East Asia

Embracing Sacred Diversity: Wisconsin Interfaith Center Promotes Dialogue on Indo-Pacific and World Religions

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The continued expansion of the Center for Interfaith Dialogue at the University of Wisconsin-Madison seeks to bring the perspectives of students with Indo-Pacific heritage and underserved religion minorities into discussions on religious literacy on campus.

There is a significant effort on college campuses today to recognize the important role diversity plays in American society and how the United States represents itself to the world. However, there is one aspect of diversity frequently overlooked in public diplomacy and dialogue which was duly noted by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright: "In order to effectively conduct foreign policy today, you have to understand the role of God and religion.” Albright remarked on another occasion, “We’re very good about having experts on everything, but we don't have nearly enough people who are experts on religion."

To tackle this issue head-on, Dr. Ulrich Rosenhagen of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, along with professors, students, and the community at large, are spearheading efforts to promote constructive dialogue on the role religion and spirituality play in shaping identity and global society. Headed by Dr. Rosenhagen, the Center for Interfaith Dialogue (an expansion of the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry) is an center at UW-Madison which provides a platform to bring students, academics, and the community to promote dialogue on this sensitive but critical topic. The autumn 2023 expansion of the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry into the Center for Interfaith Dialogue at the heart of campus is especially aimed at including historically underserved religious minorities with a space and a community to express their perspectives.

At the heart of what we do is to promote civil discourse and create a world where we can live together as democratic citizens,” explains Dr. Rosenhagen. “Just as much as race and gender, religious identity is a category of diversity and one that should not be excluded. We want to bring religion in from the fringes and into the conversation.” To put interfaith values into action, the Center for Interfaith Dialogue provides a range of dynamic programming, including interfaith forums and religious studies conferences for students, academics, and members of the community to exchange ideas and develop skills necessary serve as future leaders in a pluralistic world. “We aim to provide training and equipping students to live as global citizens by helping them to understand and negotiate between different tradition and ideas,” Dr. Rosenhagen explains. During the annual “Open Houses of Worship Tour” weekend, student ambassadors guide participants in attending religious services at local mosques, synagogues, churches and other houses of worship. Another flagship initiative is the Interfaith Fellows Program which gives students who are passionate about interfaith dialogue the opportunity to lead interfaith forums, participate in study groups, and go on retreats at various religious centers around Madison such as the Benedictine Holy Wisdom Monastery and the Sikh Gurdwara in Middleton.

Interfaith Fellows visiting the Sikh Gurdwara in Middleton, Wisconsin (Source: Center for Global and Religious Citizenry)

While the center focused on the three Abrahamic faiths from 2005 to 2016—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—there was a push to expand the center’s mandate to embrace all faith traditions, especially those from the Indo-Pacific region such as Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Dr. Rosenhagen recalls, “We realized religious minority students are often underserved and asked, how do we create space for students who don’t have spaces?

Asha Jain, now a graduate of UW-Madison studying medicine, leapt at the opportunity to be part of the interfaith community on campus as a way to express her cultural background. “My Indian heritage is an important part of my identity, and as an undergraduate student at UW-Madison, I joined the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry to meet peers from different faith and cultural traditions,” explains Jain, who served as a 2019-2020 Interfaith Fellow. “Interfaith dialogue creates a safe space for people to ask questions and share experiences navigating Indo-Pacific cultures in Wisconsin.” As a current medical student, Asha believes that her interfaith background will be a powerful way to serve patients from diverse backgrounds in her career.

Param Bhandare is another former interfaith fellow who used his time at the center to reflect upon different faith traditions and philosophies he has encountered in his own life by bridging the gap between the rational and mystical facets of religious experience. "While most recently I’ve been concerned about the intellectual aspects of religion, I am also seeking practice and the emotional side," says Bhandare, who participated in the visits to the Sikh Gurdwara and Holy Wisdom Monastery. "Maybe you could say I yearn for an instinctual faith, which nevertheless remains rational — one that can be integrated into my career and life."

The Center is also playing a role in welcoming students from secular and non-religious backgrounds to share their own views and be part of the conversation. Jiaming Xie, an Interfaith Fellow from China, was inspired to join the Interfaith Fellowship after witnessing the devotion of Buddhist pilgrims while hiking in Tibet: “The power of religious belief has always been something I could never fully understand as an atheist. This curiosity and desire to comprehend led me to become a fellow at the CRGC, aiming to gain a better understanding of religion and its followers,” Jiaming explains.

Jiaming hopes that through public diplomacy and grassroots dialogue, people from the US and China can better understand each other and the Indo-Pacific region. “Due to the political conflict with the US and the effects of media, there has always been a stereotype of the religious environment in China,” she explains, “Through interfaith dialogue, individuals from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds can come together to share their beliefs, traditions, and experiences. This fosters a deeper appreciation and respect for each other's perspectives, breaking down barriers of prejudice and misconceptions that may arise due to ignorance or limited exposure.” As an aspiring lawyer, Jiaming aims “to promote tolerance and respect, making a positive impact in the legal field and beyond by drawing from the valuable lessons I gained at the CRGC.”

This upcoming semester, the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry will re-open its doors as the Center for Interfaith Dialogue at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and continue to embrace religious diversity on campus and in the community.

A special thanks to Ulrich Rosenhagen, Asha Jain, Jiaming Xie, and Param Bhandare for their contributions to this article. Thanks to the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry for allowing us to use their photographs.

Jon Formella is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East West Center in Washington. He is a graduate of the Columbia University and London School of Economics MA/MSc International and World History Program and an incoming first-year law student at Columbia Law School with an interest in international law and the law of armed conflict.