The Theology Department is establishing a Theological Encounters Initiative to encourage theological dialogue between Christians and practitioners of other faiths. This undertaking is one means of fostering greater understanding, appreciation, and respect across religious differences.
This first program of the larger initiative, "Encountering Islam," will replace the Muslim Christian Dialogue Center (MCDC), and will be directed by Dr. Steven McMichael, associate professor of historical theology at the University of St. Thomas. The Encountering Islam Program will primarily focus on educational opportunities for the University and wider community to learn more about Islam, and for theologians in both faiths to engage in theological exchange. Co-curricular events will provide opportunities for students and the wider community to learn about Islam and/or Muslim-Christian Dialogue (during convocation-hour conversations, Theology Night Live discussions, Theology Club events, etc.).
Another major focus of the program is the establishment of the Terence Nichols Memorial Symposium. The Theology Department will invite a scholar of Islam to be in residence at St. Thomas for a week. His or her primary task will be to give a public lecture on a topic related to Islam and/or Muslim-Christian Dialogue. The scholar will have an opportunity to engage with University administrators, faculty, staff, and students at a dinner discussion. They will also give a workshop on some aspect of Islam and/or Muslim-Christian dialogue for the theology faculty. The scholar will be invited to engage with students in a number of classes during the week, as well.
There are other significant goals of the Encountering Islam Program. It aims at making interreligious dialogue a vital part of the minor in Interreligious Studies and Comparative Theology. The program will create teaching tools and resources in order to enable St. Thomas faculty to incorporate Islam into their courses. The program will collaborate with the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning to create programs that will aid in Muslim-Christian relations. There will an outreach to local Muslim and Christian communities to foster dialogue in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area.
Fr. McMichael was a founding member of the advisory board that supported the work of the MCDC, which operated at the University from 2007-2018. The Center was the brainchild of Dr. Terence Nichols. In a presentation on the legacy of the MCDC, Dr. Nichols spoke of the four types of dialogue in interfaith relations that are described in a document issued by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 1991, Dialogue and Proclamation:
The dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations. The dialogue of action, in which Christians and others collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people. The dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other’s spiritual values. The dialogue of religious experience, where persons rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute.
Nichols's vision for the MCDC was to focus primarily on theological dialogue and religious experience. “At our Muslim Christian Dialogue Center, we are focusing mainly on the third type, theological exchange, and the fourth type, religious experience. But these spill over into types one and two.”
With this theological dialogue as the central focus of the MCDC, Terry Nichols and Dr. Adil Ozdemir, a scholar of Islam from Turkey, began their work as the founding co-directors of the Center. They quickly established a board of advisors of local experienced Muslim and Christian leaders, planned activities for students, and hosted many prominent speakers who spoke about issues in modern Muslim-Christian dialogue. One of the fruits of the work of the co-directors, along with local Muslim and Christian scholars, was the development of thirty articles on topics relevant to Muslim-Christian dialogue that were posted on the webpage of the MCDC. Another accomplishment was their engagement in this dialogue that went beyond the campus and local area to the international arena, as they engaged in theological exchanges in such countries as Turkey, Italy, and Iran.
Various factors led to the decision to close the MCDC this year. Dr. Nichols passed away in 2014, and Dr. Adil Ozdemir returned to Turkey shortly afterwards. By that time, the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning had broadened its focus from Jewish-Christian relations to interfaith learning which included the dialogue between Muslims and Christians. The scope of the Center for Campus Ministry also extended its outreach to Muslim students, faculty, and staff on campus and it now employs a Muslim Associate Chaplain (Dr. Sadaf Shier). The Office for Spirituality, the Interfaith Council, and various offices in Student Affairs are now doing interfaith work among Muslims and Christians on campus, so that these ministries were replicating work that was part of the original mission of the MCDC.
Members of the Theology Department wanted to continue the dream and work of Terry Nichols in the department itself, especially his focus on theological dialogue. The Department also expressed a desire to live more deeply into its mission to be an open, respectful, hospitable, and welcoming place to students of all faiths. The Department therefore decided to create a series of initiatives on interreligious and ecumenical theological dialogue. “Encountering Islam” will be the first program of the initiative, and the Department hopes in the future to include other theological encounters, to include potentially “Encountering Orthodoxy”, “Encountering Judaism”, “Encountering Hinduism”, and so on.
Upon learning of the new initiative, Terry Nichols' wife, Mabel Nichols, wrote a personal response about the closing of the MCDC: “[T]here is so much more awareness of the need to understand . . . and welcome [Muslims] into our communities. . . . I am glad you were able to incorporate the spirit that Terry hoped to build into another expression.”
The spirit and dream of Terry Nichols are still alive in the Theology Department. Our hope is that this initiative to establish mutual understanding and respect among Muslims and Christians will continue to bear fruit not only on campus but in our local and global communities, as well.