Religious scholars explore interfaith issues at Elmhurst University

Elmhurst University topped $10 million in donations over the fiscal year ending in June.

At a gathering discussing what many would regard as a sensitive and complicated topic, two Chicago-based religious scholars dove into the many issues of everyday depictions of various religious groups and the impact it has on reinforcing stereotypes.

Rachel S. Mikva and Brad Braxton shared their thoughts and ideas Nov. 3 at Elmhurst University’s Frick Center.

The annual lecture focused on the Jewish faith and was named for prominent Jewish philosopher and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was known for playing a significant role in both the civil rights movement and in Christian-Jewish dialogue. Heschel was regarded as one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century.

H. Scott Matheney, chaplain and dean of Religious Life at Elmhurst University, joined Steven Bob, an adjunct faculty member in the department of Religious Studies at Elmhurst University, among others in welcoming the speakers to the stage.

Mikva, the Herman E. Schaalman Professor in Jewish Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary, talked about the collision of religious differences in the public sphere, specifically in the media, on college campuses and in the workplace.

“Interfaith is everywhere, and everything we do is interfaith,” Mikva said.

With how ubiquitous interfaith is in life, Mikva specifically focused her speech on four areas: the media, public policy, the workplace and college campuses.

“Whether challenging or reinforcing biases, whether they’re educating or appropriating, we meet religious differences all the time, in media – old and new – and in both news and entertainment,” Mikva said.

Shifting the discussion to public policy, she provided an example of America’s long-standing debate about reproductive justice and how it’s an indicator that religion shapes public policy.

She said this impacts people of all faiths.

“There’s ongoing tension between freedom of religion and freedom from religion,” Mikva said. “Between religious freedom and governmental interests. Between the rights of individuals versus religious groups.”

Shifting the discussion to college campuses, she said meeting the needs of diverse religious groups can be complicated because competing values collide.

“There’s no effort to really examine the structural forces that continue to privilege certain life stances and the impact that has on students,” Mikva said.

She said there’s situations that occur daily in which people who orient around religion differently encounter one another.

“We see how we bump up against safety concerns and questions of fairness, comfort of client, company profitability, anti-discrimination commitments based on race and gender and sexual orientation,” Mikva said.

She said research has shown that social diversity in a group can cause discomfort, lack of trust, less effective communication, less cohesion and more concern about disrespect or perception of increased conflict even if it’s not real.

She ended her speech confronting the concern of uncertainty and the importance of maintaining hope.

“Building bridges – investing in a diverse community – this is what makes us resilient and capable of adapting to this world no matter how scary it gets,” she said.

Braxton, the president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, took the stage after Mikva’s speech and shared his thoughts.

Referring to Mikva’s lecture, Braxton acknowledged religion isn’t just about principles.

“It’s about places that have a robust engagement which takes seriously the places in which these things happen and the practices that occur in those places,” Braxton said.

He discussed the media and how it portrays different religions and groups sometimes in a clear way and other times indirectly, adding that Mikva helped convey issues with media representation and how some of those problems can be fixed.

“You had a chance to constructively shape and reshape the way these media outlets move from a flat depiction of religion to something more robust that helps us frame a new public square conversation about religion,” Braxton said.

The event concluded with spectators being given the opportunity to ask and engage in dialogue with Mikva and Braxton.