Connection Beyond Conflict: Interfaith Solidarity and Peacemaking in the Holy Land – 11/08/2018

History has shown that fear, prejudice and violence develops in communities isolated by religion and politics. Yet our religious traditions can also contain the keys to love, empathy and peacemaking. The Abrahamic Reunion is a group of spiritual and religious leaders dedicated to uplifting human consciousness and building peace in the Holy Land by opening hearts to the love and wisdom of all spiritual traditions.

Panelists:

  • Rabbi Mordechai Zeller – Rabbi and Chaplain at Cambridge University;
  • Robert J. Stains, Jr. – International facilitator and trainer of dialogue on divisive issues and Senior Associate, Essential Partners;
  • Sheikh Ghassan Manasra – Abrahamic Reunion International Director & Representative.

MIT Event Page: tiny.cc/MIT-CBC

Check out some audio, video, and pictures from the event below!

Video:

Images

NY Children: One Photographer Seeks to Connect All of Humanity and Heal the World – 10/23/2018

Inspired by the simple idea that meeting your neighbors promotes peace, Danny Goldfield set out to photograph one child from every country on earth and find them all living in his hometown, New York City. Danny told his story of going to unfamiliar neighborhoods and showing up at churches, mosques, restaurants, hair salons, any place he could find to ask for help with the project. The resulting photographs and stories exist because of the introductions and generous spirit of clergy, business people, educators, politicians, journalists, artists, students, and families.

 

MIT Event Page: https://calendar.mit.edu/event/nychildren_photography_portraits_that_connect_all_of_humanity#.W8NqJRNKjOQ

Check out some audio, video, and pictures from the event below!

 

Video:

 

Images

Profs Professing Publicly: Embracing a Religious Identity in Academia – 09/20/2018

We heard from some notable MIT faculty members about how they have navigated being religious while achieving a successful career in the top levels of academia. Our panelists included:

  • Moe Win – Aero/Astro – Buddhist
  • Rosalind Picard – Media Arts and Sciences – Christian
  • Linda Rabieh – Classical and Medieval Political Philosophy – Jewish

 

Check out some audio, video, and pictures from the event below!

 

Audio
Video



Images

Learning to Engage in Deep Conversations: How a conflict management class awoke my interest in interfaith dialogue – Claire Duvallet

In the third year of my PhD, two things happened that dramatically changed the way I see the world: I took MIT’s 40-hour conflict management course in my training to become an MIT REF, and Donald Trump was elected president. In their own ways, both opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing the world.

MIT’s conflict management training gave me words and tools to describe and practice the things I already gravitated toward but hadn’t known how to develop: empathetic, non-judgmental listening, calm and outcome-oriented negotiating, and preventing and addressing conflicts maturely. I learned to ask questions until I truly understood what was at the heart of the issue, rather than focusing on surface symptoms. I realized that so many times, what we think is one problem is actually a manifestation of something much deeper. While infinitely more difficult, addressing that deeper issue is so much more satisfying. Most importantly, however, I learned what it was like to listen to others and to truly feel heard. I was introduced to the concept that when there is conflict, anger, or sadness in a conversation, it’s because someone’s needs aren’t being met. I started to recognize that in so many conflicts, the people involved actually want the same thing: to be seen, heard, and respected.

At one point in the training, our facilitator brought up Donald Trump. I couldn’t help myself, and made a dismissive joke as a knee-jerk response. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but our facilitator responded directly to me, re-interpreting my joke and pulling out the deep desire (for respect, for my conception of justice, for who knows what) that was really underlying my dismissive joke. I was totally floored and silenced – I, too, was hurting and needed that to be seen. After the election, I was weighed down by an incredible sadness, realizing that so much of our country had felt so unheard and so unseen that they voted for someone with the hopes of burning it all down, even if they got caught in the fire too. I wanted to take what I had learned in conflict management and expand it beyond my comfortable circle of graduate student peers – I wanted (and still want) to be the kind of person that could have conversations with people who have deeply different beliefs than me and make them feel seen. I wanted to know more about people who are different than me, and I wanted to test my ability to have empathetic discussions and build bridges of common understanding even in situations where we disagreed on the most fundamental things, like where meaning comes from and whether or not God exists.

Trump’s win became the ultimate challenge, stretching my new worldview only months after I’d acquired it and motivating me to look past my established comfort zones and seek deeper connection within and across my communities.

