Alumni Focus: Teaching about Islam in today’s context

Professor Sandra Keating is an associate professor of theology at Providence College in Rhode Island and an alumna of The Lay Centre.

Professor Sandra Keating is an associate professor of theology at Providence College in Rhode Island and an alumna of The Lay Centre.

Despite increased interest in learning about Islam and other world religions, Catholic educational institutions face significant challenges in teaching these subjects to their students, says Prof Sandra Keating.

She is an associate professor of theology at Providence College, situated in Providence, Rhode Island, and her area of specialization is Muslim-Christian relations.

A current member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Mid-Atlantic Dialogue with Muslims, she is also active in diocesan and local initiatives for Muslim-Christian dialogue in Providence. From 2005 to 2012, she also served on the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue’s Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims.

An alumna of The Lay Centre, Prof Keating was in Rome in late March to give a lecture at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies on the theme “Teaching Islam in the 21st Century: Meeting the Challenge of Nostra Aetate in Catholic Educational Institutions.”

In her presentation, Prof Keating said Church documents exhort—even command—teaching Catholics about other religions. But curriculum limitations, few resources and the prevailing negative attitude in the secular world about religion present huge challenges for teaching such courses.

Program requirements are generally so numerous that there is often little room for courses on world religions.

“There is also the problem of how media and nonreligious people have defined religion for us as negative – as a force of oppression, an illusion or magical thinking,” she added.

“This presents a difficulty for believers in finding a place in secular society,” she said. Generally this affects many students in two ways: religious believers may be very defensive in class about their own religious belief, while sceptics refuse to take religion seriously, she said.

TEACHING ABOUT ISLAM IN THE CURRENT CRISIS

Back at home, Prof Keating said she sees an increased interest among students in learning about Islam, partly motivated by the dramatic world events. The courses she currently teaches include: The Church and Major World Religions, and Jesus and Mohammed. Her approach incorporates both religious studies and theology.

Many students are “desperately seeking to learn the positive side of Islam but they are confronted by the media, telling horrible things,” she said.

She said students are often “conflicted between their personal experience with Muslim friends and acquaintances and what is in the news.”

“There is a lot of good will out there but there’s a lack of knowledge about how to speak of these things,” she said. “Students know Muslims who are not at all like (what is depicted in the news), and they want to know how to make sense of all this.”

In her courses, Prof Keating says she tries to help students “see the rich contributions of Muslims, as well as to address the chaos and difficulties going on in the Muslim community right now.”

Some of the difficulties are a result of the lack of hierarchical structure in the Muslim community—as opposed to the Catholic Church and its central authority in the pope and the bishops on matters of faith—and the resurgence of a medieval Islamic worldview.

“So there is a gap between the central beliefs and practices of Islam and what is expressed and emphasized in different times and places,” she said. “There is no authority to say, ‘This is the true Islam,’ and there is no official interpretation of the faith.”

“One of the strengths of the Muslim community is that it is hesitant in correcting and condemning the beliefs of individuals,” she said. “But for instance, today, when we need a clear interpretation of difficult traditions, no one has the authority to do it for the entire community.”

She said the fact that Muslims have recently picked up arms against other Muslims in the Middle East while professing religious motivations for the conflict is a clear sign of the extent of the crisis in the Muslim community today.

Prof Keating lived at The Lay Centre, from 1993 to 1995, while pursuing her licentiate at the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI). She earned her doctorate from Catholic University of America, School of Religious Studies, in Washington, D.C. She is married and has two children.

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