Mark Swanson finds joy in encounter

Mark Swanson in front of stained glass

On Mark Swanson’s office door is a quotation from Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, which says, “The call of God is very strange.” Swanson would agree: strange and joyful.

“For the first two years that I was reading theology, I didn’t know what it was for,” recalls Swanson, Harold S. Vogelaar Professor of Christian-Muslim Studies and Interfaith Relations, and associate director of A Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice (CCME).

Swanson planned to take a year off before going to graduate school for a degree in chemistry. He intended to read theology that year to get it out of his system, he said. One year became two… and he had the opportunity to go on an internship in Egypt and that experience changed everything. 

“It was career determining,” Swanson said. “After my year in Egypt I went back to seminary for a year, and then returned to Egypt as a missionary of the church.” From 1984-1998, Swanson taught at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (ETSC) where he developed his interests and expertise in the history of the Coptic Church, Christian-Muslim relations, and Arabic Christian literature.

“A lot of my academic study came out of teaching,” Swanson said. “The history of the church, for example.” He had to learn and teach the history of eastern churches—and teach in Arabic. It was a fulfilling and rewarding time, he says. Swanson became passionate not only about his academic interests, but also about sharing the joy he found in approaching people of other faiths with honor and curiosity.

It was in that spirit that Swanson accepted first the call to the be the second director of the Islamic Studies Program at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., in 1998 and then his positions at LSTC in 2006.

“I quickly came to appreciate a whole variety of things about Chicago,” Swanson said. “The ecumenical and interreligious richness of the city, the consortium we have with other theological seminaries, which is a good and effective one, the library resources around here… There were a whole bunch of reasons that this was a great place to be.”

And, he adds, “LSTC is an institution that welcomed interreligious engagement.”

His positions at LSTC have enabled him to put together courses that are jointly sponsored with the American Islamic College and facilitate events with students from other faiths. CCME has also brought together musical heritages of Abrahamic faiths, hosted faith-based plays, and invited members of different faith communities to share in community meals: “I have a flood of memories of these events, of people getting together…we’ve had a lot of marvelous times.”

Swanson hopes to continue to encourage his students to encounter members of other faiths. “It’s part of the Christian desire to love thy neighbor,” he said. “The motivation for encounter comes from deep within the faith. It’s a matter of living out your Christian faith in this world, which is so complicated but so rich.”

By Rhiannon Koehler, a writer, editor and content director in Chicago.

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