I’d been intrigued in the sign advertising MIT’s Addir interfaith dialogue group outside the Student Center since the first time I saw it. I was drawn to the idea of interfaith work, even though I’d had almost no experience with religion beyond growing up in Texas. The few times I’d encountered interfaith work had definitely marked me, though. There was the first time I teared up in a public setting at an interfaith Thanksgiving in Austin in 2007, moved by the gravity and humanity represented by the Jewish community stepping up to host the Muslim-led interfaith ceremony after the Christian church had last-minute backed out. There was the deeply Christian boy in high school who decided he couldn’t date me because I didn’t believe in Christ, and who through our conversations gave me a peek into what it was like to have faith and to seek to truly and deeply live by it in every way. Then there was the experience of reading passages from the Bible in one of my core classes in undergrad and watching as the fiery atheist battled with the two devoutly Christian students in the class. One student was deeply thoughtful and full of doubts and faith, the other reflected a shallow understanding of slogans pasted on the walls of churches. At the beginning of the section, the atheist thought Christianity and religion were the roots of all evils in the world. After a few weeks of thoughtful, informed debate, she realized that there wasn’t anything inherently evil in religion, but it was the humans improperly carrying out the ideas that led to evil.

Also, now that I had opened my eyes to seeing the world through a conflict management lens, I saw that my own thoughts on faith and religion easily fit into a similar framework, and I wanted to explore that further. In conflict management, there’s an important concept of positions and interests – positions are the stances you take, like “I want to have X days of vacation a year.” The interests are what you actually want, the thing that lies beneath the position, like “I want to have a healthy work-life balance.” Positions are just the way we carry out our true interests. I’d kind of already arrived at this realization about faith on my own, but now I had some vocabulary words to put to them: in most religions and faith traditions, it seemed to me like the interest is the same: make sense of our existences, give meaning to our lives, and provide community and norms for how to live. It’s just that they differ in their positions, how they go about achieving those things. Also, in the Addir application one of the questions was about someone who we looked up to as a bridge builder. I put down the conflict management facilitator, and as I was writing my response I realized something amazing – she didn’t build bridges, she makes the river underneath it disappear. I wanted to see if I could do that too.

So I joined Addir this year, participating in weekly one-hour interfaith dialogues with the same group of 8-9 students. In my group, we’re about half and half grads and undergrads, but the program overall is about two-thirds undergrads. We start each session with a check-in and establish a space of honesty and vulnerability. For most of the fall semester, we went through our “spiritual autobiographies,” describing what we believed and more importantly how we got there. For the rest of the year, each week’s conversations revolves around one or two topics – for example, obedience, soul and consciousness, traditions, gender and sexuality, and religion.

I went into Addir hoping to find a place to flex my conflict management muscles, but it turns out that those skills haven’t actually been very necessary. In retrospect, the things I’ve learned through my experience with Addir so far should have been easily foreseeable. I’d gone into these conversations hoping to find a place to attempt bridging some sort of unbridgeable gap – how could one truly have a pleasant conversation in a room where the 9 participants ranged fully along the spectrum of having deep faith in their God to absolutely having no belief in God at all? But it turns out that most people drawn to interfaith work share similar ideas to those found in conflict management, though not necessarily with the same words. I’ve found many reflections of the positions vs. interests discussion in our group, and it seems that most participants in Addir are really just there to better understand their own and others’ underlying interests – the deeply held beliefs and what meanings they carry for someone – rather than focus on the positions or details. It turns out that most of these conversations are united by a curiosity for others and a willingness to see beyond presumably “irreconcilable differences”, like, for example, believing in different (or no) gods. So while I am grateful for the experience that I’ve gotten through Addir – learning to engage in deep conversations on a regular basis, meeting other people in my MIT community, being witness to journeys of self-discovery and growth – I think I may have to look elsewhere to truly test out out my conflict management chops.

Which, if you ask me, is a pretty cool realization.

Where scientists talk religion – Alex Tinguely

Every Monday night, I shuffle down Mass Ave, past the towering columns of MIT’s entrance to a small unassuming building almost directly across the street. Inside I meet with a group of about ten students. We continue our discussion of something that can make people uncomfortable, something that isn’t commonly associated with MIT: religion. We don’t only consider the age-old question: does God – or god, goddess, gods – exist? We discuss how faith has enriched, altered, and ruined our lives; its history and relevance today; its traditions, foods, and texts. This is the Addir Interfaith Dialogue, an open environment in which MIT students share, explore, find, or maybe even leave their faith.

Every year, about thirty students are selected as Addir Fellows (the application is painless). The program hosts about one event each month open to the community. A recent example was “Professors Professing Publicly,” where MIT faculty discussed faith and teachers talked theology. Addir Fellows also participate in two local overnight retreats which include show-and-tells (I brought my grandmother’s rosary made of rose petals) and late-night debates.

