From the Director
Joining the UST community feels for me like several streams in my life are now flowing together into one river. This feeling is energizing as I start my work here teaching theology and directing the Muslim Christian Dialogue Center (MCDC). Allow me to introduce myself to the University community through describing some of these streams, focusing on my scholarly interests.
I first discovered or rather invented myself as an intellectual in my college years through reading classics of Western literature, from Vergil’s Aeneid to Goethe’s Faust, from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. My decision to take seriously the life of the mind went together with a decision to give myself over to my passion for language. As an undergraduate at Boston College, I went a bit wild learning languages by adding German, ancient Greek, and Hebrew to the French and Latin I had started learning in high school. I also took as many courses as I could that focused on reading “great books” without recourse to translation.
This passionate love for languages and texts continues in the scholarly work I do in comparative theology. The energy and curiosity that I directed in college to reading Sophocles, Cicero, Montaigne, and Freud, I now turn towards theological texts from the Christian and Islamic traditions. With the same attention to style and meaning, literary precedent and the history of reception by readers, my work today juxtaposes texts from these two great religious traditions to elicit new possibilities and insights into perennial spiritual and religious questions.
A particularly transformative experience that irreversibly changed the course of my life was living and working as a volunteer teacher at the all-boys French-immersion Jesuit high school of Cairo, Egypt, for the two years after my college graduation. There I fell in love with Egypt, with Cairo, and with Arabic. I ventured and explored and tested and tried. The city crushed me with its immensity and altogether unfamiliar history. Here was a great civilization, in fact a confluence of several civilizations that I hardly knew anything about. I threw myself into Arabic study, not for bookish knowledge or college credit, but to buy shampoo, make friends, talk politics. Half of my students were Muslim, half Christian. They were not much younger than me and many became like little brothers to me. Several of these I count today among my closest friends in the world.
Following the disorienting experience of my years teaching at the College de la Sainte Famille, I returned “home” to Boston College, where I enrolled in a theology master’s program both to read the classics of Christian thought and, more urgently, to begin to make sense of the dizzying experiences of religions and cultures and politics that I had experienced in the Middle East those two years. I discovered the field of comparative theology, which felt like a scholarly means of building deep understanding between my native Western culture and the dominant Arab and Islamic cultures of my adopted home in Egypt.
One compelling version of the concept of “vocation” is the intersection of one’s talents and joys with the world’s needs. The events of 9/11 catalyzed a period of “vocational” discernment for me, a white, Catholic Nebraskan, who already then spoke Arabic, loved the Arab world, and had a deep and wide humanistic education. Heeding the “signs of the times” and the stirrings of my restless heart, I took away from that discernment process the decision to undertake a doctoral program in Arabic and Islamic studies for the purpose of becoming a comparative theologian.
Before comments about the direction in which I plan to take the Muslim Christian Dialogue Center, one more “stream” flowing in the course of my life is worth describing, namely: leadership. In earliest memory, my concept of leadership was the power and privilege of the fortunate. Then, I began to think of it as a talent or charisma bestowed upon the blessed. In adolescence, I recognized leadership as a skill set. In college, I began to associate leadership with personal growth and emotional intelligence. This ongoing curiosity and interest in leadership spurred me to seek exposure to different facets of the world and experiences that were difficult and trying. As I embarked upon my doctoral program at Harvard University, which I expected to take about eight years, I dreamt of somehow growing as a leader. When I discovered that a company that thought of itself as a “leadership factory,” namely, McKinsey & Company, was recruiting for summer associates in their Middle East Office, I leapt at the chance. The more I worked at McKinsey, including after finishing my doctorate in 2011, the more involved I became in the firm’s leadership development practice, in which we designed and implemented programs to develop our clients as leaders.
Today, my concept of leadership is about becoming oneself fully, in the service of others. Developing as a leader, becoming educated, and following a spiritual path toward God have become intertwined in my understanding. The streams have flowed into one great river.
This image has helped me share with you how teaching and leading the Muslim Christian Dialogue Center (MCDC) make for a culmination of my life experience and personal formation thus far. Let me now share seven beliefs that have come to the fore as I have begun creating a new strategic direction for the Center:
1.The world urgently needs Muslim-Christian dialogue.
2.Interreligious dialogue involves ways of being, not just words and actions.
3.Interreligious dialogue can focus on religious experiences, joint action for justice, and companionship in life, as well as conversations about theology. (See Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Dialogue and Proclamation, § 42, 1991.)
4.Engaging in Muslim-Christian dialogue is a prime opportunity to develop as a leader.
5.The greatest opportunity for the MCDC to make an impact is right here at the University of St. Thomas.
6.The University of St. Thomas can and should become a “center for excellence” in Muslim-Christian dialogue.
7.Now is a time for MCDC to try out new initiatives and develop strategic partners.
Proceeding from these beliefs, the strategic direction in which I plan to take the Center this academic year is as follows: The Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center will contribute to the mission of the University of Saint Thomas with a focus on student formation, through:
1.Emphasizing campus life and involvement in the local community;
2.Integrating various kinds of dialogue, especially dialogue of action and of religious experience;
3.Developing students’ leadership skills through all MCDC programs and activities;
4.Partnering with other organizations within the University and local community; and
5.Beginning to create a Center of Excellence for Muslim-Christian dialogue at UST.
I fully intend to build up new momentum in Muslim-Christian dialogue. It is a great joy and a privilege to be here in this position, riding the great river of life and thus living out my own vocation.
2017 Forum on Work Place Inclusion: https://www.stthomas.edu/workplaceforum/