Friday, December 4, 2009

Four Months and Seven Meetings Ago...

As the quarter comes to a close, I want to reflect on where we have come, and where we have yet to go. At the beginning of the year, F.A.I.T.H was essentially Ansaf and myself (with Jenny's loving technical support) running around to every possible faith event, religious chaplain, and student leader on campus with evangelizing fervor, throwing out a big idea and a whole lot of hope. Some of you were at our first meeting, where we described a world in which the dominant public discourse on religious interaction is of violence and mutual incomprehensibility, perpetuated by a minority--a loud, vociferous minority--of religious totalitarians. We questioned our complicity in facilitating the rise of such polarizing voices, either through our personal unwillingness to engage the faiths of others, or through institutional failures to encourage such initiatives. We articulated the need for a more visible, active engagement between the vibrant and diverse religious, secular, and service-oriented communities on campus: providing the lie to the clash of civilizations by organizing interfaith cooperation for social justice. We figured it would take about a couple of weeks.

Now, four months later, we are a full-fledged (albeit very penniless) VSO, with a motivated core leadership team, and (way too many) exciting projects on the table. We have been featured in campus newspapers and national journals alike. We have already built partnerships with the tireless Faiths Act Fellows, Initiative Against Malaria, and Challah for Hunger; while quickly moving on to collaborative projects with MSAN, the Haas Center, and Teach for America. And we are operating on multiple levels at once: both organizing direct interfaith service opportunities on the ground, and working to institutionalize interfaith cooperation from the top.

The latter has become critical to the way we view our success over this year. Increasingly, our focus is on changing the very ecology of campus with regard to interfaith relations. We want to understand the mechanisms by which Stanford understands its religious diversity, and takes active measures to translate that diversity into pluralism. And we want to function both as instigators of and conduits for such change on campus: through the Office for Religious Life, Office of the Provost, Haas Center for Public Service, Residential Education, ASSU Diversity Chairs, Alumni Network, and New Student Orientation, among other institutional entities.

Most importantly, however, we want to insert the identity category of "interfaith leader" into the consciousness of all Stanford students. This year, for Ansaf and myself, can only be about planting seeds in as many corners of campus as possible. But these need to be nurtured by successive individuals who take ownership of that same identity category: who can read a story like the recent atrocious act of the Swiss government banning the presence of minarets, and instead of dividing it along traditional religious or secular lines, advocate for the rights of others through their own shared experience of marginality.

I think of people like my friend Joe Gettinger, president of the Jewish Students Association, who immediately after this news emerged, sent me this article on Jewish criticism of the ban. Joe's awareness, attitude, and actions demonstrate to me the fundamental characteristics of interfaith leadership: a clear vision of the faith line, a knowledge base of one's own tradition and those of others, and the skill to build positive relationships between different communities. A recent IFYC poll showed that while 70% of college students have heard derogatory comments about other religions, only 25% would have spoken out against them. What are these statistics at Stanford, and who will take the lead to change them? If Joe is any indication, we are beginning to receive answers to the latter.

The work ahead is considerable, but significant. We have the potential to make interfaith cooperation--like environmentalism, human rights, and other movements--a social norm and not just an anomaly. That "huge, foolish project," as Rumi would call it, is well underway at Stanford. Will we turn out like Noah? You tell us. Better: We'll tell each other.

May you all have a blessed winter break.


1 comment:

  1. Strictly speaking the act in Switzerland was a straight vote by the people not an act of the government and though it is wrong and very worrying, I would say it stops short of being atrocious. If we call it atrocious, how do we describe laws calling for severe persecution of people of minority religions (e.g., refusal to allow them to meet to worship at all such as for 'unregistered' religions in some countries or even execution). Atrocious is the existence of 'witch camps' in Ghana where people, mostly elderly women, accused of being witches eke out a minimal living (though it is probably better than being outright killed).

    I would also ask what is meant by 'derogatory comments' on other religions? Some comments are clearcut, intentionally offensive (e.g., calling members of another group, 'cockroaches' or 'pigs') and some are factually incorrect (saying that Muslims worship Mohammad ) but some may be grey. If members of religion A believe and say members of religion B are worshipping a false God, are they making derogatory comments or are they just expressing their own beliefs? And what should be the response? For a recent example on a Stanford community member's blog:

    Any coherent concept of morality needs to be structurally support by a metaphysical justification, ie God. This is a big topic and I won't delve too deep into it but I'll say a few words on this topic. (Skip the next paragraph if not interested)

    This is a long standing debate in Western culture. The undergraduate atheists, Ditchkins and their cohorts, would like to say that we don't get morality from spirituality because many of the things prescribed in the bible we consider immoral and that many people are atheist are more moral than those that believe in God. ...

    Is this derogatory because it combines the names of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins into Ditchkins and then uses 'cohorts' which doesn't have many positive connotations? It also attacks a basic underpinning of most atheistic systems which is that morality does not require 'God'. Personally I think the latter is perfectly acceptable back and forth though the view is wrong. The former I find is offensive because it belittles though I'm not sure the writer meant to be offensive but the writer is entirely free to write it and the readers are entirely free to judge him for it. Do others find it offensive? Should he have been called on it? Note this was within a blog for his community though readable by the general public? Am I being too sensitive?

    What about what happened recently at Purdue where a a panel discussion "A Day in the Life of: students who identify as secular or non-theist" ended when one of the audience members stated "you said you were offended, well you offended me when you said you didn't believe God exists" and broke into tears? (I looked for alternative views of the discussion but couldn't find one.)

    Well enough rambling, may everyone reading do well on exams (if taking any) and have a good break.