Many religious groups across the world include sectors who are moving toward polarized fundamentalism, often in reaction to increasing secularization, and at times in tandem with it. For the global mission of Jesuit higher education, these two movements represent both opportunities as well as challenges: interreligious dialogue and questions around secularization form part of the strategic agenda of the International Association of Jesuit Universities.
On July 4th and 5th 2020, seventeen scholars from Jesuit universities in Asia, Europe, and the Americas took part in an online interdisciplinary symposium, “Jesuit Higher Education, Interreligious Dialogue, Secularization and Humanism.” The event was coordinated by Dorian Llywelyn, SJ (Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, University of Southern California), Josep Mària, SJ (ESADE) and Teo Mellén (ESADE). The online meeting replaced an in-person workshop originally planned to be held at ESADE.
Our universities and colleges have a Catholic commitment and yet carry out their mission for and with many students, faculty, and staff of different religious commitments or none. But how can we deepen and expand our role in this field? The Symposium invited the participants to reflect on topics such as:
- How do we help young people avoid the extremes of religious and ideological fundamentalism or atheistic and materialist secularism?
- In a world of religious and political diversity, how can Jesuit universities help overcome polarization?
- What is the role of Jesuit institutions of higher education, individually and in collaboration, in advancing reconciliation among people of different creeds and convictions?
- How do we pay due attention to the challenges and opportunities posed by religious diversity and secularism in our own contexts, while also remaining aware of global realities?
- As institutions rooted in the centuries-old and global Jesuit worldview of integral, Christian humanism, what resources do we uniquely bring to the table, individually and in collaboration?
- As universities—charged with a mission to educate, evaluated by secular professional standards, and committed to academic excellence and freedom of inquiry, how do we best employ those activities and skills which are specific to our particular sector?
Participants ranged across time-zones from Japan to California, but despite these complications, discussions were fruitful: feedback was very positive, and the experience of learning, especially from scholars working in other continents and countries, was of great interest. A range of disciplinary perspectives and pastoral considerations colored the conversations: responding to the different socio-political and religious contexts in which Jesuit institutions work naturally molds intellectual analysis, research, and teaching. While ‘secularism’ may mean one thing in one particular context, it is clear that that one word describes what is in fact a span of complex realities. Inter-religious and ecumenical encounter and dialogue in more religiously monochrome societies can tend to be the niche interest of specialists, while in others it is part of the daily reality in which Jesuit higher education does its work. For methodological purposes, secularism and interreligious considerations tend to be the domains of particular disciplines and specialists. However, participants agreed that practically, they are interrelated in complex ways that vary from society to society and institution to institution. As such, understanding those fields benefits from many perspectives and many voices.
Covid restrictions mean that for the time being, this group’s future work will continue in online forum. Participants agreed that future work should widen the range of geographical regions, disciplines, and institutions represented, and that virtual gatherings and online discussions will allow for greater inclusivity of viewpoints.