Essay on Jainism by Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Posted: 18.04.2012

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Claremont Lincoln University


About 3 months ago, Claremont Lincoln University ran an essay competition to select candidates who want to go to India to study Jainism during ISSJS Classes in 2012. They were asked to write on why they want to study Jainism...

Essay for ISJS 2012

A posture of learning, a posture of pilgrimage. For all of my life as a student, librarians, teachers, and religious educators have helped me to cultivate a posture of listening, exploration, curiosity, and connection. I have learned that it is more fruitful to listen first, to seek and to explore, and to make connections with what I believe and know, rather than to move about the world as one who already knows all that is needed. The opportunity to study Jainism in India offers a beautiful and rich opportunity to continue this practice.

I have a long and abiding interest in inter-religious dialogue. I am inspired by the collaboration between Claremont Lincoln University and the Institute for Jain Studies - I see in this work a true fostering of what it takes for learning to take place: relationship, possibilities for connection, shared meaning-making, new understanding, and spaces and places for critical reflection. I am struck by the practice of Jain faithful for centuries, and interested in hearing about how their practice informs their movement and living in this world; I feel called as an inter-religious scholar to heed their understandings and apply what I learn to my own study and work.

I am the co-founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue (JIRD) and State of Formation, as well as a certified schoolteacher currently working on exploring inter-religious curricula as a PhD student.  Since 2008, the JIRD has sought and amplified voices from around the world and shared their work with an international audience; the JIRD has been featured at the United Nations as well as at the White House as a best example in dialogue. State of Formation is an online forum and community of emerging religious leaders and scholars; their voices and experience model a new kind of engaged religious dialogue. It has been a great honor - and joy - for me to work with writers, religious scholars and leaders, and practitioners from around the world; I have been blessed to learn from their work and experiences.

As a classroom teacher, most recently teaching public school in the Bronx, NY, I have learned that it has become increasingly more urgent for us to learn to foster and support religious conversations and wonderings in our young people. I am inspired by the mission of the Institute of Jain Studies, as well as by their commitment to make inter-religious learning and relationships possible, to consider how my own communities might connect with and learn from others.

In my doctoral work at Claremont Lincoln, I seek to write and pilot a truly multi-religious curriculum for secondary school students. For this goal, it behooves me to learn as much as I can from others and make relationships with others who can help me learn and teach.

I have increasingly experienced being witness to an incredible weaving, of which my own work is but a small part. That is, through my work with the JIRD, and the facilitation of sharing voices at State of Formation, and in my research of curricula from different faith traditions, I have begun to see how my interests and professional vocations are woven together with those of others. I can imagine, for example, meeting scholars and students on the trip who could be featured in the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, meeting new voices for State of Formation, and finding new ways of teaching and learning.

I anticipate that my own worldview and religious practices will be challenged, made to feel wobbly, and then strengthened - and I know that this is how learning happens. I hope to meet colleagues and collaborators - those whose work will not only inspire me, but intersect with my own and help illuminate our shared goals. I seek resonances and disequilibria, chances to learn, question, make connections, and build friendships of scholarship and faith.

At Union Theological Seminary, Professor Paul Knitter taught me that those who are in positions of power must be first to take a posture of listening. I have found that he means that those of us in the West, with education and power, have much to learn from the wider world. And he is right - when I “lean into” deep listening, and open my ears and practice to the knowledge, history, and experience of others, my own movement in the world is transformed. The chance to study Jainism for six weeks is just such a rich opportunity.

In seminary, I was blessed with opportunities to participate in dialogue classes, including “Christian-Muslim dialogue,” and “Buddhist-Christian dialogue.” The more I learned to listen, the more I found I had to learn - and I found that my own faith became deeper, more faceted, and more life-affirming. In a trip like this one, I hope that I will be able to continue this journey - not only learning as a scholar, but as a human and as a believer.

I also understand that Northern India has been - for centuries - a place of deep (and sometimes divisive) diversity. I have much to learn about how we might continue to nurture our particularities while mindful of the wider community. This is a lesson we all will need to learn as our countries, communities, apartment buildings, and classrooms become increasingly diverse. As someone working in the fields of inter-religious education and dialogue, it’s a lesson in which I am deeply engaged. I believe the Jains I will meet and from whom I would learn have important perspectives to share and intend to attune my ears to their stories and practice.

Finally, I hope to make pilgrimage - to become more than a mere listener, and become one who can practice and witness alongside. In so many of our traditions, pilgrimage is an opportunity to put foot to ground, align mind with tradition, and open oneself to new roads and vistas. A pilgrimage is different from a one-time event; the very practice of preparing for and then undertaking a journey - along with like-seeking pilgrims - allows us to make preparation to be open for true learning and new understandings of faith, and of our world.

Given the work I have done so far - both spiritually and professionally - in learning about the world and seeking opportunities for religious connection and collaboration - I anticipate that a trip such as this can be a gilded place of potential for new knowledge, new understandings, and new calls to scholarship and action.

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

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Sulekh C. Jain