Less Noise, More Hope
Read Dr Ed Kessler's speech from the 13th Doha Conference on Interfaith Dialogue (20-21 February 2018).
What is your favourite occupation? Eating? Reading? Let me tell you mine: Discussing. Well, let's not be polite but call this what it is: arguing. Years ago, there was a TV series in UK called The Long Search. When the presenter came to religion, he was in a state of shock and called the programme The Holy Argument.
If you think about it, what is a biblical or rabbinic commentary or tafsir on the Qur'an? There is a kind of argument going on. In fact, in the surrounding small print there are arguments about the arguments about the arguments. If I were to describe the literature of the Abrahamic faiths, the best I'd come up with, is that it's an 'anthology of arguments'; or even a millennial chat-room.
Not only that. What do we call those arguments? Arguments for the sake of heaven.
And the question is not just: why do we argue? I suppose everyone argues. The question is: why is argument central to the religious experience? Why is it the very structure of religious thought? Why is argument the standard form of a response to anything?
I wonder whether it is to do with our opposition to a fundamental principle of logic: the 'law of contradiction'. The law of contradiction says that a statement and its negation cannot be true at the same time. Logic says it cannot be both Tuesday night and Friday morning. That's the law of contradiction.
Yet, I have learnt from studying the encounters between religions that the law of contradiction does not apply. Why? Because we reject the idea that truth is two-dimensional. Very often it is not a matter of either true or false. Two conflicting propositions may both be true! It just happens to depend on where we are standing and what is our perspective.
The Nobel prize-winning scientist, Niels Bohr suggested, "The opposite of a simple truth is a falsehood. The opposite of a profound truth is very often another profound truth."
In other words, Jews, Christians and Muslims embrace both sides of what often looks like a contradiction. We are not concerned with a two-dimensional world but rather with three and four-dimensional reality.
When you see everything in terms of two dimensions, it is either true or it is false. And there can only be one perspective! That is what we reject. There is always more than one perspective. And that is the vision of the Woolf Institute. If I am standing here, things look different from what you see if you are sitting there. We are seeing the world from different perspectives. In the Institute's teaching, in Cambridge and around the world, we seek to confer dignity on how the world looks to me and how the world looks to you.
There is, in other words, an attempt to do justice to the fact that there is more than one point of view; more than one truth.
Yet, and this is a point of great significance, nowhere is the attempt to do justice to more than one point of view lacking than in human rights violations on the grounds of religion. We tend to be advocates of one side or another, pursuing a strictly partisan agenda. Why is it comparatively rare to find people who are both pro-one side AND pro-the other?
The reason is that too few are concerned about seriously engaging different views, easily overwhelmed by the shrill screams of religious intolerance, ignoring the diversity of humanity. The Mishnah, the classical Jewish text, edited about 1800 years ago, states,
'Humankind was produced from one individual, Adam .... to show God's greatness. When a man mints coins in a press, each is identical; but when the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, creates people in the form of Adam not one is similar to any other." (Sanhedrin 4.5)
Now supposing you and I see things differently. We have different perspectives on reality. Is that it? What can we do under those circumstances? Well, we can talk. We can converse. You can tell me how the world looks to you. I can tell you how the world looks to me. We can have a dialogue. We can, through that dialogue, learn what it feels like to be different. We can bridge the distance between two perspectives.
One approach I use in the classroom is to ask my students to reflect on language, to meditate on the power of words to build or destroy, heal or harm. In words, God created the universe. In words, we are taught, God reveals himself to us. The first thing God gave Adam was the gift of naming the animals, using words to categorise and thus begin to understand the world around us. According to Jewish tradition, Homo sapiens is described as "the speaking being".
Yet, the great irony of our time is that, having created technologies of instant global communication, we find ourselves talking less and less with those with whom we disagree. The Internet and the social media allow us to choose the news we hear and the voices to which we listen. What were once mixed communities that read the same papers and watched the same TV news, have become groupings of the like-minded. Our prejudices are reinforced and our views become more extreme.
This makes the work of the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID) urgent and pressing. As Revd Dr Martin Luther King said, we live in the 'fierce urgency of now'. Our goal is to face the danger that as a new generation emerges, it is unwilling to giving a respectful hearing to the other side. When that happens, violence is waiting in the wings.
Our task is more than logical: it is dialogical and gives dignity to the multiple perspectives from which we perceive reality. And the only ways we can handle that are by having a dialogue, learning how to disagree and managing difference.
Argument, in other words, becomes holy when it does justice to more than one point of view.
I call on the 13th Doha Interfaith Conference to oppose the attempt to impose one truth, one culture, one way of doing things on you (or me). No people is entitled to force its beliefs on any other people. 'Down here, in the world that I made', God said according to the Abrahamic story, 'there are many cultures, many faiths, many civilisations – each of which was made by God, each of which therefore has its own integrity, its own gifts to humanity, its own contribution to make, its own voice, its own language, its own character'.
The Qur'an is representative when it states: "We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may recognise one another" (Qur'an 49:13). This principle also lies at the heart of Judaism and Christianity. We all proclaim the unity of God and the diversity of human existence.
Because we are in the image and likeness of God we are both created and creative. We use language and are capable of imaging and imagining a world different from the one that is. In Genesis, humanity is planted on this earth with the words, "To serve it, to work it and to preserve or guard it". As the Qur'an states, (Sura Abraham, 14:24) states, 'a goodly word is as a goodly tree'.
To be the guardian of something means that we don't own it; we don't own the environment; we don't own human life, we are its guardians. Those of us touched by the angel of interfaith dialogue serve as teachers and scholars; to educate and preserve the lives of this and the next generation so that they are better informed to pursue the tolerance and dignity, which this world so urgently needs.
The challenge today is to engage in genuine dialogue and mutual understanding. If we are committed to religious tolerance, we know that good neighbours are better than good guns. We need to generate less noise and more hope.
Details of the 13th Doha Conference on Interfaith Dialogue (20-21 February 2018) can be found here.
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