A Discussion with Marinus Iwuchukwu, Chair of the Theology Department, Duquesne University

With: Marinus Iwuchukwu

October 2, 2017

Background: Professor Marinus Iwuchukwu has focused on how the worldview of inclusive pluralism can effectively contribute to interreligious dialogue in modern societies. Born in Nigeria, he maintains links with teacher training colleges and works to develop approaches and curricula in the area of interreligious and intercultural dialogue. This discussion with Katherine Marshall on October 2, 2017 took place in the context of a consultation on religious dimensions of Nigeria’s contemporary development challenges.

How did you get involved in the work you are doing?

I was born in Kano, Nigeria and I did my primary education in Kano, but high school and college were in different parts of the North. Then I came to the United States for my graduate programs: a master’s and Ph.D. Those were at Marquette University, a Jesuit school in Milwaukee. I finished my master’s program in Journalism in 1998 and I left to teach in college and then we had 9/11.

Where did you go to teach?

I went back to Nigeria to teach at a college called Federal College of Education in Kano. Then we had 9/11 and it dawned on me that especially here in the United States and in the media world, religion was treated so casually. You know, you sent journalists to cover beats on politics, on economics, and on other major disciplines, and you made sure they are people who had at least a robust understanding and are well-educated and well-versed in the area. But when it comes to journalists who cover religion, often times they sent the rookie, just to make sure somebody went there to report.

When 9/11 happened, the major global networks found out they didn’t have experts about Islam and religious militants. And there may have been people who had reported consistently, but not many people who were well educated on Islam and other non-Christian religions. And that was why I wanted to do my Ph.D. in religion and media, to find a connection between religion and violence and how we could make it less violent; how we could be more interactive among ourselves to stop all unnecessary conflicts. 

I was raised Catholic with a pretty conservative understanding of my faith and the “other,” but I think in high school I started interacting with several Pentecostals and Muslims. I started questioning my original exclusive religious mentality. Of course, that brought me to the reality of reading about other religions and I came to understand that truth is not told in one version alone, that there could be many versions of the same truth. In addition, when I studied media, I got exposed to post-modernism as an ideology, or as a philosophy of life. At that time media was beginning to be more, on a practical level, accommodating of post-modern ideologies or post-modernity. Being a black person in the United States and as a minority, post-modernism gave me a lot of confidence, gave me the strength of will to be who I am and be proud of who I am, and not necessarily one to think that I am any less than anybody or that I need to be a different person than I am. 

So, in my research, I encountered a lot of people who thought outside the box in Christian literature and in the Christian context. One of the guys I read a lot about is a Jesuit priest who worked in India for a very long time; he originally came from Belgium. He was a committed promoter of the Catholic Church until he started writing about religious pluralism which did not go well with the Catholic Church. They questioned his theology and theological assumptions about the dignity and validity of non-Christian traditions. My Ph.D. dissertation focused on his inclusive religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue. 

Who was that? 

Jacques Dupuis. Dupuis became kind of my intellectual mentor on how to appreciate religious differences and find commonalities. His theology operates on the assumption of the commonalities in religions and the understanding that we, for the most part, have to find ways, especially as Christians, to accept that God plays a similar role in the religions of others as he does in ours. So inclusive pluralism has been my ideological mainstream in my advocacy for dialogue. 

I have found in my research that especially the other world religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Daoism, most of which are coming from the East, are already open and disposed to pluralism, as well as disposed to inclusivism. The guys we have problems with often times are the Abrahamic religions: the Christians, Muslims, and the Jews. Yet when you look closely in their texts, they have ample indicators to accommodate and appreciate religious differences. 

I’ve spent a good part of my research life exploring the presence of inclusivism and religious pluralism in the texts of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but especially Christians and Muslims. The reason I hone in on Christians and Muslims are 1) they are the most dominant religions 2) they seem to have the same mission, which is taking over the world and 3) they don’t think that anyone else is equal to them. Those two have to find ways of appreciating the validity of others in the world we live in today. That’s why I have paid a lot of attention to Islam and Christianity as my springboard for dialogue with other religions. So, when I got a job at Duquesne University, one of the things I was allowed to commence in the university was setting up an interdisciplinary group of scholars to focus on the issue of Christian/Muslim dialogue. I am happy to say that after nine years we are still going strong. We started as a small group of people and now it is a university-wide consortium. 

