Author Archives: David

2010 – ISSRPL Occasional Paper No. 3, by Edward L. Queen

When Reality Rears Its Ugly Head: Thinking about Religion, Conflict, and the Possible

Edward L. Queen

My thinking on this topic emerges primarily from the work I have done over the past eleven years in the former Yugoslavia and Israel, with some detours to India and Pakistan.  This paper was occasioned by my time in Bosnia (and Boston) as a fellow of the summer 2006 class of the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life.

In writing this paper, I began to think about what got me into this area.  How did someone whose training was an Americanist in Church History, who grew up in central Alabama, and was almost 29 before he ever left the country become obsessed with religious and ethnic conflicts throughout the world?

It is Stewart Brand’s fault.  In the 1970s, Brand, whom many may know as the person behind the Whole Earth Catalog, later published a magazine entitled the Co-Evolution Quarterly.  At some point in the mid 1970s, an issue of that magazine focusing on devolution fell into my hands.  In it I read about Breton, Corsican, Sami, Karen, and Tamil separatism among others.  This information appealed to my perverse nature, to knowing all about these peoples and movements of which most others were unaware

It stuck.  The first course I ever created was, “Religious and Ethnic Conflicts in the 20th Century.”  That was in spring 1989.  Talk about being in front of the curve, all the really good ones still lay ahead, although I did manage to get in the Lebanese Civil War, the earlier Hutu/Tutsi conflicts in both Burundi and Rwanda, and the challenges presented by what we then called religious fundamentalism from the Dominion movement in American Protestant Christianity to the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Then came the wars of the former Yugoslavia.  Those wars affected me intellectually, morally, and personally.

Preeminently they demonstrated the following to me:

  1. The complete and total Moral Failure of the European countries to respond, this topic is not relevant to this paper, except tangentially as we shall see.
  2. The failure of those who observed the events to acknowledge the reality of the significance of the religious elements.  One continues to see it today in many discussions of the war.  Many writers continue to refuse to acknowledge that religion actually does matter or cannot understand why it does.  I found this complete denial of the significance of religion astounding.
  3. I did not understand how people could fail to acknowledge that religion actually could be something important enough to kill others about.
  4. Finally, I was amazed that individuals also found this conflict so “inconceivable” in a literal sense of the term.  The presumption lying behind this perception of inconceivability, namely that peace and understanding are the default options in human existence left me dumbfounded.  As an historian, the idea that anyone would be surprised by human violence amazes me.  (Actually one of the great things about being an historian is the ability to look down one’s nose and say about almost anything, “It isn’t really new you know.”)

So it is from that starting point that I come to you today.

The Former Yugoslavia

In March of 1995 I was standing on a street corner in Indianapolis, Indiana when I colleague of mine greeted me and asked, “Ed, how would you like to go to my country?”  I responded, “Mirko, other than the fact that a war is going on and who is going to pay for it?  Sure.”

This started me on my work in the former Yugoslavia, first in Croatia, then Macedonia, and now Bosnia.

A series of vignettes from those eleven years

1      “We needed to be separated from them.  They are a more primitive culture.”  A comment made to me by a young Croatian academic who holds advanced degrees in religion and philosophy and was a minor dissident during Tito’s time.  (Croatia 1995)

2      President of the Macedonian government’s Commission on Religious Affairs.  He was appalled by the idea that some people wished to construe Macedonia as a bi-religious state–Orthodox and Islamic (forget that maybe it should be secular or even religiously neutral).  “Macedonia is an Orthodox country,” he proclaimed.  “Islam is a religion of the country’s past under the Ottomans, not of the future.”  “Orthodoxy is the only religion native to Macedonia.”  (I forbore asking him where he thought Christianity came from.)  The implication of his entire comments was that all other religious bodies existed in the country simply on sufferance.  (Macedonia 2000)

3      Traveling to Macedonia in 2002, I was seated beside a Macedonian Woman who upon hearing that I was going there to work at the new “Albanian” university became incensed, berating me and cursing and abusing all Albanians informing me that they were primitive animals and did not belong in her country. (2002)

4      Party for staff member’s brother (2002), while helping to set up a university serving the needs of Macedonia’s Albanian speaking population, I happened upon a party celebrating the release from prison of the brother of one of the secretaries.  He had served in the Ushtria Çlirimtare Kombëtare – UÇK National Liberation Army, the Albania paramilitary organization that had led the civil war in Macedonia.

