world council of churches

"At the Edge of the Future: Projects in Spirituality
and Religious Pluralism in Higher Education"

Courtney T. Goto

What’s Happening on Campus
If you’re looking for clues about the future of religion and interreligious dialogue in the United States, look at what’s happening on some campuses on the cutting edge of education. In the student center, you’ll probably find the regulars -- Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish student associations--but you may also find a Buddhist meditation group, an Islamic student association, and a Hindu student group. If you’re looking for the chapel on campus, it may no longer exist as a center for Christian worship, it may have been converted to a space that can be used by all religious groups. Poking your head into some classes, you’ll probably find the standard history and sociology of religion courses, but you may notice that some people are also talking about issues of spirituality in physics, math, or literature class. Ten years ago this new evidence of religion and spirituality would have never been found in higher education. So what’s going on?

The complexion of American college and universities is evolving because the nation’s religious landscape is changing. Since the Immigration Act of 1965 was repealed, there has been an influx of immigrants to the United States, especially from Latin America and Asia. America’s foreign-born population rose from 9.6 million in 1970 to 14.1 million in 1980 and to 19.8 million in 1990. The estimated foreign-born population of the U.S. in 1997 was 25.8 million.1 That has had a significant impact on colleges and universities. According to Dr. Diana Eck, Director of the Harvard University Pluralism Project and moderator of the former Working Group of the WCC Dialogue Sub-unit, "[W]e now have second generation -- and in some cases, first generation--young Americans" on campus as a result of immigration of people from all over the world.2

In the face of a multireligious community, many colleges and universities have struggled with existing structures for religious life, developed out of a mono-religious history. According to Victor Kazanjian, Jr., Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at Wellesley College, in the late 80s and early 90s in an era of fiscal cuts, many colleges downsized or dissolved the religious life programs that no longer seemed to reflect the diverse reality of campus life.3 In contrast a few colleges, like Wellesley and the University of Southern California, adopted new models of religious life. Wellesley, for example, has six advisors (Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant Christian and Unitarian Universalist) overseen by a Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life, who doesn’t represent any one religious community but is responsible for maintaining a forum for respect, mutuality and equality.

For the colleges and universities that have chosen to address the growing religious diversity of their students, there are new opportunities for interreligious dialogue both in and out of the classroom. For example, dialogue is essential when a religiously diverse group of students has been asked to plan an interfaith service for the university. Students on the planning team must struggle to determine the format, symbols, and rituals of the service that are acceptable to all. Communication among religious groups is also critical when a campus decides to convert a mono-religious worship space, usually Christian, into a neutral space that can be used by all religious groups. Informal interreligious dialogue is also happening in the classroom. Describing what happened in the late 80s, when Dr. Eck began to have significant numbers of religiously diverse students in her classes, she says, "[the] Eurocentric perspective [of Harvard’s courses] was suddenly transformed, to use the language of the Other, because in my classes on world religions, all of us were increasingly Other to each other."4

Not only interreligious dialogue but issues of spirituality are receiving new attention in higher education. Many students today consider religious and spiritual life as a part of what is necessary to support their whole educational journey. This sentiment is echoed by scholars such as Vincent Harding,5 Parker Palmer,6 and others.7 Dr. Harding says that "the heart of education lies in trying to touch us at the deepest parts of our being and to explore how we may transform ourselves and our world."8 Understanding the mission of education as a spiritual task marks a significant shift from the way it has been traditionally understood. According to Dr. Palmer, although "it was a religious impulse that set much of American higher education in motion," higher education developed its own orthodoxy in its dedication to objectivism, with its deep suspicion of spirituality and matters of the heart. However, in training students to seek knowledge of the world by distancing themselves from it, higher education has discouraged students from becoming morally engaged with the world they study and taking moral responsibility for it.9 There is now increasing interest in developing a more holistic approach to education that includes subjective ways of knowing -- fundamentally spiritual territory.

Three Projects on the Cutting Edge
In the last five years, several projects have emerged to address religious pluralism and spirituality in higher education. Although each project has its own approach, all three to one degree or another seek include issues of religious pluralism and spirituality as essential to preparing students for living in an increasingly complex world. The enthusiasm for these projects bodes well for the future of religion and interreligious dialogue.