Beyond the events and retreats, the most valuable time spent in Addir is the one-hour weekly interfaith dialogue session. Over the year, we learn about each other’s background, beliefs, practices, and struggles with them all. In my group, a variety of faiths (or lack thereof) are represented: Agnosticism, Atheism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Protestant Christianity, and Roman Catholicism. It’s not about evangelism or conversion; it’s about making bridges – “Addir” means “bridge” in ancient Sumerian1 – between you and someone who happens to be of a different faith, while respecting differences and celebrating similarities.

Respecting differences can sometimes be difficult; this can be even more challenging when those differences arise with someone of the same religious identity. Can you and I be in the same faith community and disagree about fundamental beliefs? That is the question that initially brought me to Addir. After a change in church leadership at MIT and an unsuccessful relationship, I felt like an outsider, an imposter, in a community in which I had grown up. I wanted/needed to know if other students felt lost in their faith, too. I found them in my Addir group. Everyone sits somewhere along the belief/non-belief spectrum, no matter in what religion. There were devout religious and devout atheists in my group; they all listened to my story. And I learned to listen and to affirm theirs.

But you don’t have to be going through a spiritual crisis like mine to join Addir. Everyone could benefit from a little interfaith dialogue. We are lucky at MIT to have a diverse and international student population, and you probably know many people of different faiths. However, how often do you discuss it openly? How did the immigration ban affect Muslim students at MIT? Have Jewish students felt backlash against the plan to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem? As an Addir Fellow, I have grown in understanding, awareness, and empathy in this global community. You could, too.

By the way, that unassuming small building is W11. Stop in and visit the 22 amazing MIT Chaplains (https://studentlife.mit.edu/rl/who-we-are-chaplains). If you’re interested in learning more about the MIT Addir Interfaith Dialogue Fellowship, check out https://studentlife.mit.edu/rl/interfaith-programs. Also go to https://asa.mit.edu/club_signup?category_lookup=8583 to learn more about 23 listed religious student groups.

1. de Lafayette, M. (2014) Comparative Encyclopedic Dictionary of Mesopotamian Vocabulary, Dead and Ancient Languages. Retrieved from http://books.google.com

The Islamic Jesus: A bridge between Islam, Christianity—and even Judaism – 2/15/2018

Religious tensions between Islam, Christianity and Judaism are some of the most complex, consequential and ominous challenges in today’s global community.  Mustafa Akyol, a prominent Turkish journalist and Muslim intellectual, offers an unexpected possibility for building bridges between the three Abrahamic faiths: the Islamic Jesus—that is Jesus as he shows up in the Qur’an. We heard about and discussed the “provocative,” “timely and important” insights from Akyol’s new book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims.

 

Mustafa Akyol is a prominent Turkish journalist, who writes and speaks on Islam, secularism in the West, Islamic reform, and the person and teachings of Jesus outside of the Christian religion. He is based at Wellesley College as a Senior Visiting Fellow in the Freedom Project. Apart from his TED Talk and other work, Mr. Akyol is regularly published in The New York Times. His latest book, The Islamic Jesus, came out in 2017, and has been selling well within the subcategories of history, religion and Islam. 

Check out some audio and pictures from the event below!

Audio

Images

How Each Branch – Alvin Tan

how each branch
of a tree
seeks its own path
in space
unlike
any other                          —-Bijan Jalali

 

 

 

Each branch

We each have our own journeys, our own paths. Yet, like branches, we have a common origin, a common source; whatever you may call that source to be, the divine, a shared humanity, or both.

A common misconception of the interfaith movement is the perception that “interfaith” is all about saying “we are the same”. I think that the interfaith is about what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “a dignity of difference”. Rabbi Sacks asks, “Can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we see the presence of God in the face of a stranger?”

Of a tree

A tree derives its nourishment from its surroundings. It is entirely dependent on the soil, water, and the air. Yet, it cannot claim ownership of the soil, water, and the air. A tree simply lives in the midst of the soil, the water, and the air. A tree simply is of the soil, the water, and the air.

In interfaith dialog, I seek to simply be present, to acknowledge and feel and cherish how someone else sees the world. I find it utterly meaningless and boring to talk about how different religions have different truth claims, and to focus on how those truth claims compete with one another, and perhaps that none of those truth claims might be true after all. Of course different religions say different things. Interfaith dialog is not just about finding similarities either. Interfaith dialog seeks to discover more than common ground. Interfaith dialog shows us how we share the sacred ground, and helps us be more rooted to that sacred ground. The more I learn about someone else’s faith, the deeper I find the roots growing within my own faith. And, in growing deeper, we find how our roots are intermingled within the sacred ground that we share.

