Reflections on the 2011 ISSRPL
July 25, 2011 2 Comments
A Roman Catholic priest from Uganda, a Jewish professor of sociology and religion from the US, a Muslim woman from Palestine with a degree in Peace Studies, a Protestant social activist from Indonesia, and an atheist from Russia walk into an Orthodox Christian monastery in Bulgaria built by a Muslim man whose ill wife was healed by Christian holy water and which houses a miraculous icon that grants fertility to the Muslim and Christian women who come to pray before it. No, this is not the beginning of a cruel joke. This actually happened just a few days ago.
I recently returned from the 2011 session of the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life (ISSRPL) in Sofia and Plovdiv, Bulgaria. The school is a type of social experiment and hopes to discover – or create? – a third way between Western liberal individualism and traditionalism/communitarianism as the ways to organize religiously diverse societies. The school takes as its starting point the real differences – with religion being the primary one – between social groups while still pursuing some form of shared life together. This is something none of our predominant forms of social organization are currently able to do, at least this is what the school assumes. ISSRPL describes its work in this way:
The International Summer School on Religion and Public Life provides a laboratory for the practical pedagogy of tolerance and living with difference in a global society. Its goals are to produce new practices and understandings for living together in a world populated by people with very different political ideas, moral beliefs and communal loyalties. Its focus is on religion, as our religious identities are our most exclusive and our religious communities are those to which we devote our greatest loyalties. In our diverse but increasingly interconnected world, we need to find ways to live together. The school takes these very real, critical and defining differences, especially communal and religious differences between people, as the starting point of a publically shared life.
In its own way the school is an experiment in both pedagogy and social life. Combining academic lectures with group reflections, visits to historical sites, shared meals, witnessing the worship services of multiple faith traditions, and conversations with multiple local religious leaders the school is an exercise in experiential and embodied learning. The learning that comes from theoretical lectures from some of the leading scholars in the world in the field of religion and public life is combined with the learning that comes from being physically present in the worship service of another faith which is also combined with the personal stories of people from around the world. During this time fellows and faculty learn together, dance together, argue with one another, and eventually depart from one another with more questions than when they first arrived. However, connections are made that may not have been able to be made in any other way.
How are people from different faiths to live peacefully together in a world that has been made partly through the persistence of religious conflict and violence? While not suggesting an answer – at least not yet – the ISSRPL exists to ask this question. After my experience this year, these are my reflections on this always mystifying problem:
1. Politics/government is inadequate to answer the question. Political systems and arrangements are only one piece in the complex puzzle that is the role of religion in public life. Democracy and communism have both proven to be utopias inasmuch as they claim to provide an answer to this question. Historically, so has every other political arrangement.
2. Differences should not, in fact cannot, be “transcended.” We should not ignore our differences or pretend they do not exist. We live in a world filled with difference. The pursuit of going beyond these differences is a futile one. A more constructive project is to take difference seriously and work to make it so that difference does not lead to violence. This is one of the most difficult things to achieve.
3. The notion of purity contributes to religious conflict and violence. The “myth” of pure religion leads groups to believe they are the sole bearers of truth, God’s representatives on earth, and responsible for the purity of others. It leads to a peculiar form of arrogance and naivete that is potentially dangerous. All of these ideas have had disastrous consequences in the world throughout human history. We must move beyond notions of purity, especially in religion, if we are to achieve any lasting peace. One step in this direction is what Adam Seligman termed “epistemological modesty” during the school and what Ellen Ott Marshall has termed “theological humility” in her book Christians in the Public Square.
4. Verbal dialogue can only achieve so much. One core commitment of the school is that traditional interfaith/interreligious dialogue is unable to live up to its promise of creating a tolerant society. The ISSRPL believes shared practices has a more enduring quality than simple discussions. Knowing about another religion’s theological beliefs has only limited value; sharing some parts of life together is much more sturdy. For the school, these shared practices were the simple acts of eating and doing yoga together.
5. The founder of the school, Adam Seligman, is a strong advocate that tolerance is not “too low of a standard” or goal for building peace. This is so, he claims, because tolerance acknowledges that real differences, even offensive differences, actually exist. Rather than pretending that we are all the same, “tolerance” begins with the assumption that there are real differences between religious groups and that these differences are important. In the light of such serious differences tolerance is the best we can hope for. As a Christian theologian-ethicist interested in the ethics of reconciliation I have found this a deep challenge for me to wrestle with. I hope that the goal of tolerance is not the best we can hope for, at least in some situations, but I fear that it is.
These are my early reflections on the 2011 version of ISSRPL. Please check out the program for next year if this type of an experience sounds at all interesting to you. It is truly a challenging experience.