Senior Reflections on Interreligious Understanding
By: Emily Coccia
February 20, 2015
About a week ago, I found myself sitting around a table with a group of Georgetown seniors reflecting on how we have experienced the university’s Jesuit values. While we started with the idea of attending a Catholic institution, we very quickly agreed that it was Georgetown’s promotion of interreligious dialogue and understanding, not simply an emphasis on Catholic faith, that brought about such a strong commitment to being men and women for others or practicing a cura personalis style of education.
As a group, we came from very different faith traditions and identified in diverse ways—Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, agnostic, Baptist—but Georgetown had given us the chance to realize the importance of our shared values, rather than our sometimes contradictory beliefs. As one of the students reflected, “I think what was most important for me to realize was that, sure, we come from different places and go to different churches, but we all value treating others with compassion and respect.” By facilitating conversations like the ones we were having through forums like Senior Capstone, the Senior Ignation Seminar, fireside chats with the Jesuits, and Chaplain-in-Residence programming, Georgetown creates an environment in which students can reflect on and evaluate their own beliefs in a communal setting.
I’ve always said I didn’t leave my “Problem of God” class any more Catholic than I had been, but I gained an understanding not only of what others believed but also of why I believe what I do. While we never had to defend our beliefs, we were exposed to multiple faith traditions and the philosophical arguments and questions surrounding religion in general. Professor Theresa Sanders gave our class the chance to read texts from diverse sources and analyze them in a respectful and intellectually rigorous setting. While I came into class with fourteen years of Catholic school education and extensive knowledge of the Bible and the catechism, I had an opportunity to read Jewish midrashim, Summa Theologica, and the Bhagavad Gita alongside philosophical texts from thinkers like Kant, Freud, and Nietzsche. I left the class with a profound appreciation of the diversity of thought that existed, not just in some abstract concept of the “wider world,” but within the gates of Georgetown itself. Each day I was impressed by my fellow students and left with a deep respect for their faith commitments.
Talking to students at other universities, I have found that this sort of experience is something that makes Georgetown unique, even among other religiously affiliated universities. Rather than simply allowing for and hoping that these sorts of conversations will happen, Georgetown carves out a space for them and actively works to promote interreligious understanding. So now, as a senior reflecting back with my classmates, I feel well equipped to enter into a diverse world, to have these sorts of challenging conversations, and to practice active introspection to ensure that my understanding of others and myself does not end when I walk out those gates in three months.