Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Interfaith Kishkushim?

Event advertisement on campus: "When was the last time you met a swami/chief rabbi/imam/bishop/lama/Sikh?"

This evening, the University of Haifa hosted the fourth meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Ramakrishna, and Sikh representatives came to share their views on issues of religious leadership. Druze and Bahai leaders were also expected. The audience, mostly, but not only, composed of University of Haifa students, was almost as diverse.

Opening remarks were made by Professor Majid al-Haj, Vice-President and Dean of Research at the University of Haifa.

He addressed the audience in Hebrew (simultaneous English translations were provided via headsets). He started out with a citation commonly invoked in these types of gatherings. Here is a partial transcript:
"As a Muslim, I have to mention that in the Quran there is a passage that says, 'We have made you nations and tribes so that you may meet one another.' That's the main concept that exists in Judaism, in Christianity, and in all religions... The function of religion is to improve the society, and to regulate the relationships within the society and between the different groups."
As I've attended a few interfaith gatherings in the past, the concept and the content didn't seem entirely novel to me. One of the Buddhist monks described what often happens at these gatherings in a very humorous way: "You're nice, I'm nice, bye bye!" He did add that this was not his experience in this case, as these religious figures have been traveling together extensively for the past few days and have shared intimate experiences with each other.

One thing that sometimes frustrates me with these kind of meetings is that in order to stay civil and maintain their peaceful and unified stance, they must remain at the level of "interfaith kishkushim." No doubt that the visual message of all these different religious leaders together, highlighted by the various head coverings and robes and different ethnic backgrounds, is powerful. However, it seems obvious to me that there were many subjects that speakers shied away from (or possibly were told to avoid) for the sake of unity. And yet, that is not what will help people clear up misconceptions they may hold or understand the point of view of other religions.

Advertising for this gathering promised people the chance to meet different religious leaders. That means that it is potentially an opportunity for people to get answers about very real questions they may have about other religions. However, those very questions, though they represent dialogue, might also at the same time shut down real dialogue. I think there are two basic conditions which must exist at this type of gathering in order for real dialogue - by which I mean dialogue which transforms the people it engages - to occur. The first is that the leaders must be willing to speak openly and bravely about their faith, and the second is that the audience must not ask questions in order to provoke or to prove their own religion "right," but rather to learn and understand.

In my opinion, there were two highlights at the conference. The first was Imam Dr. Abduljalil Sajid from England, who was brave enough to speak about what he termed, "religiously-motivated violence." He said very clearly that this is an issue in his faith community which will not go away by wishful thinking or by prayer alone, and in fact will grow. He elaborated that imams and sheikhs must stand up and challenge it. Collective actions with others (including people from other faith communities and "people with no faith") is what is needed. He also said, "My appeal to all of you is do not ignore or deny it. Accept it and do something about it. Share the concerns with your community and work against violence."

The second highlight was the "meet and greet" which followed the more official part of the program. Here came the real chance for the audience to approach, question, and learn from the international visitors. Unfortunately, some of the local leaders left a little early.

1 comment:

Amos said...

You've put your finger on some of the ways in which interfaith dialogue often turns out less than satisfying. I wonder if these kinds of events might be more successful if the focus is on the things that divide rather than unite the various religious communities. That would mean saying openly: we disagree vehemently on these particular issues. Where you go from there is not clear though. Dialogue means an actual engagement with the other's logic, and that almost never happens - it is rare even in academic settings.