Bridging Differences

Interfaith Dialogue & Interreligious Leadership

By Dr. Dean P. Bell

At Spertus Institute, our organizational values encompass both academic excellence and community building, including bringing people together to bridge differences. These values animate our work.

We believe that applying Jewish learning–with insights from texts and experiences—can help us to think creatively and imagine innovative solutions, even to intransigent and vexing problems.

This orientation is particularly important in interreligious initiatives, which require us to explore numerous perspectives and multiple narratives that can both deepen and challenge our own assumptions.

Spertus Institute has been involved in interreligious work for many years. It is critical work with real-world impact.

Highlights include our participation in the annual Bernardin Jerusalem lecture that focuses on Jewish-Catholic relations, as well as more recent work in resilience, which has been supported by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation and which we have incorporated into the full range of our graduate and certificate programs.

Chicago itself has an interreligious history worth celebrating. In conjunction with Chicago’s famous 1893 World’s Fair, religious leaders from an impressive array of faiths convened here for the first Parliament of the World’s Religions. This past August, the Parliament of World Religions returned to Chicago, marking the third time it has done so in the past 130 years. Titled A Call to Consciousness: Defending Freedom & Human Rights, this year’s conference sought to address the looming threat of authoritarianism. It also organized and hosted panels on issues related to climate change and the environment, another area in which Spertus has brought leaders from different faith traditions together in think tanks and working groups.

I was pleased to be among the speakers at the Parliament, where I presented with Professor Mike Hogue of Meadville Lombard Theological School on the topic of Interreligious Resilience, based on our recent book, Interreligious Resilience: Interreligious Leadership for a Pluralistic World. Also from Spertus, Dr. David Gottlieb, Director of Jewish Studies, presented on Multi-Religious Perspectives.

During the Parliament, Spertus hosted the Elijah Interfaith Institute, an organization that brings religious leaders and scholars together to create bridges between faith and society. I was invited to join deliberations relating to religious leadership, with more than two dozen representatives from an array of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish backgrounds from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. I was impressed by the commonalities in how we thought about leadership and its challenges, as well as our shared commitments to our communities and the broader world. I was excited by the passion of these leaders for intellectual and personal growth and the ways in which they engaged with the ideas of others. Even when we had different theological positions, we took the time to understand and learn from one another, finding ways to expand and deepen our thinking.

In an age of polarization, it is increasingly important to engage with complexity and nuance, not simply retreat to what we know or might wish to believe.

At Spertus, we have modeled this in our signature Critical Conversations programs, which bring people with divergent perspectives into civil dialogue.

As we approach our 2024 centennial, Spertus Institute continues its tradition of interreligious work in critically important ways. In doing so, we are building on our core strengths, expanding our programmatic and geographic reach, and advancing how our work addresses some of the most pressing issues of today and the future.

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