The university appreciates what we are doing, which is why its administration has supported us all of these years. Next week we have our book discussion on how to teach Muslim students in high school. There are three scholars and we are bringing them to campus to share their research with us. Next month, we are having a campus-wide panel discussion on immigration and the broader implication of immigration from economic, political, moral, and cultural perspectives. We are getting different scholars from different disciplines to address the issue. We are addressing it not only because of what is going on in the United States with the ban on Muslims or the building of walls. We know that increasingly there been a drumbeat across different parts of the world against immigrants. We hear that subtly coming in from Western Europe, Germany is struggling with that, especially with the flow of refugees. But we also hear that in the Middle East, there is the huge emigration of people from different parts of the Middle East. How has that affected those societies? 

This is the kind of work I have gotten myself into and initially when we started the Muslim-Christian dialogue initiative, our goal was to impact the Academy in Nigeria, but it has been a very difficult project. Part of it is finances. Secondly is the bottleneck of bureaucracy you find when trying to get things done in a foreign country from the US, but especially Nigeria. Regardless of the challenges, we are getting there. We are not giving up in a lot of what we have been doing, especially educating our own community back in Pittsburgh. We have a vibrant relationship with Muslims in the city who have worked with us to promote inter-religious dialogue. Two or three years ago, the Muslim communities gave me an award called the “Humanity Day Award” because of my openness and involvement with dialogue that encouraged Muslims to come out and participate. 

I work with the Turkish Cultural Center quite a bit. In fact, as a result of that work, I led a team of colleagues at Duquesne to visit a few Fethullah Gulen schools in Turkey to find out possible collaborations that might exist with them. I am really saddened by what’s happened to all those schools in Turkey due to opposition from current Turkish government.

What are the Muslim communities in Pittsburgh? 

There are several Muslim communities. There is one called Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, which is in Oakland, just by the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus. That is the largest community, I think. Most of them are from the Middle East, and some from Asia and South East Asia, maybe Indonesia. There is a Pakistani dominant community in Monroeville; it’s called the Greater Pittsburgh Muslim Community Center, which is pretty close to where I live. They invite me for their iftar dinners and to give lectures on interreligious dialogue. There is another group of Muslims with the Turkish Cultural Center. Those are the three groups of Muslims that I interact with on a regular basis in Pittsburgh.

Are there Muslim refugee communities?

Yes, they are not that large, but Pittsburgh is attracting different refugees from Muslim and non-Muslim areas. I know there are some coming from Myanmar and definitely Syria. Pittsburgh is becoming more multi-racial, and of course multi-religious. We had as a consortium a workshop for teachers in high school to prepare them for teaching students who come from multi-cultural and multi-religious settings. We taught them to help teach these students how best to integrate and also how to make the larger-body of students welcome them to make them feel at home in the classrooms. 

What about Nigeria? How do you keep your relationships? What do you think are the priorities?

Sometimes I just weep when I think of a lot of things happening there. They need to consider the policies; it has to start with people being critically honest with themselves. The tendency for most Nigerians is to deflect questions that pertain to them or to be apologetic. We can’t get anywhere with that because we aren’t in a mess because of one person or one situation; each one has contributed in some way to a lot of the mess we find ourselves in. It requires honesty to ourselves and critical evaluations of ourselves. To be quite frank with you, I don’t have as much faith in the religious leaders as I have in the society itself. 

That’s why to a large extent I’m more into inter-disciplinary focus. My challenge might become, in fact, how best to eventually evangelize their religious leaders. A lot of them are comfortable in their shells and want to be kept in their little zones or silos. You probably hear about the Pentecostals wanting to build shield themselves from the rest of the society by establishing some social institutions that cater to only Pentecostals. The Muslims, especially those in the north would like to build their exclusively enclave; some of them assume that when you have Sharia you have everything required for a smooth-running society, but it is only a political gimmick for dominance and control. 

However, I am happy that a good number of non-religious leaders are getting involved in issues that affect religion and society. I think the most vibrant success that we might have in collaboration, or dialogue among religions in Nigeria is the dialogue of action. This means that these religions step-up and actively and intentionally collaborate with each other for the common good. We need a lot more of this. I know the western part of Nigeria stands out as a model for interactive and peaceful co-existence of people from different religious backgrounds. I would hope that other parts of Nigeria would emulate that, as a standard. 

Is that solid?

I think it is. It’s survived vibrantly for decades. 

So it is not fraying in the Qur’an?

No, and it is not something that just started. Part of it is that the typical person from the West, a Yoruba person, sees himself first as a Yoruba and then as Christian or Muslim. So, religious difference doesn’t divide them, it just enhances who they are. Unfortunately, when you get down to the middle-belt and the northern parts, religion becomes the first mark of identity and that is where it gets dangerous. It gets very exclusive and a lot of times fundamentalistic. They are extremists to the point of being militant.

What are some of the examples of dialogue by action that you see?

