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by Laura Lehman Amstutz
HARRISONBURG – Eastern Mennonite Seminary is offering a class the spring semester to help Christians better understand and interact with people of differing beliefs.
"Christian Encounter with the Religious Other" will be taught by N. Gerald Shenk, professor of church and society at EMS. The class will meet 2:30-3:45 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, Jan. 8 – Apr. 24, 2008.
Dr. Shenk has had numerous exchanges with those of other faith traditions during his career.
"I tell people that I have studied with Mennonites, Methodists, Muslims and Marxists," Shenk said, "and each of these encounters has enriched my own faith."
The course will help students understand the major world religions and focus on ways Christians can foster dialog and understanding.
"We used to think that it didn’t matter what the other person believed when we talked to them about faith," Shenk noted. "Today we need to recognize that those of other faiths are not generic unbelievers, they’re people with a worldview and belief system. If we can learn to approach them with gentleness and respect our encounters will be better for us and for them."
Shenk hopes students in his class will learn to recognize the complexity of the religious landscape in the world. He also hopes they will gain confidence to talk to those of other faiths and learn how to confidently present their own beliefs.
Shenk regularly finds ways to have conversation with people with diverse religious views. Last year, he traveled to Iran with a Mennonite Central Committee group to attend a conference on Islam.
He is also among a group of professors at Eastern Mennonite University who hopes to start a center for Abrahamic Studies that would bring Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars together to talk about similarities and differences in their faiths.
Shenk hopes that by first learning about world religions and new religious movements in the United States, students will learn how to talk about their own faith in a way that engages those who believe differently.
Mark Schoenhals, who took the class two years ago, said, "I was able to explore a religion and region of the world that I've had quite a bit of interest in. I feel I learned a great deal."
Sarah Schoenhals, who also took the class, added, "Religious plurality is the ever increasing reality in the US. Unless we intend to live in communities that are completely isolated from the larger world, each of us will encounter folks who come from different religious perspectives – in work, school and community settings.
"As Christians we are to love both neighbors and enemies," Sarah said. "It's hard to love someone you know nothing about or have no relationship with. Understanding something about the ‘religious other’ increases the possibilities for building relationship and sharing Christ's love."
The course offers three hours of seminary credit or can be audited with the permission of the professor. Registration ends Jan. 7. For more information, contact Don A. Yoder, 540-432-4257, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.