The Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding (IJCU) at Muhlenberg College is in the midst of a transformative process, one that Dr. William Gruen, Associate Professor of Religion Studies and incoming director of the IJCU, hopes will raise awareness of the importance of literacy and of understanding religious diversity. This refocusing of the Institute’s mission serves to expand the community’s comprehension of religion in the world beyond that of Judaism and Christianity.
“Traditionally, as the IJCU name indicates, it was about Jews and Christians understanding one another,” said Gruen, “because those were the two core constituencies of the student body 30 years ago when the institute was founded on campus. Since then, however, the world has changed a lot, and the student body has changed a lot. Now, 30% of the student body doesn’t claim any religious affiliation at all.”
“It doesn’t matter what your religious identity is or if you don’t have one. It is still important to understand religion in the world. And so, we are refocusing the institute to help people think about how to understand this thing we call religion in the world and how it motivates people to action, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. Thinking about religion as a motivating factor is important to all disciplines,” Gruen emphasized.
“It doesn’t matter what your religious identity is or if you don’t have one. It is still important to understand religion in the world.”
So, how will these changes be reflected in the transitioning IJCU? To start, the First Friday Program is to return this semester. Gruen explained, “The First Friday Program is a long-standing monthly program that engages both the college community and the local community in topics of mutual interest.” The opening installment of the series will be held this Friday, Feb. 07, at 12:30 pm in Seegers 111-112. Dr. Gruen will present the first talk, “Ways of Understanding Religion,” as an introduction for the rest of the series.
“For religious people within their own faith community, thinking about religious diversity is one thing,” explained Gruen. “For us as academics or people who just want to understand the human experience of religion, well, that’s a different conversation. And, so, I want to help both students and the rest of the community realize that it is helpful to think about what conversation we are having and what are the goals of that conversation.”
Later on in the semester, the program will continue this theme of religious diversity by hosting representatives from the Moravian, Tibetan Buddhist and Orthodox Jewish communities.
“There will be interrogation of thinking about how the world view or the religious system that they live in motivates them and makes sense of the world for them,” said Gruen. “I’m hoping we can model what a productive conversation with a religious identity that you might not identify with looks like.”
“…We are refocusing the institute to help people think about how to understand this thing we call religion in the world and how it motivates people to action, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill.”
Dr. Gruen is also excited to announce a new segment of the First Friday Program called Talk Back Tuesday. These discussion-based events will occur in GQ Annex the following Tuesday after the Friday program event, allowing for a smaller group to discuss what they took away from the presentation in a more intimate setting.
Looking forward, the IJCU is working out a number of different possibilities for growing their work. The institute hopes to start road trips to visit various religious sites in the area that students might not have the opportunity to go to otherwise. Student participation is also another major factor being taken into serious consideration. An advisory board is to come sometime in the near future in which there will be both student and alumni representation.
In addition, there will also be a new course offered for the Fall 2020 semester. The course will be taught by Dr. Gruen himself, and he hopes to use the course, as he says, “as a gateway to get people involved in the work of the institute, so that in the future there will potentially be internships, independent studies or even research projects of various types.” The goal is to spark an interest in students early on so that the work and mission of the IJCU carries on well into the future.