Simple projects are examples, like two communities coming together to run a clinic. Get nurses who are volunteers, who are Christians and Muslims, to give their time to keep things running in such clinic. The services of such clinic should not be exclusive for people of any particular faith, but for anybody who shows up. Running a school, maybe, a daycare. Little things like that that could bring communities together. It sounds little, but it is huge. Even regular school or high school; if that could happen, the chances of destruction because of religious differences is very limited because everybody has a stake in it and everybody shares in it. 

Other community projects could be building a community hall or building something together. Just bringing everyone together for the interest of the community. Running a thrift store or some little cooperation in the name of the community. Things like that are very tangible ways to demonstrate commitment to the community as members of different religious faiths and appreciation of the other. By doing that, you break down the wall or barriers that have been built against each other. 

Habitat for Humanity has that philosophy. They call it the “theology of the hammer.”

Absolutely. I think the Church of the Brethren is beginning something like that in Abuja for people who were being relocated. I don’t know that the religions are coming together to do it. The government is doing it for everyone. If these religions can jointly really be involved in it, that might be good signs of huge collaboration and friendship.

So you are also working with interreligious dialogue curriculum development?

Yes, I am of the opinion that we need to aggressively change the way those who teach our students are trained on issues of religion. We need to stop this confessional-based curriculum they use in teaching in colleges and universities. I have heard of pastors who eventually are teachers and who go schools with the intent to proselytize for their churches. That shouldn’t be the case. Teaching religion in schools should largely be academic with the primary intent of passing knowledge. Teach them and let them do whatever good they want to do with the knowledge. In doing this, you’ll be able to teach about other religions. Maybe we can come up with a very instructive and consistent curriculum for an interfaith course that can be used for what they call in Nigeria, “General Studies.” At Duquesne University we call them “University Core Courses”, which every undergraduate student has to take. That should be one of the courses. There could also be a course on intercultural and interreligious dialogue, one that is going to focus on religious and cultural pluralism. To emphasize, pluralism is not a given, it is a frame of mind, and you have to build it. Definitely you will get some push back from people who don’t want to hear about anything else but themselves. But I don’t think such push backs should deter us from focusing on what we know will be beneficial for society. 

So, in your university, are there any issues around introducing such courses?

No, we already have them. The courses that I teach, I interject dialogue into them. The one on Abrahamic religions that I’m teaching right now is based on the three religions in dialogue. And when I teach “World Religions,” one of my goals is to promote both religious pluralism and dialogue among the religions. In the Department of Theology, many of my colleagues have begun talking about issues of dialogue. One of my colleagues is teaching Buddhist-Hindu dialogue, another one is teaching Hindu-Christian dialogue, and another one is creating a course on Buddhist-Christian dialogue. I teach Christian-Muslim dialogue.

Now what about Nigeria? What is your entry point?

There are four schools affiliated to us in Africa: two in Nigeria, one in Ghana, one in Kenya. One is called the Dominican Institute in Ibadan and the second one in Nigeria is called Spiritan International School of Theology, Attakwu in Enugu. The third school is in Ghana, it is called Spiritan University of Ejisu, Ghana. The fourth school is in Nairobi; it is called Tangaza University College. Just this last month, because I am the chair of the department, I invited their presidents to our campus for a workshop and one of the things we emphasized was a review of their curriculum. And one of the things we asked them to include is dialogue because those institutions are in the heart of multi religious African socieities.

I visited the schools in Nigeria for the first time last year. I wanted them to get a little more involved in dialogue as a course. I tried to convince them of the necessity of it, so they are working on the curriculum review that is going to include that. 

I have found that after exploration with the federal or state colleges of education, it is a lot more cumbersome to get any curriculum review through them versus through a private college. The state and federal colleges are not going to be easy but if they buy the idea, they can request the national bodies to approve the curriculum. I will give that a shot. I am more invested in supporting academic promotion because teaching the people who will eventually teach in grade schools and high schools and shape students’ world view, especially on religion, is going to have a tranquil effect on the kids. Currently the kind of danger produced in Nigeria are fanatical, extremist-minded people who follow only one particular way of looking at things from the religious lens. We have seen this danger already in many ways in Boko Haram.

Is that true in the Catholic schools too?

No, the Catholic schools are a lot more ecumenical in their outlook, but there are a growing number of non-Catholic schools today, especially the Pentecostal schools. Those are the ones who are really exclusive. Hopefully some of them are beginning to see some of the dangers I saw with their way of looking at things. Recently I was contacted to contribute a book chapter for a book project edited by three African scholars on Pentecostalism in Africa. Looking at the topics of the chapters in the upcoming book, I think that several Pentecostal scholars are beginning some soul searching forced to do so by things they are beginning to experience amongst themselves. So hopefully there is some silver lining on the horizon. 

