Wheaton establishes new chair of world religions

By Melissa Schill

To better equip students to engage with the world’s diverse array of religions, Wheaton College has established an Endowed Chair of World Religions. Funded by the gift of an anonymous donor, the position will be housed in the Bible and Theology department.

“The funding of this chair will allow us to bring in an internationally known scholar into this position, which will allow Wheaton to be at the forefront of the conversation of understanding world religions, and especially from our position of an evangelical understanding,” Provost Margaret Diddams said.

Once the position is filled, Biblical and Theological Studies majors will be required to take two to four credit hours in either world religions or archaeology. Other majors will also have the opportunity to take classes in world religions.

“We offer electives now in world religions … but I think the fact that now we have someone dedicated to world religions is going to mean that we can offer more of those courses and make them a higher profile for our students,” Dean of Biblical and Theological Studies David Capes said. “As Wheaton students think about the world they’re stepping into, where all these religions are present, they need to have some sort of working intelligent knowledge of them.”

Wheaton once offered a major in world religions. Anthropology professor Brian Howell, who began teaching at Wheaton in 2001 when the program was offered, said it was a difficult program to support in isolation. “I’m very hopeful that this time we can be more intentional about supporting [the study of world religion] from places like anthropology so that there is more of a well coordinated support [system],” Howell said.

Regardless of whether a student’s major directly corresponds to world religion studies or not, Capes and Howell agree that understanding religious traditions around the globe is pertinent for every student in our day and age.

“The world is more integrated than ever,” Howell said. “Being able to speak well with people of different theological backgrounds but also having the intercultural competence to understand how religion and culture are intersecting is going to be very important for Wheaton students and for everybody as they live in this increasingly complex world.”

Sophomore Anna Cole pursues her interest in religiosity through participation in the informal campus group, Benedictine-Wheaton Interfaith Conversations. A group of students meets with Muslim students from Benedictine University to “build friendships, learn about each others’ faiths and practice authentic Christian witness,” according to Cole.

“Jesus very clearly calls us to love our neighbor,” Cole said in an email exchange with the Record. “This is very difficult to do if we don’t know anything about our neighbor.”

A committee will be formed later this spring and the official search for candidates will begin in the fall of 2019 for the new endowed chair. According to Capes, the committee is looking for a candidate well known in the field of world religions studies who has made contributions to publications and can represent other religions fairly. Capes hopes to have the position filled by fall of 2020.

“We’re looking for a scholar for whom [world religions] is their interest, but for whom their own faith commitment — evangelical protestant commitment — is deeply held,” Diddams said. “That will make this position unique compared to where you see this at other institutions.”

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