The Education as Transformation Project, based at Wellesley College, is a multi-year organizing effort begun in 1996 to initiate a national dialogue about religious pluralism and spirituality. What started as a series of informal conversations to which I was privileged to be a part, turned into a series of discussions with six regionally based colleges including Brown, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley and Yale. Then in September 1998, over 800 representatives -- presidents, chancellors, deans, faculty, administrators, students, alumni, trustees and religious life professionals -- from over 250 colleges, universities and related institutions came together at a two-day national event, "Education as Transformation: Religious Pluralism, Spirituality, and Higher Education" held on Wellesley campus. Participants explored topics that included definitions of spirituality, the role of spirituality in education, moving from religious diversity to pluralism, and how institutions can better reflect an educational process which examines moral, ethical, and spiritual issues that leads to global citizenship.

The Education as Transformation Project continues to provide assistance to colleges and universities wanting to address issues of religious diversity and spirituality (e.g. sacred space, programs). The project helps colleges and universities to develop "multi-constituency dialogue teams" of administrators, alumni, faculty, religious life professionals, students, and trustees. Then it offers participating institutions a multi-year program of education, support, leadership development, and institutional assessment with the goal of long term institutional change. The project also facilitates regional gatherings and develops resources including Education as Transformation, an edited collection of writings by educators on the themes of religious pluralism and spirituality in higher education; Beyond Tolerance, an educational video highlighting Wellesley’s experience of institutional change from a mono-religious to a multireligious community; and Creating Multifaith Spaces, a collection of case studies on institutions that have converted existing spaces or created spaces for multireligious programs and activities.10

Like the Transformation Project, Links: Connecting Head and Heart on Campus focuses on developing a more holistic approach to education where matters of the head and heart are integrated. Initiated by the Episcopal Church Foundation and Trinity Church, Wall Street in 1997, Links is a telecommunications network for colleges and universities to link up via satellite and internet for teleconferences, which focus on spiritual issues facing our culture. One of the project’s goals is to establish intergenerational, interdisciplinary, interfaith communities of dialogue around issues prompted by the teleconferences. A pilot teleconference "God at 2000," held in February 2000 involved 253 downlinks, 100 of which were colleges and universities. In 2-3 years, when the country is wired for broadband broadcasts, Links programs will be transmitted exclusively by the internet, which will enable colleges and universities from all over the world to participate.11

The work of the Transformation Project and Links has been pioneering, yet American higher education has a long way to go, and global higher education even further. Until now there has been no training ground in higher education to train young people in spiritually grounded leadership, multireligious understanding, and the skills of interreligious dialogue. Young leaders with such training are critically needed, especially in areas where religion has been implicated in conflict. Youth leaders in the interreligious movement have traditionally received their training informally, often volunteer work that is disconnected from their college or university studies.

In 2000, the Certificate in Interreligious Relations (CIR, formerly known as International Religious Youth Organizations Seminars or IRYOS), was launched by the World Conference on Religion and Peace International Youth Council in partnership with Connecticut College. Currently in the planning stages, CIR will be an intensive, flexible two-year program that teaches the skills of interreligious dialogue and cooperation to young organizers, leaders, and activists who work within religious and multireligious communities. Though participants will gather at Connecticut College for part of the program, they will complete much of their training through distance learning, making it easier for young people from around the world to participate. Distance learning will also encourage participants to apply what they are learning to their local context. During the two-year program, participants will focus on such topics as the role of religion in conflict and reconciliation, conflict resolution skills, and building multifaith communities. CIR’s international interfaith curriculum will be designed to meet many of the training needs of international interfaith organizations. The program will help strengthen existing interfaith structures and provide a network of young trained leaders in the interfaith movement.12

What the Future Holds
The projects outlined above represent efforts by religious communities to influence the future by working with young people. The Links project was initiated by the Episcopal Church. CIR was initiated by the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP), which represents religious communities around the world. The U.S. Chapter of WCRP was one of the initiating partners (along with Wellesley College) in the Education as Transformation Project, though it has since been carried forward by Wellesley. These projects attest to the recognition of religious communities that their future (and the world’s future) are dependent in part on the formation of young people who appreciate pluralism.

