IUC Day One: Dialogue is an Art, “Not Just ‘Blah Blah Blah'”
April 15, 2010
This post is the first in a series of three on my experience at Nazareth College’s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference. Check back over the next couple days for the others.
Coming off a generally bad experience at the 2010 American Atheist Convention (AAC) (see reports: 1, 2, 3), the tone of Nazareth College‘s first-ever Interfaith Understanding Conference (IUC) was radically and refreshingly different. I attended IUC, which was in Rochester, NY from 4/11/10 – 4/13/10, to absorb as much information about the interfaith community outside of Chicago and to be recognized as a “Next Generation” leader. Though it was populated by a hundreds-strong diversity of religious, geographic, and age demographics – “intentionally interfaith and intergenerational, combining the wisdom of one generation with the vitality and hope of the next,” as they termed it – it was an intimate community motivated by a desire to learn from diverse others and permeated with optimism and action.
Mayor Robert J. Duffy of Rochester was among those who kicked off the event, reflecting on his childhood and how his mother taught him not to look down on people of other faiths, Rochester’s long history of social justice and interfaith, and his hopes for the conference. Said Duffy:
When I look at [religious] divisiveness, I know it is not the [fault of] faith itself but people using it as a tool. In our world and community we have many issues and challenges [but] nothing is insurmountable. As we gain greater understanding [of one another], we pull together as community and start to see disrespect and violence dissipate through greater education and understanding.
Today we have an opportunity to give back and make a difference in the world. This conference is focused on encouraging and training students on the skills that encourage interfaith dialogue… I can think of no better way that young people can make a difference in the word, [to learn to see] religious differences not as a source of division but as a source of tremendous strength.
Plenary: “The Art of Dialogue”
After these and other rousing introductions, the conference moved into interactive plenary “The Art of Dialogue: Interfaith Dialogue Across the Generations,” hosted by Dr. Leonard Swidler, Becca Hartman and Hind Makki.
Swidler, Founder and President of the Dialogue Institute at Temple University, was up first, and opened with a mantra he claimed to have used time and time again: “Nobody knows everything about anything.” He elaborated at length, acknowledging that not only is religion a complex issue but that there are many who try to simplify it:
It sounds perfectly sensible, right? What biologist would say, “I know it all”? What psychologist would say “Oh, there is nothing more for me to learn”?… And yet, the most complicated, detailed, far-reaching discipline of all is religion, because religion is an explanation of the ultimate meaning of life and how to live accordingly based on some notion and experience… [It] is the most complicated [subject]. There are 6.7 billion people on this planet, and I guarantee there are billions of them who would insist [their religious position is] the right position… Remember, nobody knows everything about anything; this includes religion. So how do we get people to take that clear and simple mantra and translate it to the most complicated field – religion? The answer, I think, is dialogue.
He expanded on what he meant by dialogue, saying that it is, “fundamentally not just ‘blah blah blah.’ It means saying, ‘I want to talk with you because you think differently, so that I can learn from you.'” He contended that, in the scope of human history, this is a relatively new concept:
In the past, people would talk to those who think differently so they could tell them “the truth.” That is not dialogue. We humans have been engaging in monologue since the beginning of time… we have always talked with people who think like we do – or should. We don’t talk to people who think differently so that we can learn… I would argue [that dialogue] is radical in the etymological sense of the word: it goes down to the root. In most religions people want to tell you the truth – it is a good intention based in enthusiasm – but they don’t want to hear, they just want to tell. We’ve been doing that for thousands of years and all we’ve gotten are bloody heads… so we’ve got to turn around [and] develop deep dialogue – not just the surface stuff – related to critical thinking. We don’t want to share our ignorances but, together, search for the truth, and with our critical thinking issue an action complimentary to cooperation.
After Swidler’s charge, Hind Makki (who I interviewed on this blog last month) and Becca Hartman of the Interfaith Youth Core demonstrated an example of interfaith dialogue by sharing insightful testimonials of their own experiences and then had conference participants do the same. Hartman said, “Everyone here has a story, and we want you to share them with one another.” Makki elaborated, saying, “Stories bring out the essence of why people do what they do… [they] create a space in which we can look for shared values from different sources. We are asking you to build relationships off of shared values through storytelling and community, and then from that community to build bridges and move into action.” The experience of sharing stories with one another at the opening of the conference made it clear that this event was proactive about inviting participants to air their diverse experiences and have a sense of determinist agency as participants in the burgeoning movement of interfaith cooperation. In that sense, from the get go it was much more than a series of lectures; it was a constructive exercise of empathy and progress.
Plenary: “The Divine Feminine”
Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women and of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, gave the second keynote of the conference entitled “The Divine Feminine: The Foundation of the Abrahamic World.” Chittister was an incredible speaker, using humor and emotional mastery to deliver a message on the importance of recognizing feminine images of the divine in interfaith work. I found myself intrigued by her speech, but also found it knotty in a few places.
For one, as someone who is not a member of an Abrahamic religion – let alone not even a theist – there wasn’t much that was applicable to my personal beliefs or to my work. The speech was clearly geared toward theists, so there wasn’t much for me to work with. Chittister said that “the way we see God is the way we see ourselves;” I understand the truth of this statement in the context of theism, but wonder what she might think it means for atheism, in which no god-image is present.
Additionally, I thought Chittister’s use of feminine versus masculine images of God was fundamentally and problematically rooted in a reliance on gender binarism and dichotomized approaches to gender. During the Q&A session, the great Rabbi Or Rose raised a similar critique – that it is too essentialistic to term the feminine as innately nurturing and loving and the masculine as aggressive and punishing. To her credit, Chittister was open to this critique and acknowledged that she was speaking on a multilayered issue in a small space of time.
Chittister is one of the world’s most prolific female Catholic speakers, with a wicked wit and a keen understanding of how to clearly and passionately articulate her worldview. Ultimately, her talk was engaging and interesting and elicited a good deal of conversation among participants, but as a non-theist it required a bit too much translation work on my part as it was fundamentally about images of God and was not as interfaith-focused as I might’ve liked.
All in all, things got off to a pretty great start at IUC – but they got even better as the conference went on. Stay tuned for the next two installations, coming soon, and follow my trek to Boston for multiple conferences on Twitter!