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Bridging the religious divide: Teaching across faiths

Part three of three

By Rachel Buller/For CU-CitizenAccess -- Michael Chrzastowski studies the world for a living.

As a geologist, he examines the Earth’s exterior and all that comes with it. More recently, though, he has taken on a new field of study – religion.

In 2010, Chrzastowski taught eight-week courses on Islam at four different churches in the area, including St. Matthew Lutheran, First Presbyterian, Forty Martyrs and Wesley United Methodist churches. His material for the course, however, came from a classroom – not a church or mosque.

The idea that religious and political change can be facilitated through collaboration and discussion in informal settings, outside formal houses of worship or religious centers, is slowly gaining momentum. Rather than focusing on theological differences, people of faith are finding ways to solve problems of mutual concern, including environmental, political, economic and social issues.

The Association of Religion and Data Archives reveals there are more than 300 religions in the United States alone. According to a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the Midwest most closely resembles the religious makeup of the U.S. population. In Champaign-Urbana, there are more than 50 different churches and religious centers.

Interfaith initiatives come at a crucial point in history. In recent decades, religion has assumed a prominent role in global affairs.

“People today are enormously illiterate in religion, even if they profess,” said Kenneth Howell, a former associate professor of religion at the University of Illinois. “Religion is like culture – you have to understand it from the outside, and you have to understand it from the inside.

“When I visit other countries, for example, I listen to the way people live and talk in that world. I try to understand it from the inside. It takes years to understand what the core of a religion really is.”

Howell was an adjunct lecturer in the UI Department of Religion for nine years, during which he taught two courses, Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought. He was also director of the Institute of Catholic Thought, part of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center on campus and the Catholic Diocese of Peoria.

Howell left the university last summer for a position with the Archdiocese of Chicago. In summer 2010, Howell found himself at the center of a national controversy when the university informed him that we would not be invited back to teach that fall.

A student in one of Howell’s classes had complained to university officials about an email the instructor sent explaining Catholic teachings on homosexuality. A few months later, Howell was back in the classroom, with his salary being paid by the university instead of the Peoria Diocese as it had been previously.

An instructor’s tone is crucial when teaching religion in an academic environment, Howell said.

“You don’t take a critical standpoint,” he said. “You try to portray it honestly. You pick out the things that are at the center and core of that religion.”

Segregation among churches during the latter part of the 20th century, Howell said, has led to a lack of religious literacy.

“Religious leaders have an enormous amount of work to do,” he said. “Tolerance is not a matter of beliefs but how one carries oneself.”

For the past seven years, Howell has served on a panel designed to promote religious dialogue within the Champaign-Urbana community. The panel, sponsored by the Interfaith Friendship Foundation, a faith-based group on campus, is held at various churches throughout the year.

One discussion, he said, addressed the role of family in different faith traditions, namely Jewish, Protestant and Catholic. Howell, in fact, has personal ties to all three belief systems. He studied Hebrew for 10 years and translated both religious and historical text for the department. Before converting to Catholicism, which he feels to be the best expression of his Christianity, Howell served as a Protestant minister.

“Catholicism is a religion of persuasion, but we are encouraged to respect one’s self-determination in beliefs,” he said.

Matt Niemi, who is pursuing a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies at the UI, takes a similar approach to his spirituality. Niemi converted to Islam three years ago.

“I choose a religion for a reason,” he said. “I think it’s the correct one. I think it’s the best one. I’m not going to not say somebody else is wrong. At the same time, my religion tells me how to deal with people.

“There’s sometimes a stereotype, I suppose, of religious people being intolerant,” he said. “My friend, his definition of extremism is people who can’t deal with people of different viewpoints. It’s not an issue of religiosity. It’s an issue of how you think.”

Last April, Niemi sat on an interfaith panel sponsored by the Conservative Illini that addressed homosexuality. The panel included representatives from eight different faiths, which included the Baha’i Faith, Hinduism, atheism, Islam, Mormonism, Paganism and Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant).

“That was the most valuable part of the discussion – that it was presented in an academic environment,” he said. “It’s hard to have that kind of discussion sometimes. If you’re discussing things with non-religious people, it’s not really productive to talk about the details because you don’t agree on some core fundamental philosophical points in the first place.”

Niemi has taught classes on current events surrounding people of faith and is personally interested in how the media frames political groups and their rhetoric, in regard to spirituality.

As an instructor, Chrzastowski said, his role is to provide the facts and let people use that information as they will. The methodology for his course, he said, is purely informative and systematic in taking Islam step-by-step.
“I’m a strong advocate for religious education,” he said. “Many of the things we think are differences actually aren’t differences if we can understand them more objectively and more critically.

“Religious education is a very important thing,” Chrzastowski said. “We shouldn’t be afraid of it. That’s a stumbling block for many.”

Sometimes, Chrzastowski said, people feel at risk in stability or acceptance with their religion if they decide to learn about another belief system.

“That’s foolishness,” he said. “We really do need to study other religions.”

Religions with fewer followers receive even less recognition outside their respective groups.

“Communities don’t interact much with Buddhists or Sikhs or Daoists or Confucian followers,” Chrzastowski said. “We don’t know those other traditions.”

Even if people have superficial knowledge of a religion, they often don’t go deep enough to truly understand the tenets that define it, he said. Chrzastowski, who is Lutheran, said he chose to teach Islam because he had never been exposed to the faith in its entirety.

“I thought fellow Christians would find the classes intellectually stimulating,” he said.

Chrzastowski is currently pursuing a graduate degree in religion with a concentration in Islam at the UI. He had to become proficient in both the religion and in Arabic. He holds a doctorate in geology from the University of Delaware.

“I have the Ph.D. to fall back on as someone who has achieved that level of scholarship,” he said. “I’m applying those skills of scholarship toward this new endeavor of mine.”

As part of his academic training in the religion department, Chrzastowski designed an eight-week course on Islam for area churches to use in their adult education classes. So far, about 230 people have completed the course. The attendance records from the classes exceeded the normal attendance in adult education in every single church – sometimes by a factor of three or four times. Class evaluations revealed that 80 percent of class participants left with a more favorable perspective toward Islam.

“They got that from their own experience,” he said. “It’s not something I’m promoting. I’m just teaching what the religion is about and letting people make their own judgments.”

Another 110 people have attended one-hour presentations Chrzastowski has given at area churches of several denominations.

Overall, Chrzastowski examines the rituals, mysticism and doctrines of Islam. The class begins with the history of Islam, followed by a general overview of the religion’s origin in western Arabia. Students review the geography of Arabia, in addition to important historical events that occurred within the region. They examine the life of Muhammad and dispel historic European myths formed to discredit the prophet.

“That’s unfair but that’s what was done,” he said.

Then, Chrzastowski introduces the Quran, comparing what is similar and different in structure from the Bible. The final class is twofold: first, exploring the history of Islam in America at the time African slaves were brought over, many of whom were Muslim, and how they were assimilated into the country. Several of them were forced to adopt Christianity, the religion of their owners. Second, the class studies the Nation of Islam, a group from Chicago that is, Chrzastowski said, “truly and purely an American expression of the religion.”

Last September marked the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11. While progress toward interfaith dialogue has been made to a certain degree, there is a difference between discussing a religion and understanding it.

“We went through a phase in our country where we were unified in many ways – politically,” Chrzastowski said. “We lost a lot of our partisan divisions, but that was a time that came and went.”

These days, Chrzastowski enjoys being back in the classroom – even with students nearly 30 years younger.

“I have a perspective that comes with age,” he said. “What I learn from them is all of their enthusiasm in preparing themselves for the world that they’re facing.”

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.