Sunday, June 17, 2007

ATLA Day 4 -- Muslim Pastoral Training

Friday morning's plenary address was delivered by Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the Director of Islamic Chaplaincy and a professor at the Macdonald Center for Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, CT. Her address focused on issues of spiritual formation and preparation for ministry for Muslims, particularly in the United States. While at first glance this may not seem to be directly related to Christian theological librarianship, it was still an appropriate address for our group of theological librarians. As theological librarians, we often spend a good percentage of our time on faculty committees and are directly involved in the teaching mission of our schools. As someone who has spent a good part of my life assisting seminary students with research and contributing to their spiritual formation, albeit usually in indirect ways, I was interested, and troubled, by what Ingrid had to say.

Ingrid shared with us some of Hartford Seminary's journey to develop the only accredited program for the preparation of Muslim chaplains in North America. Hartford has had a historic role of preparing missionaries to work with Muslims in the Middle East. There has been a recent vision at Hartford to develop an interfaith program that invites Muslims to teach and to be actively involved in dialogue with the Christian community. At the same time, Hartford worked to reinvent their model for seminary training, dropping their M.Div. program altogether. Their vision was for training Christian leaders in practical ministry, especially in the exercise of religious leadership in non-traditional settings. Where faith communities were raising up leaders, whether lay or ordained, Hartford wanted to have a role in training them to do their ministry better.

When it came to the Muslim community, Hartford found their immediate candidates for seminary training working in correctional institutions. Muslim prison ministers were largely unrecognized in any official way, often suffering from a triple stigma in the correctional system: They usually have no degree or title, they are Muslim, and they are usually Black. A forth stigma was added for those who are female.

Ingrid shared that to develop a program for these Muslim chaplains, they had to build the field as they went. There is not a formalized seminary tradition in Islam. Most support and counseling in Islamic society usually takes place in the context of family. The practice of pastoral care is taught by mentoring with a strong oral tradition passed directly from imam to apprentice. Nor is there a large body of written literature to answer questions like, "Why am I sick? Why am I in pain?" In forming the Muslim chaplaincy program at Hartford Seminary, Ingrid indicated that she and her colleagues were working to regularize and institutionalize this variable and loosely defined oral curriculum.

Ingrid emphasized that Hartford was not creating a program to train imams. In light of the seminary's decision to drop their M.Div. program, it did not make sense to then establish a formalized degree and credentialing program for Muslims. Nor would their program be likely to be recognized by the Islamic community, especially since they are admitting women.

It was at this point that I had concerns over some of what Ingrid was sharing. Hartford's decision to abandon M.Div. training altogether troubles me. I know that many of our institutions are wrestling with declining enrollment and are raising similar questions to those asked at Hartford as how to best train Christian leaders in the 21st century. But I remain committed to the principle of seminary education and feel that it has something significant to contribute to the church of the 21st century. Rather than abandon the M.Div., I would still look for ways to make it effective in spiritual formation and pastoral training. (Something that I think we do well at Northern Seminary, if I can be allowed an immodest comment.)

Also, where there has been such a well-established tradition for training for functional leadership in Islam, I wonder at Hartford's decision to some extent place themselves outside that tradition. Within Protestant Christian seminaries, we know too well the delicacies of marketing ourselves to the kinds of students who will do well at our seminaries. In a time of political and theological polarization in American society, we know that our degrees can be a respected step toward credentials in some churches while at the same time they can be the kiss of death to a pastoral career in other churches, often of the same denominational tradition. While the decision at Hartford to not offer formal imam training to some extent side-steps this dilemma, it still runs the risk of leaving their graduates standing in a suspect place to traditional Islam. As they work to formalize and standardize what has naturally been happening in the Islamic community, will they also end up separating themselves from the vitality of that community?

One final note from Ingrid's presentation deserves to be emphasized as it touches on librarians everywhere and especially on theological librarians: A U.S. Senate task force has investigated what they believe to be an increasing radicalization of Islamic teaching in U.S. prisons. Ingrid shared with us that she has been given the difficult task by that taskforce of developing a "safe" bibliography of Islamic books that can be kept in U.S. prisons that will neither be extremist nor be capable of being used to justify extremist actions. In an era where some are arguing that all religious convictions are at the root of global strife, this was a troubling note. What percentage of our library collections offer "safe" teachings on Christianity that are neither extremist nor can be used to justify extremist actions? (Is "whoever loses his life for me will save it" a safe teaching?) What responsibility do we as theological librarians have to defend the access of others to the resources of their tradition, even faith traditions that are not our own?

Ingrid also recommended that people interested in learning more about the particular struggles of American Muslim leaders should read the Pulitzer Prize winning articles from the New York Times written by Andrea Elliott.

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