Your comment that you have less faith in the religious leaders is interesting, as they are a part of civil society. 

Yes. I know you can’t discount them completely. But I’m not going to put all my bets on them. Some of them might mean well, but I’ve known quite a of them that don’t leave me very satisfied a lot of times. You come out really disappointed often when you hear from them. They are very territorial for the most part. Again, that is economically understandable because they have to protect their source of livelihood. They should be the crusaders, they should be the vanguards for peaceful cohesion and co-existence. But their human tendency for preservation of self seems to have taken over in many of those cases, which is disappointing. 

In Nigeria, in the education sector, is there a standard model of what they learn about religion? What do they get in primary school?

You know, I really don’t know what they teach them at that level. I have been away from that system for a very long time. There is a student who is doing his PhD dissertation with me on that topic. He is looking at reshaping the curriculum in the tertiary institutions because what they’re getting in primary and secondary schools is more confessional-based education, like going to a catechism class or Sunday school. Therefore, many of those kids go to Sunday schools (tagged conventional schools) paid by the government. That is not the kind of education they need at regular schools. You’d think that from the religious perspective you’d teach them a lot more about morals, about respecting the elder, about the goodness of faith, and that faith can come in diverse forms. It doesn’t have to be one particular kind of faith.

Is that up to each school to decide?

I think it is centralized. The problem is that those who designed their curriculum, most times, are religious leaders who double as school teachers. So they often turn the responsibility of creating a standard curriculum into another pulpit. Back when I was in Nigeria, one of the guys who was responsible for the curriculum of the high schools was a religious leader who was a very conservative Christian. He was an evangelical guy who had a different, very limited, narrow notion of what religion should be or what Christianity should be.

Well, clearly here there are religious studies and then there is theology. So you are in the Theology department but you also do religious studies.

Yes, I am in the theology department and I do religious studies, too. In many ways, I do both. 

Earlier we discussed peace education and peace-building, what are your thoughts on that? 

Well, peace is a social need: the need for peace in society and community. I make the distinction between religion as an instrument for building social peace versus building religious peace because those are two different kinds. We are no longer privileged to live in our little religious compartments. Now we are all merged into each other’s compartments and we have broken the borders. That’s the reality for most of us today and that’s not going to change anytime soon. My point is that because we live in a cosmopolitan, pluralistic society, culturally, politically, religiously, we have to find ways where all of the entities that make up our societies are accommodated peaceful and respectfully. 

In this kind of world, which we find ourselves, peace building requires collaboration with others; it requires interaction with everyone involved. Everyone who is a stakeholder must contribute to what makes peace society. Dialogue becomes inevitable because I can’t know what’s on your mind until I listen to you and vice versa. So for religion to be a tool for dialogue, we must invest in those aspects of our religions that promote peaceful coexistence and explore them. Every religion needs to contribute their qualities, and in that way, it is a world where we listen to each other in order to forge ahead and understand the best way to live. 

So, you’re linking peace building and dialogue very explicitly, which means finding instruments in places where people can listen to each other. What are the most successful things you’ve seen?

Currently Duquesne is a Catholic university, as you know. Since we started our consortium, we have become a center people look up to in order to bring people together. This goes beyond dialogue with Muslims and Christians. Last year, the alumni of Notre Dame in Pittsburgh wanted to have a lecture and they contacted us because they heard what we are doing with Muslims. The lecture was to understand Islam, and they wanted us to help them to facilitate that lecture. We did and it had a huge turnout. After that, they have come back to us even when the topic of conversation is not Islam because they think that we helped them reach out to broader communities in society. 

In a way, we have created a forum where people feel very comfortable to be who they are. People express themselves without being targeted or judged. We have done things on women, we’ve done things on refugees. I remember last year we invited some Syrian refugees to our public lecture. They were so grateful that we gave them a platform to speak out. Dialogue is about listening to each other. So we have created a forum where people can listen. You don’t have to accept everything, but at least you get to hear the other. 

That is my little estimation of the kind of success we have had. And of course there is a good relationship flowing between us and the Muslims of Pittsburgh. They started what they call the “Humanity Day Award” where they recognize people in the community who are promoting dialogue. The year I was a recipient, there were two other Christians they identified. That disarms unnecessary fear of the other. Consequently, people are beginning to appreciate some of the things the Muslim community is doing in Pittsburgh and now the Muslim community has the courage to reach out to more people. Now there are food and soup kitchens and support for people in communities. They see themselves as having a stake in the community and have become more involved in participating in the life of the community. For me that is a good indication of how much people in Pittsburgh now trust and accept Muslims in their community.

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