Seeks its own path in space, unlike any other

My journey into interfaith dialog has not been without conflict. I got into interfaith dialog after I left my church over dispute. I had left my church because I had witnessed in it the abuse of religion to put down others, specifically the LGBT community. Because I had seen the potential of religion to destroy, I now engage in interfaith dialog to explore how religion can be used as a force for good in the world.

Fruit and seeds

I had once invited a friend from church to interfaith dialog. She viewed my invitation with suspicion, telling me that she couldn’t help but think that I had ‘an agenda’ behind the invitation. We have not talked since.

One of Jesus’ sayings is that you will “know them by their fruits.” I am convinced that good interfaith dialog bears good fruit. Good interfaith dialog is never about debate, and is never about conversion. Good interfaith dialog has to be nourishing, constructive, productive, and practical. Interfaith dialog is meaningless if it is not transformative. It is meaningless if people don’t walk away with a better understanding of someone else. Interfaith dialog does not end at the conversation. Perhaps, after a stranger becomes a friend, we can partner with them to do Good. Perhaps, after learning about others, we can educate people in our own religious communities who have misgivings about others.

Fruit is the service that a tree provides to its community. We who have had the privilege of engaging in interfaith dialog are to be of service to our communities. Like fruit, we nourish our communities. Fruit is also a vehicle for change. After the fruit has nourished others, its service is not done. Fruits contain seeds. Let us plant seeds of change.

Postscript: I learnt this poem by Iranian poet Bijan Jalali from the late Rev. Dr. Yap Kim Hao. He included this poem in the signature block of his emails. I did not think much of it at first, but this poem has struck greater resonance with me after he died, for I can no longer talk to him. If heaven gave email accounts, I’m sure he would have continued to include this poem in his signature block. He has been a great inspiration in interfaith work, and supported me as I delved into interfaith dialog. I miss our lunches, discussions, and jokes.

Addir Blogpost – Claire Traweek

 

I’ll admit it, I’m a pretty big nerd, but I’m not a very well-rounded one. I can tell you all about your CPU or resistances, but am pretty lost when it comes to even the common-knowledge elements of world history and the like. This last semester, though, after one too many times not knowing who fought in the Battle of Waterloo or what happened to Archduke Ferdinand, I decided things needed to change and ordered a few nice, thick world history books. After scouring Reddit, I think I found a pretty thorough telling of world events—one of the books literally starts with various theories for how the first single celled organisms came about.

It’s interesting to think about; somehow, over the course of tens of thousands of years, humans went from being sparsely distributed semi-nomadic groups to, well, civilization as we know it. Somehow, something sparked a change in the way we thought about sharing resources and cooperation; it’s difficult to create a society with no prior inspiration, but there was evidently some tipping point that lead to the spontaneous eruption of nations and government.

There’s a very strong argument that religion was the catalyst here. Virtually all societies had some form of religion, and many early ones held priests and Gods at the center of their governments. It would appear that most ancient villages operated somewhat communally, with residents giving goods to a church, in the name of various deities. The clergy would then redistribute the goods and resolve ensuing conflicts, acting as some of the first governments (1). We see echoes of this through the ages; Pharaohs, Kings, and Emperors believe to have authority given directly from a god (if they themselves didn’t claim to be the physical manifestation of the deity), even today the United States prints “In God We Trust” on its currency and swears politicians in with various holy books.

Explicit examples include a tumultuous period during the New Kingdom in Egypt, when the famed King Tutankhamun’s predecessor, Akhenaten, tried to refocus Egyptian belief on a single God, Aten, in a ploy to draw power away from the priests of the traditional temples. He went so far as to move the capitol and change his name to more closely associate with his new deity, but underestimated the willingness of Egyptians to give up traditions. When Tut came to power, he removed “Aten” from his name and replaced it with “Amun”, symbolically refocusing on the old gods and restoring Egyptian’s faith in the Pharoah (1)(2). As the Russian Tsars transitioned to autocracy, they undermined the power of the priests and boyars in part by claiming God-given power and eventually annexing the government with the Russian Orthodox Church (3). Later in history, Alexander iii was briefly successful in justifying counter-reforms by declaring he was discussing the matter with God. Gleb Uspennskii wrote that the serfs at the time came to accept their wretched living conditions as “God’s will that thousands and millions of people struggle just as we do” (4).

Given it’s uniting power, I think that religion has played a fairly important role in human history, providing reason for moral action when science or philosophy fell short. Some, like the Clayton Christensen and the Mormon Newsroom, argue that society (especially democratic society) without some form of religion is impossible (5)(6). However, I also think that it’s served as a crutch and reasonable society is also possible without a religious backing: while it may be so that some degree of societal organization was needed to allow for logic and scientific ideas to develop and spread, a world with both society and science does not necessarily need religion to support the two.

