Within a half-hour drive of the infamous San Bernardino massacre, one nominally Christian seminary is taking a unique approach to Christian-Muslim relations: actively promoting the spread of Islam in North America.
Meanwhile, Claremont School of Theology is doing little to train the next generation of clergy of its sponsoring denomination, the United Methodist Church.
With more than 7 million U.S. members, the United Methodist Church is America’s second-largest Protestant denomination. But in the denomination’s U.S. ordination class of 2013, only four were Claremont graduates. None of the senior pastors of the fastest-growing UMC congregations is an alumnus of Claremont.
Propped up annually with hundreds of thousands of dollars of apportionment funding taken from United Methodist offering plates, Claremont boasts on its website of offering a master’s degree in theological studies, even-handedly giving students the option of a Christian Studies and Leadership track, if Christianity happens to be their cup of tea, or else an Islamic Studies and Leadership track, “for students interested in positions of leadership in Muslim contexts, particularly in North American Muslim communities.”
Many of my fellow United Methodists had erroneously thought that Claremont’s days of training Muslim imams and chaplains were behind it after some large donor’s attempt to transform Claremont into a “multi-faith” seminary were derailed, with Claremont-Lincoln University spinning off as a separate institution.
The separate website of the Islamic seminary, Bayan Claremont, reports continued operations since 2011 “at Claremont School of Theology.” It boasts of offering three accredited degrees (Master of Arts in Islamic Studies & Leadership, Master of Arts in Islamic Education, and Master of Divinity in Islamic Chaplaincy) “as a division of the Claremont School of Theology.” The stated mission of this self-described division of a United Methodist seminary is “educat[ing] American Muslim scholars and religious leaders” in order “to produce a cadre of pioneering indigenous Muslim scholars and leaders who will positively serve the needs of the Islamic community” and to “increase the number of those who are qualified and well-positioned to effectively present the Islamic faith to the broader American society.”
The stated purpose of Claremont’s masters’ and certificate programs in Islamic Chaplaincy, Islamic Education, and Islamic Studies and Leadership is not academic understanding of Islam or improved interfaith relations, but actively training Muslims to more effectively promote and advance their religion. For five years Bayan Claremont it has shared the same campus as an officially Christian seminary.
While the UMC Book of Discipline has some requirements that apportionment funding for Claremont and other officially United Methodist seminaries be used for the benefit of United Methodist students, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how even somewhat restricted financial support for an institution helps the whole of the institution. In response to my inquiring if supporting Claremont at least indirectly supported the imam training conducted through Bayan, Wendy Lee, Claremont’s Vice President for Advancement & Communications, responded that “Bayan is a separately incorporated 501(c)(3) institution, has its own board of directors, raises its own funds, and pays Claremont School of Theology fair market rate for the use of our facilities. The relationship between our institutions is mutually beneficial.”
So in other words, United Methodist apportionments that fund Claremont help Claremont to benefit Bayan, which is enabled to benefit Claremont in turn.
Lee also objected to my describing Bayan as “a division of” Claremont School of Theology. I replied asking how this was inaccurate, when Bayan’s own website reports that it offers its degrees “as a division of the Claremont School of Theology.” Over a week later, I have not heard back from Lee.
I have also not heard back from Lee in response to questions about the website of Claremont School of Theology (not the separate Bayan website) touting Claremont’s own master’s degree in Islamic Studies and Leadership.
When invited to respond to concerns of United Methodists who believe our seminaries should exclusively promote the Christian faith, rather than Christianity alongside other religions, Lee replied: “Claremont School of Theology is proudly a Christian institution. We prepare future leadership for the church. We are a United Methodist seminary with an ecumenical and interreligious spirit. Our students report that their faith and United Methodist identity are strengthened in this context, and that their preparation for ministry in a multicultural and multi-faith world is essential.” Lee also denied that Claremont imposed formal restrictions on evangelizing on its spiritually mixed campus.
To be clear, I am all for promoting good relations with our Muslim friends and neighbors. While some of Bayan’s faculty have ties to controversial groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations, I have seen no evidence to suggest Bayan’s leadership is insincere in its condemnations of terrorism.
But anyone who has seriously studied both religions understands that biblically grounded Christianity and Koranically grounded Islam make very strong, mutually exclusive truth claims at their very cores about the nature of God, humanity, and salvation. For example, the Koran’s strong repudiations of the Trinity and Christianity’s affirmation of God’s triune nature cannot both be correct, logically speaking. And I have never seen any Christians expecting any Islamic madrassah to sponsor Christian training for Christian clergy.
Located in the heart of the fast-declining California-Pacific Conference, Claremont has long been notorious for its radicalism. It runs an LGBTQIA-obsessed Center for Sexuality, Gender and Religion as well as a center devoted to promoting “process theology.” One of Claremont’s more noted devotees of process theology is Emeritus Professor David Ray Griffin, who is energetic in promoting the 9/11 “truther” movement. One of his conspiracy theory books was among the English-language volumes found in the possession of Osama bin Laden. Claremont’s feminist theologian professor Rosemary Radford Ruether has spoken dismissively of Christ’s divinity, while disagreeing with Muslims—for their belief in the virgin birth of Jesus.
It seems as if this proudly radical school feels little to no sense of accountability, or any need for loyalty to the doctrine and values, of the denomination that funds Claremont so generously.
In this age of dwindling denominational resources, delegates to the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which begins next week, will have two opportunities to revisit this questionable stewardship of the offering-plate money entrusted into the denomination’s care.
Petition #60558: Prohibit Non-Christian Training, coming before the General Conference’s Financial Administration committee, and Petition #60557: Seminary Focus, coming before the Ministry and Higher Education and Superintendency committee (yes, that is the actual name of one committee), would in different ways achieve the result of saying that if United Methodist seminaries want to keep getting generous direct funding from the Ministerial Education Fund, they cannot “offer any course work, degree program, or formal certificate explicitly designed for training religious leaders of non-Christian faith communities,” as Claremont does.
Such petitions will have the support of this General Conference delegate, and hopefully many my fellow delegates!