The Graduate Theological Union, a consortium for the study of religion at the university level, this week launched a new online learning platform focused on the intersection of spirituality and activism.
The new online hub, called GTUx, features lectures and learning modules by Graduate Theological Union faculty members, alumni, and students. Scholars explore topics ranging from ecospirituality at the intersection of spirituality and art to religious influences on the riot at the United States Capitol last year. GTUx will also include virtual art exhibits on religious or social justice themes, live Zoom chats, and other opportunities for users to connect with each other, including a Slack channel and Facebook group to dialogue. Participants are encouraged to donate any amount they choose to support the project, but anyone can join and access the content for free.
The union, based in Berkeley, Calif., is made up of a collective of institutions and programs representing a variety of faith traditions and focuses on interfaith and interdisciplinary higher education. The idea for GTUx grew out of a theory among consortium administrators that there is a demand for educational content on spirituality among those interested in social activism and community organizing, both within and outside the community. outside academia, whether or not they see themselves as affiliated with a religious tradition.
“Our sense is that the world is craving a place to go to have rich conversations and deep learning in a way that equips people to deal with the challenges we face in the world right now, from climate change to racial injustice, religion and politics, and to have a place where people can come together,” said Jennifer W. Davidson, incoming dean and vice president for academic affairs and professor of theology and of worship at the Graduate Theological Union.
The platform is an opportunity to engage on these issues “with a sense of hope and a way to tap into these really deep resources that we have in our faith wisdom and traditions,” she added.
A 2015 report from the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of Americans who identify as unaffiliated with any religion grew rapidly, representing 23% of the population at that time, up from 16% in 2007. This growing detachment of religion is particularly notable among young Americans; 35% of millennials say they have no religious affiliation. Still, many Americans are interested in spirituality, according to a study by the Fetzer Institute, a private foundation focused on the promotion and study of spirituality in the United States. The study included a 2020 survey of 3,609 adults, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, a nonpartisan research organization, which found that 86% of respondents identified themselves as spiritual to some degree, and more than 66% described their spirituality as guiding their behavior. . Respondents who described themselves as moderately or very spiritual also reported engaging in volunteer work and civic action at higher rates.
J. Cody Nielsen, director of the Center for Spirituality and Social Justice at Dickinson College, said there is a “growing rejection of formal religious practice” in the United States.
“More and more individuals in American society look to the religious structures in which they grew up or that have dominated our national landscape…and they reject them,” Nielsen said. “Yet people are deeply connected to understanding some sort of greater sense of purpose, and people’s spirituality is changing for the most part.”
He noted that Americans are increasingly drawn to humanism or multiple religious traditions at once, rather than a single belief system, and are “returning to deep questions of philosophy.” Thus, the Graduate Theological Union is “on the verge” of creating programming focused on spirituality.
Consortium leaders say people are particularly drawn to discussions of spirituality and social justice during a pandemic that has left many feeling isolated and amid the nationwide reckoning with racism that followed the murder of George Floyd.
“The intersectional public health crises, widespread injustice, political strife and heartbreaking violence we have experienced as a global community make it clear that the need for this type of resource is more urgent than ever,” said Uriah. Kim, president of the Graduate Theological Union, said in a press release. “There is a deep desire for change, and we are proud to have created a space that enables learners and changemakers from around the world to come together in knowledge, dialogue and action.”
Frank Yamada, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, a membership organization for graduate schools that educate religious leaders, said theological schools are increasingly devising new ways to “serve non-traditional students through non-traditional ways,” a trend he says has been accelerated by the pandemic.
“This innovation that GTU promotes … seeks to digitally reach an audience with its educational mission that might not be traditional degree-seeking students,” he said.
He thinks theological school leaders are driven by enrollment difficulties. Overall enrollment at member institutions of the Association of Theological Schools has remained steady over 30 years – and The Theological Union of Graduates has seen enrollment increases in recent years. But mainstream Protestant institutions “have seen pretty steep declines in enrollment over the past 15 to 20 years,” he said. These challenges prompted administrators to “get creative”.
Kim, the GTU president, noted in an email that people want more opportunities to pursue religious education “along with their existing vocation” and that this is reflected in a “significant increase” in the number of students. part-time and certificates. -students of the Higher Theological Union program.
Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, senior advisor for public affairs and innovation at Interfaith Youth Core, an organization focused on promoting interfaith cooperation and dialogue, said the consortium’s online platform can open up greater access to religious education.
This is an exciting and “long overdue” development “for serious theological education to expand beyond the confines of their walls and into the whole world,” he said.
While Raushenbush thinks religion remains a powerful force in people’s lives and activism, he noted that the platform could provide “a different entry point” for those who may not think religious traditions have something to offer them.
“If you don’t consider yourself to be particularly religious or spiritual, but you’re very interested in ecology or you’re very interested in racial justice, then you might…then say, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know not that there was anything for me,” he said. “They could enter the same portal through a different route.
He also hopes that GTUx will give people a chance to engage with religious traditions other than their own because of the religious diversity of the consortium, which includes institutions and centers focused on Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism.
“I think the goal here is to put these different valuable wisdom traditions on the same page and almost in conversation with each other and let the world see that it’s possible,” Raushenbush said. “You might go there thinking, ‘You know what, I’m looking for something about Christian ecospirituality’ and then see something about Jewish ecospirituality and say, ‘I didn’t even know that was a thing. .. This is where the magic happens with education and especially with something as powerful as spirituality and religion.
Nielsen said engaging a wide variety of faith traditions was key to “nurturing a more holistic educational experience” on the platform. He also believes that the academic study of faith and activism must include challenging discussions of “the historical ways in which religion has been both helpful and harmful” to social movements and marginalized groups, which involves d to be “questioners of our own stories and experiences”.
Davidson, the new dean of the Graduate Theological Union, said the consortium is home to many students, faculty members and administrators who already have cross-faith and academically rigorous discussions of social action and conduct relevant research.
“I think a lot of them would identify as people who are deeply spiritual…and who are also deeply committed to social justice,” she said. “It’s an organic project for us trying to share who we are with the world in order to be a resource for others.”