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Articles

Wilmette Institute Reaches an Important Milestone

Oct 31, 2020

by Robert H. Stockman, WI Director

On October 28, the Wilmette Institute learned that the executive committee of the Board of Trustees of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, had unanimously accepted the Wilmette Institute’s application to become an affiliate member. This is a historic milestone in the development of the Institute because it recognizes the Institute’s progress in the creation of academic-level courses on Bahá’í topics.

A number of details must now be negotiated, and it is not known how long that will take. If affiliation happens, however, it opens many doors for the Wilmette Institute. GTU is the largest center for the study of religions in the United States, possibly in the world. Its hundred affiliated faculty and numerous students are involved in issues such as social justice and sustainability as well as more traditional concerns such as the academic study of religion and training for the ministry and for the chaplaincy. It is an immensely diverse institution; in addition to GTU’s own faculty and staff, its member institutions include eight schools of religion (5 Protestant, 1 Unitarian, and 2 Catholic), six “Centers” (for Arts and Religion, Dharmic Religions [Hinduism and Jainism], Islamic Studies, Jewish Studies, Theology and the Natural Sciences, and a Center for Values, Ethics, and Culture), and five “affiliates” (for Buddhist Studies, Swedenborgian Studies, Ecumenism, Eastern Orthodox Studies, and a center where laypeople can study religion for personal enrichment). All the world’s major religions are represented there. Being accepted is itself a significant event in the Faith’s continued emergence from obscurity. Furthermore, GTU is literally across the street from the campus of the University of California Berkeley and there is exchange of faculty and students with that world-class institution of higher education.

We can already envision several lines of action that affiliation may open up to us:

1. We can offer courses not only on traditional “religious studies” topics that some GTU students will want (Bahá’í history, scriptural texts, theology) but also on topics related to public discourse and social action. The Wilmette Institute has already developed courses presenting the Bahá’í perspective on Anti-Black Racism, Climate Change, Sustainable Development, Interfaith Dialogue, and Science and Religion. Some of them are ready or nearly ready for a graduate student audience. Some GTU-affiliated students may wish to take such courses (indeed, coincidentally, one is taking a noncredit course from the Institute this semester). By offering such courses, the Wilmette Institute will build awareness of the Bahá’í approach to social change and sharpen its own understanding of the ways the Bahá’í teachings can make a difference. Bahá’ís will want to take such courses as well, and this will result in the development of human resources within the community.

2. The Wilmette Institute can offer lectures at GTU on the same subjects as listed above once the pandemic is over, thereby participating in GTU’s existing dialogue. There are excellent world-class Bahá’í speakers who could be invited to participate. Some of them might be invited to speak at other GTU events as well. Presentations and symposia at GTU could be open to local Bahá’ís and their friends, thereby providing a new venue for public discourse in the area and lending support to the local Bahá’í community. Such events could also be broadcast over the web and recorded for the Wilmette Institute’s YouTube channel, thereby expanding the Institute’s scholarly reach.

3. Affiliation also opens up all sorts of possibilities for Bahá’ís wanting to include some Bahá’í courses in their education. GTU and its member institutions offers degrees and certificates in dozens of topics related to religion. University of California-Berkeley students, under some circumstances, can take GTU courses. The Wilmette Institute’s ability to offer accredited courses will be strengthened, as will its application to become accredited.

As you can imagine, the Wilmette Institute staff are immensely excited and challenged by the possibilities that lie ahead. Your prayers, ideas, and encouragement will be essential contributions to the Institute’s success.

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Robert Stockman, ThD

Wilmette Institute Director

I have had a passion for researching and teaching about the Bahá’í Faith for more than half of my life. My fascination with American Bahá’í history and with the first American Bahá’í, Thornton Chase, caused me, in 1980, to switch my academic field from planetary science to history of religion in the United States. As I was finishing my doctorate in that field at Harvard University in 1990, I drew up plans to create a Bahá’í Studies institute that would offer courses, encourage research, and publish. Instead, I was hired by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States to start a research office at our national Bahá’í headquarters in Wilmette, Illinois. Some of the responsibilities of the research office led to the creation of the Wilmette Institute, which ​focuses on most of the tasks of the institute I originally conceived. Meanwhile, I have also remained involved in academia, teaching religious studies part time at DePaul University in Chicago and currently at Indiana University South Bend, just a mile from home. I have also published four books on aspects of Bahá’í history (including a biography of Thornton Chase) and one introductory textbook on the Faith. Listen to Robert’s interview on ‘A Bahá’í Perspective’ podcastSee Faculty Bio

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