There now exist well-researched explanations for most phenomena that was explained at some point by religion; theories about the origin of the universe, origin of life, inner workings of the human body and brain, reasoning and philosophizing about societal structure and the keys to some degree of peace. While there are certainly gaps, and while studies have shown that religion tends to considerably increase happiness (7), I don’t think that religion is necessarily the only or best solution to all societal problems. For example, when previously seemingly reasonable religious beliefs clash with newer observations, religion can significantly slow scientific progress (Galileo proposing that the earth orbits the sun (8)) and even endanger the wellbeing of humanity as a whole (the reluctance of some groups to accept that at god would create a world where global warming is possible, and the following resistance to the appropriate corrective action (9)). When peoples of different religions interact, the conflicting directives of their individual beliefs can lead to open conflicts (10).

This brings to question the relevance and role of religion in society today; historically it has been the basis of strict societal values and the reason for conflict, but at the same time religious people are 11% happier than those that are not and are significantly more likely to volunteer and donate (7). Although it seems that religion increases family togetherness and happiness, many specific religion’s doctrines directly conflict in a way that logically (although not always practically) end in some form of violence. As the world becomes smaller, and more people of clashing beliefs move closer together, how do we address belief systems that contend they are the one and only way, or suggest that other belief systems are deserving of violence or scorn (a contemporary example is the debate over whether or not evolution should be taught in schools, or whether or not bakes have to bake cakes for gay customers (11))? In a world where people of diverse faith backgrounds all hold some stake in a common government, to what extent is it helpful for religion to influence policy?

I think there exists an important balance between reaping the benefits of faith and allowing a specific religion to determine one’s political views, especially when those views wind up deciding things for people of other religions.  It’s beneficial to consider whether putting a religion in front of humanity results in net good for the individual, society, and the religion or god itself; there are very few religions that would support the violence caused by allowing conflicting beliefs to lead to death and injury. Simultaneously, there are great benefits to be had from religious acceptance: Pew Research has found that religiously diverse countries are less prone to religion based bias and homogenous countries are more likely to be involved in religion based conflicts (12)(13).

I’m fairly certain there’s a way to have the best of both worlds; the social stability and acceptance that comes from living in both a diverse and a religious environment, but without the hatred and violence. The means to this end are somewhat unclear, but I think it’s important to remember that as much as one religion may think it’s correct, others feel equally as passionate. Understanding this, I’ve found, is key to understanding some of the seemingly inexplicable actions of others, and understanding why supporting, for example, legislation that is fair to all faiths is more important than lobbying solely for one’s own. While a single-minded approach to religion may have been what brought society together, I don’t think it will continue to be the optimal situation in the modern world.

1.      The New Penguin History of the World: Fourth Edition, J.M. Roberts

2.      https://classroom.synonym.com/religious-practices-during-king-tuts-time-12086183.html

3.      The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath, Kort

4.      Revolutionary Russia: A History in Documents, Weinberg

5.      http://www.nhbr.com/June-5-2009/The-importance-of-asking-the-right-questions/

6.      https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/religions-vital-place-society

7.      http://www.pewforum.org/2016/04/12/religion-in-everyday-life/

8.      http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/galileo-is-convicted-of-heresy

9.      http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/global-warming-god-end-times/

10.   http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13698249.2013.853409?src=recsys&

11.   https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/08/us/wedding-cake-ruling-trnd/index.html

12.   http://www.pewforum.org/2014/04/04/global-religious-diversity/

13.   http://www.pewforum.org/2014/01/14/religious-hostilities-reach-six-year-high/

How We Gather: New Communities Of Meaning and Belonging – 11/16/2017

We were joined by Angie Thurston, Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School and co-author of howwegather.org, as she charted the rapidly changing culture of religious identity and practice among rising generations in America. She illustrated how a new landscape of meaningful communities – from CrossFit to coworking spaces – is replicating traditionally religious functions.

 

Check out some audio, video, and pictures from the event below!

Audio:
Images

 

Science, Religion and the Human Brain with ‘Science Mike’ – 10/5/2017

We heard from Mike McHargue, the Christian turned atheist turned mystic. Science destroyed his faith and then helped him to rebuild it in a whole new way. His novel approach to integrating science, religion and spirituality–which draws on insights from neuroscience and cosmology–has gathered him hundreds of thousands of podcast subscribers from all across the religious-secular spectrum.

Check out some audio and pictures from the event below!

Audio:
Images