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Institute seeks to foster religious exchange and understanding

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Institute seeks to foster religious exchange and understanding

Abdulaziz Sachedina_teach-in
Matt Kelly
Abdulaziz Sachedina, a religious studies professor and scholar of Islam, talks to students at a gathering after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

Genesis 22:9-10
Bible, King James Version

What Sunday school child could forget this disturbing Old Testament passage? Jewish and Christian children alike learn the story of Abraham and Isaac, and struggle with the idea of a loving God who ordered a father to kill his son in a test of faith.

Muslim children also learn the story of Abraham and his son, but they learn a different version. As the Koran tells it, Abraham plans to sacrifice not Isaac, his second son born of Abraham’s aged wife Sarah and founder of the 12 tribes of Israel, but Ishmael, his first-born son, the child of Sarah’s handmaid Hagar and founder of the Arab tribes. In both versions, the son is saved from the knife at the last minute by the word of God and the appearance of a ram as a substitute sacrifice.

Peter W. Ochs
Tom Cogill
Peter W. Ochs

All three religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — share a belief in one God, are rooted in Old Testament stories and consider Abraham their patriarch. But many of the low points of human history, such as the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Holocaust, derived from the religions’ differences. The University’s newly founded Children of Abraham Institute seeks to strengthen understanding among the three monotheistic religions by exploring their differences as well as their similarities, said Peter W. Ochs, Edgar M. Bronfman Chair of Modern Judaic Studies and founder of the institute.

“The institute doesn’t seek to change people’s religious beliefs, which we cherish, but will allow us to reach deeper levels of religious sharing,” Ochs said. “To our surprise, we have found that religious scholars can reach a place at the center of their different traditions that gathers them deeply and warmly together.”

The institute builds on discussions that Ochs and other scholars of religion have conducted under the auspices of the Society for Scriptural Reasoning, which Ochs co-founded in 1995 with Daniel Hardy, an Anglican theologian in Cambridge, England. That loosely bound, international group of academics has met to discuss religious texts from Jewish, Muslim and Christian viewpoints at the American Academy of Religion’s annual conventions for the past six years.

In thinking through the scholarly discussions with colleagues at U.Va. — especially Charles Marsh, associate professor of religious studies and director of the University’s Project on Lived Theology, and Abdulaziz Sachedina, a professor of religious studies and scholar of Islam — Ochs wanted to create something with a practical bent that could reach beyond academe to practicing clergy and help shape religious discussions and understanding in churches, synagogues and mosques around the world.

“We want to invite religious leaders of each of the three communities to sit with our scholarly group for a few weeks and taste this deep and unexpected sharing that brings us together,” he said. “We hope that eventually they will be able to take that sense of deep sharing of other religions home with them. We’d like to bring them into this atmosphere to taste the possibility that enemies share the same God.”

Ochs said the religious scholars realize they have much to learn from the religious leaders as well. “These meetings would also enable ivory tower academics to learn about the terrible challenges — economic, political and social — that clerical leaders face on the ground.”

The institute is sponsoring its first outreach effort on Oct. 24 at a small, private demonstration for about 50 local religious leaders in the Rotunda. The text — on Abraham and his sons — will be interpreted by U.Va. faculty members from Muslim, Christian and Jewish points of view. Then the audience will be invited to participate in the discussion. While not open to the public, the session will be videotaped by C-SPAN and broadcast at a later date. Other larger sessions are planned for the future.

Participants in the demonstration, along with Ochs and Sachedina, will be Elizabeth Alexander, assistant professor of religious studies and Jewish scholar; Eugene Rogers, associate professor of religious studies who teaches Christian theology; Alison Milbank, professor of English and religious literature; Basit Koshul, a Sunni Muslim scholar and doctoral candidate in religious studies working with Ochs; and Brantley Craig, a doctoral candidate in religious studies and active participant in the Society for Scriptural Reasoning.

Face-to-face meetings among people of different religious traditions and cultural backgrounds should provide a way to dispel harmful and misleading images transmitted by the world media, said Koshul. “Television overseas shows as distorted a view of American culture as the American media portrayal is of Islam,” he said. “Before I went to a meeting of the Society for Scriptural Reasoning four years ago, I didn’t know there were Jews and Christians like this.”

With the new institute, said Sachedina, “We have made a commitment to see that people of different traditions appreciate others and learn to live in peace and harmony with each other. We want to take this message to places where violence and conflict are and tell them what it means to be children of Abraham.”

Added Ochs: “I hope to live long enough to experience the shared presence of God by Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders from around the world.”
— Charlotte Crystal


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