These cutting edge projects also suggest that working with or through institutions of higher education is an important strategy for reaching young people. The Education as Transformation Project and the Links project both access students at a critical time in their lives. For many young people in the United States, college is their first opportunity to encounter people of other faiths, to engage in discussions about religion and spirituality, or to recreate, reclaim, or even reject spirituality. In this environment, young people often embark on a search that shapes their religious identity and world view -- arguably, for the rest of their lives. Both the Transformation and Links projects have partnered with colleges and universities to help shape students’ educational experience. In comparison, CIR has joined with Connecticut College, to provide an accredited program. The accreditation gives weight to the academic integrity of the certificate, while making the program more attractive and useful to prospective students.

Given its historic relationship with religion, one wouldn’t think of the American university as a likely home for promising work in spirituality and multireligious dialogue -- yet it is. These projects indicate that colleges and universities can provide institutional stability, a natural "market" of young people, and resources that include electronic networking. For example, the extensive network of participants in the Transformation project continues to remain vital because all are wired into their college or university’s digital network. The Links project is capable of reaching hundreds of campus communities through its teleconferences because nearly every college and university has a steerable dish. Likewise, the internet brings new dimensions to the distance learning component of CIR. These projects also benefit from the fact that many colleges and universities are crossroads of religious diversity, as well as communities in search of truth.

What threatens the important work of these projects is lack of funds. All three projects have met challenges in fundraising in part because American foundations are slow to realize the potential of these efforts. The projects must convince secular funding institutions that religious or spiritual young people are a viable force for change in society. This leads to the logical question of whether religious communities will be willing to provide broader support for these efforts.

Perhaps the campus of the future will provide seamless intellectual, spiritual, and physical training to students, so that the education of neither the mind, nor heart, nor body will be valued over any other. College and university communities will look more and more like the world--a rich mix of religions, cultures, languages, and geographies. Students representing the world’s religions will find advisors, courses, projects and religious services that deepen their understanding of their own tradition while respecting that of others. Courses in interreligious dialogue and cooperation will be standard curriculum in higher education. While we are only at the edge of what may be, we have firm evidence of a hopeful future.

Courtney T. Goto, is a writer/editor in Florida consulting for Global Kids Inc, in New York City. She received her start in interreligious affairs as manager of the Harvard University Pluralism Project and is particularly interested in young adult participation in the ecumenical and interreligious movements.


  1. Gibson, Cambell J. and Emily Lennon. "Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-1990." Population Division Working Paper No. 29, U.S. Bureau of the Census, February 1999.
  2. Gottman, Mary M. Summary Report of the National Gathering, (Wellesley: The Education as Transformation Project, 1999) p. 12
  3. "Conversation with Victor H. Kazanjian, Jr." Boston Research Center for the 21st Century. Newsletter #11, Summer/Fall 1998, p. 10
  4. Gottman, p. 12
  5. Dr. Harding is Professor of Religion and Social Transformation at Iliff School of Theology
  6. Dr. Palmer is author of To Know as We are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey and The Courage to Teach: The Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life
  7. See also Sharon Parks, co-author of Common Fire, who reminds us of the "hearth" in higher education, where faculty and students gathered in a common search for meaning
  8. "Comments from Project Advisors." Boston Research Center for the 21st Century. Newsletter #11, Summer/Fall 1998, p. 13
  9. Gottman p. 6
  10. For more information about the Education as Transformation Project, contact Dr. Peter Laurence, Director, or Diane Dana, Coordinator, Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA 02181, USA, tel: 1-781-283-2659, fax: 1-781-283-3676, email: ; website:
  11. For more information about Links, contact Anne Ditzler, Program Associate, Episcopal Church Foundation, 815 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10017-4564, USA, tel: 1-212-697-2858; fax: 1-212-297-0142, email:
  12. For more information about CIR, contact Dr. Patrice Brodeur, Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Avenue, New London, CT 06320, USA, tel: 1-860-439-2114; fax: 1- 860-439-5340; email: Fajwah Abrahams is a Muslim woman and works as a teacher in Cape Town, South Africa.

    Go to An Assessment of the Interreligious Situation in Brazil -- Otávio Velho
    Return to Current Dialogue (36), December 2000

    © 2000 world council of churches | remarks to webeditor