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TECATE, Mexico—The Rev. Dr. Serene Jones—16th president of the Union Theological Seminary, a New York City institution that was founded in 1836—suggests that “somewhere around 80 percent of the world’s religious people are women, which means that the work that women are doing around the world is motivated by that.”
“Religious stories are within [women’s] imaginations as they are doing the labor of everyday life,” Jones says in an interview in Mexico at 72-year-old Rancho La Puerta, where exercise, meditation, healthful nutrition, and spirituality are staples of visitors’ experience.
Despite the statistical reality, it is mostly men who conduct works of interfaith dialogue—but Jones is trying to change that. In conjunction with the nearby Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), with which its academic courses are cross listed, the Union Theological Seminary is in the process of setting up an experiment in which 12 Christian, Jewish and Muslim women—the latter drawn from the ranks of Columbia University—will be divided into small groups to meet together regularly and, if funding can be found, live together.
“They will live together consciously, and twice a week they will cook together, pray together and pray separately, and they will talk about their spiritual experiences,” Jones says. “The idea behind this is if you want to completely understand another religion then you need to understand how the women, in terms of daily life, practice things. So I hope that the women—in fact, I know they will—will talk about clothes, talk about food, talk about health, talk about their bodies, and those are the things that don’t come into the classroom but those are the things that are making the future.”
The dozen women will journal about their experiences, and with guidance from a professor, may develop recommendations for a program “for a longer-term vision and a more substantive experience, but we have got to get it going to find out what is there,” Jones says.
Jones believes her work “has to be global in purpose.”
“It has to be international because the world is increasingly interconnected,” she says. “It has to take economics very seriously because we can see where we are right now as a nation: everything hinges on these questions of poverty and economic distribution.”
When applying to be president of the Union Theological Seminary, Jones told those interviewing that issues of gender “were not going away and that the biggest social change that any of us confronted in the 20th century was that birth control created the possibility that women would have productive work lives, and that is true globally and still reverberations are being felt.
“And then finally I told them that in the midst of all this change that would be happening, the most important thing to pay attention to was not necessarily the world of logical ideas but the world of beauty because of the deep unconscious levels that compel social transformation,” she says. “It has to do with affections and desires more than it does ideas and that (therefore) we needed to be a seminary that helped people understand our unconscious lives and what it is that shaped our desires.”
Many liberal rabbis say they feel more in tune with liberal Christian ministers than they do with Orthodox rabbis because their worldviews are more similar. Does Jones sense that in the future, religions might realign based more on concepts of social justice than on theology?
Jones says the younger generation of religious leaders appears more interested in social justice issues than in whether they are Christian or Jewish.
“I guess my pause is that I think moving toward a social-justice-inspired new thing is all very positive and good, but there is so much in our traditions that is necessary for that to go in the right direction, that we need to make sure that we don’t lose, because it is not a natural thing for people to care about each other,” she says. “That comes out of our religious traditions.”
She explains that in both Judaism and Christianity there is a basic teaching that “people are created equally by God and that you cannot eradicate them, you cannot kill them; it is wrong. That is counter-intuitive when you look at evolutionary biology.” Jones adds that it is necessary “to have spaces in our social life where we insist on these counter-intuitive things like fundamental respect for the integrity of individual human life.”
Jones says she has been involved with Jewish and Christian colleagues in numerous campaigns in Israel and other parts of the world to promote justice. “The kind of organizing I have done has been as much with Jews as it has with Christians,” she says. “I love traveling in Israel, I love Israel. It’s a beautiful, powerful state and its vision of justice and social problems is remarkable in the world today.”
Small steps toward mutual understanding between religions can be taken in the U.S. with such programs as the 12 women of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith living together, Jones believes. Another step was recently taken during the 10th anniversary observance of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. At the Trinity Chapel, a church at Ground Zero, Jones participated with a Muslim woman and a rabbi in a four-week program on trauma, recovery and religious traditions.
“We started with a discussion of violence and what our religious traditions said about it, what healing looks like, and the future, and we packed the church to the gills every time we met and I think that it brought to the 9-11 10-year anniversary the depth of insight that religions bring that wasn’t there before,” Jones recalls. “It was a powerful experience for two schools (Union Theological Seminary and Jewish Theological Seminary) to be working on something that immediate to people’s lives.”
Donald H. Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org