The Berkley Center at Ten

By: Thomas Banchoff John DeGioia

May 23, 2016

As part of the Berkley Center's tenth anniversary celebrations, Thomas Banchoff, founding director and vice president for global engagement at Georgetown, and John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, reflect on a record of accomplishment and the work ahead.

Issues of religion and world affairs are as salient in the media today as in 2006 when the center was founded. And unfortunately much of the news is still negative.


Still, there is every reason for hope. The religious people who comprise about four-fifths of humanity overwhelmingly reject faith inspired violence and identify with values of justice and peace. And religious institutions—communities of worship, schools, hospitals, and aid organizations of different kinds—take roles in world affairs that affirm the essential dignity of human beings and advance the common good.

How can we tap these positive currents, within and across traditions, to build a more peaceful world? How can a university like Georgetown make a constructive contribution?

The Berkley Center was created with these questions in mind. The center’s founding took place at the confluence of two historical streams: the resurgence of religion in world affairs, brought home dramatically in the attacks of September 11, 2001; and Georgetown’s more than two centuries-long tradition of academic excellence in service to the world.

A decade ago, the unanticipated rise of Public Religions in the Modern World (José Casanova) posed a challenge to academic paradigms linking modernization with secularization. It created an opportunity for a new, interdisciplinary exploration of religion’s changing relationship with politics, society, culture, and the economy. Georgetown’s academic strengths and identity as a Catholic and Jesuit institution based in Washington, D.C., and engaged around the world positioned it to act on the opportunity. In 2004, faculty and administrators began planning efforts, led by then Dean of Georgetown College, Jane McAuliffe, to explore the most innovative institutional response.

The breakthrough came with a generous gift from William R. Berkley, a member of Georgetown’s Board of Directors, enabling the creation of the center in March 2006. “Recent events show us both the power of religion and the need for a deeper and fuller understanding among people of different religions,” Berkley noted at the time. “It is my hope that this center will allow us to use the power of religions for greater peace in our world.”

Over the past decade the center has sought to live out this ambitious mission. Its research, teaching, and outreach programs have addressed religion’s connection with violence and reconciliation and explored its complex relationship with wider political, social, cultural, and economic and political determinants of peace. Major multi-year projects have addressed the nexus of religion and economic and social development (in collaboration with the Henry Luce Foundation and the World Faiths Development Dialogue); the significance and impact of religious freedom (in collaboration with the John Templeton Foundation); and the dynamics of religious pluralism within and across societies (culminating in a three-volume series published with Oxford University Press).

Support for interfaith dialogue and interaction with prominent thought leaders—in Washington, D.C., and around the world—have also been hallmarks of the center’s work.

Partnerships with the World Economic Forum, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Building Bridges Seminar, and President Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge have advanced interreligious understanding. The center has convened conferences and workshops with international partners in Antigua, Beijing, Berlin, Dakar, Delhi, Dhaka, Doha, The Hague, Jerusalem, London, Nairobi, Oxford, Phnom Penh, and Rome. Closer to home, it has hosted the $1 million Opus Prize for faith-based humanitarian leaders and has brought leading scholars to address the Georgetown community, including Anthony Appiah, Jürgen Habermas, Martha Nussbaum, Abdolkarim Soroush, Charles Taylor, and Tu Weiming.

Over the past decade intensive collaboration among faculty, staff, and students around these and other programs has advanced the dual mission of building knowledge and deepening dialogue around religion, peace, and world affairs. Center faculty, leaders in their respective disciplines, have produced more than two dozen books. They have worked with the center’s professional staff to generate more than 150 topical reports and stage more than 500 events. The center’s website, home to extensive knowledge resources for educators, policymakers, and the wider public, features some 1,100 videos and receives more than 100,000 hits per month.

Students have made crucial contributions to the life of the center both inside and outside the classroom. One vehicle is a certificate in Religion, Ethics, and World Affairs offered in partnership with the Walsh School of Foreign Service. Another is the Doyle Engaging Difference Program, which supports courses, fellowships, and the Junior Year Abroad Network, through which more than 500 students studying overseas have shared their reflections on religious and cultural pluralism around the world. Students have also served as research assistants at the center (more than 250 since 2006) and conducted original research around the world as part of the Education and Social Justice Project.

In looking ahead, we should pause to take stock of two premises that have guided the center’s work from its inception: that a deeper understanding of religion and values is critical for addressing pressing global challenges; and that the open engagement of religious and cultural traditions with one another can promote peace.

The first of these premises has borne itself out. That the religious factor is critical for grasping contemporary challenges of democracy, development, and diplomacy is more accepted today than it was a decade ago. Governments, international organizations, and NGOs increasingly acknowledge religious faith as a significant force, for good or ill, in shaping world affairs. And many students at Georgetown and elsewhere have come to see religious literacy as a valuable resource for global careers, whether in diplomacy, business, law, medicine, or other professions. The center has made a vital and ongoing contribution to this greater awareness of the importance of religion for navigating today’s world.

Whether the open engagement of religious and cultural traditions with one another promotes peace is more of an open question. The proliferation of interfaith and intercultural dialogue efforts since 2001 has not prevented an upsurge of religiously inflected conflict over the past several years, including terror attacks sparked by the rise of ISIS; sectarian violence in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia; and ethnic and religious tensions in the United States and Europe. Centers like the Berkley Center and universities like Georgetown do not bear any responsibility for this negative turn. But we must think through its lessons for our work.

Why has it proved so difficult to tap into the positive currents in the world’s religions traditions in order to promote peace?

Answers to this question point us away from religion to other causes, whether failed states, economic stagnation, social tensions, or war. There we witness the deployment of faith as a political tool against one’s adversaries and see how its abuse distorts the core values of human dignity, justice, and peace embedded within leading religious traditions.

This inevitable politicization of religion is not cause for despair. The more we learn, through patient research, teaching, and dialogue, about how religion shapes and is shaped by other forces in world affairs, and the more fully we understand and pursue interreligious engagement in its particular historical, political and social circumstances around the globe, the more we can hope to channel powerful religious currents in peaceful directions. This is a collaborative undertaking for the long term.

The essays in this volume, authored by center faculty and leading scholars, religious leaders, and practitioners, lay out some of the context for the work ahead. The contributions provide a survey of some of the main global challenges that are likely to engage us at the intersection of religion, peace, and world affairs in decades to come.

Political and religious leaders will have to grapple with these challenges, as will national and transnational civil society and educational institutions at all levels. Universities like Georgetown are called to contribute as sites for research, teaching, and dialogue.

The Berkley Center will continue to be a partner in these critical efforts. We are grateful for the collaboration of so many over the past decade, within the Georgetown community and around the world, and look forward to the next phase of our work together.
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The Berkley Center at Ten