Cross-Cultural, Urban, Reformed, Ecumenical

Through the Faith of Others

02-24-2021

The first morning of studies in Beirut, Lebanon, Bob Cathey was awakened by the sounds from the local mosque that called the city to prayer. Turning in the bed, he asked himself, “If I’m going to live here for the next few months, what am I going to do with this call to prayer?” The obvious answer was to pray. And, so each morning, he prayed the New Testament verses called the Lord’s Prayer. “It occurred to me that there are no specific Christian symbols in that prayer,” said Dr. Robert Cathey, who retired as professor of Theology in 2020. “It felt a fitting prayer for my current surroundings.” What’s more, as he continued this practice, Dr. Cathey asked himself a second question, “What sound would remind him to pray when back in his Chicago surroundings?”

For Dr. Cathey, a curiosity about how different faith traditions and cultures can inform his own began early in life. One such experience was a Boy Scout Jamboree in Japan that included visits to mountainside monasteries. “I didn’t ‘feel’ anything there,” he recalled, “not realizing – until years later – that was the point. Sometimes there’s a nothingness to faith, with its silence, laments, and feelings of forsakenness that can allow you to experience spirituality in new ways. Journeying outside my understanding and then taking a comparative journey back into my own tradition gave me insights and an appreciation for the practices of other traditions.”

McCormick has a long tradition of creating opportunities to enter into dialogue with people of other faiths and cultures, noted Dr. Steed Vernyl Davidson, Dean of the Faculty and vice president of Academic Affairs. Using grants from the Wabash Center and InTrust, Dr. Davidson and Dr. Sarah Tanzer, Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, have been heading up an initiative that is building on McCormick’s strengths in this area, broadening the faculty’s and students’ exposure to interreligious pedagogy. 

“The benefit we see coming from this work is a stronger, more intentional focus on how we can work with other faith communities to live and do advocacy together,” said Dr. Davidson. “We want our students prepared with the kinds of theological sensibilities that support their ability and capacity to practice ministry that has a more expansive definition of what it means to work together for the common good.” 

During his 22 years with McCormick, Dr. Cathey championed interreligious dialogue, teaching the seminary’s religious pluralism course, taking students to conferences of the World Parliament of Religions, writing extensively on issues of interreligious collaboration, and holding leadership roles with organizations that work toward greater intercultural understanding. 

“In the Western world, we tend to understand faith as denomination,” said Dr. Cathey. “We tie everything to shared beliefs. But what if people are part of the faith community simply by showing up? This could offer us new ways to think about discipleship, allowing people to become naturally interested in faith because they see how it can serve the good of us all.”