare notes with colleagues of other faith-based institutions.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said at a media lunch after the discussion of his acceptance of CCCU’s invitation. “It was from those conversations that, when I was invited, I thought this is the kind of room that I want to be in.”

Yusuf told RNS that he has attended religious freedom events sponsored by evangelical Christians.

“Religion’s under siege right now, and religious liberty is being challenged,” he said in an interview. “I think Christian colleges and Christian institutions are realizing the necessity for alliances.”

Fitzgibbons welcomed Yusuf’s description of religion-related colleges being needed as safe spaces for people of faith. But he added that he believes they also should be places where all questions are allowed, including debates related to LGBTQ rights.

“We are all created in the image and likeness of our God — all of us. So how do we get there?’’ he asked. “If that conversation doesn’t happen in the university, then that university should not exist. I say that humbly, but I really mean that.”

Houghton College President Shirley Mullen participates in an interfaith panel during the Presidents Conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities on Feb. 1, 2019, at the Washington Court Hotel in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Shirley Mullen, president of Houghton College, a Wesleyan Church-sponsored school in western New York state, said she thinks all of the presidents should work to affirm the value of faith-based education within the overall offerings in higher education.

“All of us today in our own ways have spoken about this kind of education that does not require students to leave behind their fundamental moral and spiritual conviction as they deepen their intellectual understanding,” she said.

Other college presidents — on the panel and off — said that, in a polarized country, it was beneficial to focus on where people leading faith-based colleges and universities can agree despite their different theologies.

“There’s far more that we have in common,” Fitzgibbons told RNS in an interview after the panel discussion. “It doesn’t mean the differences are not really important. They are. They need to be reverenced by everybody. But we’re all looking for true meaning. We’re all in that search.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

26 Comments

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  • “noted that Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas benefited from the teachings of Muslim philosophers Averroes and Avicenna, who interpreted Aristotle’s theories.” I’d like to see proof for that one,

    ““Religion’s under siege right now, and religious liberty is being challenged,”
    Very true – by Muslim – they want any dissenting votes on Muhammad dead.

    “There’s far more that we have in common,” Fitzgibbons said”
    Christians don’t have a lot in common with cults – except cults keep trying to convince us they aren’t cults

  • One means: They counterfeit Christianity.
    They deny basic components of Christianity.
    They try to turn God into something/one that disagrees with Christianity.
    They reinterpret scripture

    1 John 2:22 – English Standard Version

    22Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 23No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.

  • People will have more realistic views of religion if they do not attend religion-affiliated colleges. This might not be the case if there was really such a thing as a Catholic/Protestant/Jewish/Islamic/Mormon school under one roof with a five-way Mission of Love to the world. Since we don’t have that, there isn’t much point in picking only one and pretending it is really “the thing to learn for life”.

  • Devout Christianity has a lot income with cults— Specific factors in cult behavior include manipulative and authoritarian thought controlling ideas over members, totalistic organization, aggressive proselytizing, systematic programs of indoctrination.

  • You are exhibiting true cult behavior! You hold yourself out as an authority, you are trying to manipulate thought control, aggressive proselytizing, and indoctrination. “A liar denies Jesus” BS! “They re-interpret scripture” — “Scripture”: a body of writings [considered] sacred or authoritative. The scripture that you speak of was written so long ago, not in Jesus time, not in his town, and not in the language that he would have used to speak to his people. And then it is interpreted in many different ways and has been re-written so many times, so what we read today is an interpretation of the original [fictional] story.

    Jesus never wrote anything, and spending his first thirty years in the very small town of Nazareth, he would have spoken to “his people” in a semitic language, and nothing has ever been written about Jesus in a semitic language, neither by Jesus or his people. It was written much later in Greek and they gave Jesus all the attributes of former Greek Gods in Greek mythology, by those who must have read Greek literature– rising from the dead, performing miracles, walking on water, having a moral mother and a divine father, etc.

  • 39,000 hits via Google on “Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas benefited from the teachings of
    Muslim philosophers Averroes and Avicenna, who interpreted Aristotle’s
    theories” I know you don’t click on links so this represents a good stand-in.

    ‘Monotheism would be a key commonality between the three religions.

  • Whatever your opinion of Islam might be, it isn’t a cult. It’s a religion practiced by nearly one quarter of the world’s population.

    There are indeed similarities in the teachings of most of the established religions of the world, including Christianity and Islam, but one must be open to seeing them in order to appreciate that.

  • It is a cult. They follow an idol.
    No need to see “similarities” – satan counterfeits everything.

  • Let us kibosh all of them in the spirit of 21st century reality:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten
    seconds: Priceless !!!

    As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism,
    Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    As far as one knows or can
    tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism,
    Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    There was no Gabriel i.e.
    Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    There was no Easter i.e.
    Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    There was no Moroni i.e.
    Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    Sacred/revered cows, monkey
    gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    Fat Buddhas here, skinny
    Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on
    Buddhism.

    A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings
    (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that
    we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups
    calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally,
    Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early
    philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely
    different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a
    shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a
    full grown wise old man. “

  • Again and again and again, it all revolves around Islam’s Koran and how its dictates of horror
    continue to wreak havoc around the globe. USA citizens continue to die to keep
    this horror in check. And spend trillions of dollars in funding of our War on
    Terror/Islam to do the same.

    And the idiocy of it all is that Islam was founded by a warmongering, misogynist, ex-spice, literate
    trader who started his life of horror by conquering spice trading cities in an
    attempt to control the flow of spices such as frankincense, and myrrh, two
    spices used routinely in those times to mask body and building odors. And today
    we have the stench of Islam covering the globe. Irony?

    He and his scribes eventually converted his crusade into a religion to keep his subjects bound to himself and a
    mythical god, Allah with his mythical angel Gabriel being the earthly
    connection. The absurdity of it all boggles the mind!!! As it does with all religions!!!

  • I don’t think you know the definition of a cult, but I remember from past experience how you tend to redefine words when it suits you, so I’ll let it go.

  • Words have meanings and we can’t change them arbitrarily. Anybody on this board can look up “cult.” And they can also look up “religion.” The fact that you don’t like Islam doesn’t make it any less a religion.

  • I’m not defending Islam. I’m simply pointing out that it is, in fact, a religion.

    But, hey, don’t let being off topic stop you. Prattle on.

  • Islam is not a religion. It is a brotherhood bent on conquering the world in the name of a mythical god and his prophet of horror named Mohammed. And my comments are definitely on topic as these college presidents are trying to give credence to these horror mongers.

  • Ah, so you and Sandi have something in common. You both redefine words when it suits you.

    I’m not an adherent of Islam but I know a religion when I see one. This conversation has reached a rare level of absurdity, even for this site, so I’m moving on.

  • I know how you feel about Islam so I’m not going to make a case for what they do or do not believe. You have a right to your opinion.

    But words have meanings and by any sensible definition, Islam is a religion. Cults are distinguished by specific criteria, such as size, history, control over the actions of members, etc. No centuries-old worldwide sect with 24 million adherents and a lack of central authority can reasonably be called a cult.

    Others can make their own judgments. I’m moving on.

  • The Jews and Muslims are monotheistic but I’m scratching my head wondering how a triune god doesn’t make Christianity polytheistic.

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