One of the college’s newest faculty hires is directing a program of one. Alexander Massad, associate professor of biblical and theological studies who joined the faculty this year, is the first director of the Religions of the World certificate, a position which was created in 2019 after a donation from an alumni couple. The certificate itself has been offered since the 2018-19 academic year.
But the certificate currently features only five courses of its own, three of which are required for the certificate. The rest of the certificate course options are in the biblical & theological studies, archaeology, social science and philosophy departments. There is also only one student in the certificate, junior Emily Mikiska.
Last year, Mikiska decided to add Religions of the World to her biblical archaeology major.
Previously offered as a major from 1994-97, the world religions major and minor were dropped in the 2005-06 catalog due to low enrollment. Five academic years into the certificate, religion classes still struggle to be filled.
“None of the required classes for the certificate are offered anymore, which makes it very hard to figure out how I’m supposed to complete the requirements,” Mikiska said.
The 24-credit certificate includes eight core requirements as well as 16 elective credits. Certificates differ from minors in that they follow an interdisciplinary approach by including classes across majors.
“There are all these great courses that are on the [certificate checklist], like Sociology of Religion or Philosophy of Religion,” biblical studies professor Michael Graves said, “but it was hard to get anyone to take them, and then because of that, it was hard to get them to be offered.”
Previously, Graves served as coordinator of the certificate, following the retirement, in 2021, of former coordinator and Old Testament professor Andrew Hill.
David Lauber, professor of theology and dean of the school of biblical and theological studies, said this low enrollment could be due to Wheaton’s lack of religion professors since the certificate was run by Graves and Hill.
In 2019, through the anonymous donation of an alumni couple, Wheaton established the Robert B. and Anna E. Oliver Endowed Chair of World Religions. A 2019-2020 search to fill the position produced no results. In the 2021-22 search, after a break for COVID, Wheaton was able to hire Alex Massad as assistant professor of world religions and director of the Religions of the World Certificate.
Provost Karen Lee said that in particular, Massad’s ethnically intercultural and strong theological background made him a good fit for the position.
“Dr. Massad’s skills in facilitating dialogue and collaboration across cultural differences in global contexts will support our aims in building the capacity to navigate the fragmentation of American evangelicalism,” Lee said.
Born into a Catholic household to a Lebanese-American father and a Mexican-American mother, Massad lived with his parents in Saudi Arabia for the first 16 years of his life. He went on to pursue numerous degrees in religious studies, in which he gained an awareness of how people interact cross-culturally with religion.
“When I was studying in Jordan and learning classical Arabic and Islamic law, I started with Sufi mystics,” Massad said. “I just found it very beautiful what they did. I thought, ‘Why don’t we have this? Why don’t we have this beautiful worship of God?’ And then I realized we do, just as evangelical partisans, we tend to be wary of it.”
Massad’s life and education evince a deep understanding of religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity, which made him an attractive candidate.
“We have high hopes that Dr. Massad will generate significant student interest in the certificate,” said Lauber. “He will offer more courses for the certificate than the previous directors, which will raise the profile of the certificate for students.”
As director of the certificate, Massad plans to rework the program in hopes of accumulating more students and turning it into a minor in the future.
“Right now it needs a lot of work,” Massad said, regarding the certificate checklist. “First, there’s no course there that teaches you the methods of comparative religious studies. That is a problem. We need something to teach you the various methods of comparative religious studies.”
As an example, Massad said he hopes to break up the course about Asian religions into two four-credit, semester-long courses, one covering the Hindu and Buddhist traditions and the other covering Chinese, Japanese and Korean religious traditions.
“We would love to see more students complete the certificate,” Lauber said. “But we also want students, even if they do not complete the certificate, to see [Massad’s] courses as attractive and significant for their education.”
Graves added that the certificate is important in expanding knowledge of religious diversity on campus. “All of this fits very well, and I would actually argue essentially, with globalizing a Wheaton education,” Graves said, “but it also fits perfectly well with the value of domestic diversity.”
Other colleges in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) also offer programs for studying religion. Schools with religion majors include Baylor and Calvin University. Messiah University offers a religion minor, which Calvin also has.
Massad said he recognizes the value of Christian college students learning about other religions.
“Teaching religions at a Christian school should aim to engender open-ended relationships that pursue sincere desires to learn about the religious other as she would understand herself,” Massad said. “It is not so much learning about other religions as much as it is learning from other religions to pursue deeper piety with the triune God.”
Before making any notable changes to the certificate, Massad has been focussing in his first year on building relationships with Wheaton students and nearby religious organizations.
“Instead of the concept in a book, I think actually meeting people is important,” Massad said. “My long-term desire would be to actually have student groups engage with one another.”
Massad said he plans to take his students to local mosques and synagogues for practical learning outside of the classroom.
“I want students to come out being at least a little bit familiar or curious, religiously curious, instead of assuming they can understand [other religions],” Massad said. “I think you love other people as a Christian better that way.”