5      Stolac 2006—I spent 10 days living with a recently returned Bosniak family which had been expelled from Stolac in 1995.. What is Stolac?  Stolac is situated in Herzegovina less than 90 kilometers from Mostar.  The Begrava River runs through the center of the village.  The area around Stolac has been inhabited since Neolithic times and it is surrounded by remains of these settlements.  Stolac also contains the largest assemblage of steči, the gravestones distinctive to the old Bosnian Church.  Its beauty and history had placed it on the list of locations being considered for denomination as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

In 1993 the village of Stolac had about 18,500 inhabitants, about 44% Bosniak, 33% Croat, 21% Serb, and a little over 2% who identified as other.  After a Serb attack was beaten back by the combined forces of the Bosnia’s and Croats, the Croats (with assistance from Croatian forces) turned on their Bosniak neighbors, imprisoning the men in the local hospital, where they were tortured and abused.  The women were expelled from the village.  They then proceeded to destroy every Muslim and Orthodox cultural artifact in the village, including mosques built in the 16th and 17th centuries and a 16th century Serbian Orthodox church.  Today the population is 80% Croat and 20% Bosniak.  There are 2 segregated hospitals, one school but the classes meet on separate floors and the bells ring at different times, segregated cafes, and a palpable feeling of dread.[1]

As we move forward developing our work in religion, conflict, and peace building we need to question dramatically our ideas and the quality of them.  My goal is to ensure that we bring ideas and experiences into an ongoing conversation.  We need to have a clear purchase on the conditions of existence and what is possible under those conditions.  Additionally, we need to determine how (and whether) we can change those conditions, providing, therefore, an opening for even more possibilities.

I want to examine three themes about which our ideas have the utmost importance in the areas of religion, conflict, and peacebuilding.  I believe that the extent to which our ideas in these areas are “right,” greatly improves the likelihood of positive movement.  While addressing these themes I will attempt to weave together the theoretical and the experiential.

These three themes are:

  • Nature of human being
  • Conflict
  • Religion’s distinctiveness

I begin with an admittedly unfair use of a quotation with which the Canadian Assemblywoman Pat Lorje closed her presentation which preceded mine at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland in summer 1996.  I had just arrived in Geneva from Zagreb, where I had spent the preceding weeks talking about the future of Croatia and working with individuals struggling to develop civil society organizations.  Harking back to the founders of the New Democratic Party of Canada, Ms. Lorje argued that much is possible when “we are willing to fail at being gods.”  That anyone would make such a claim in 1996 astounded me.  The world had just experienced over nearly 80 years of what did happen when people failed, in various ways, at being gods.  And while she used this statement to speak to the need for creativity and courage in government, I feel it reflects a much different reality.  We have accepted too uncritically a view of history as progressive and have too easily dismissed the horrors possible when we do “fail at being gods.”  At that same conference, I heard the Right Honorable David Willetts, a conservative m. p., argue that England owed its particular and distinctive political culture to the fact that since 1066 England had been free from foreign invasion and that for over 900 years the English had had the opportunity to “get to know each other” to use his words.  While not meaning to be cynical, all I could think of was, “Yes that is true, but for at least 700 of those years the English expended a great deal of effort trying to kill each other, Norman lords hunted down Saxon “dogs,” Tudors fought Stuarts over the right of succession, and England went through its own version of Europe’s religious wars—the affects of which were being felt during that week as the start of that year’s “Marching Season” in Northern Ireland led to some of the most violent conflicts in years.

We must examine seriously the views of human being and of human interaction that lie beneath our understandings of and approaches to religion, conflict, and peacebuilding and the roles that these ideas play in the possibilities we consider.  As Reinhold Niebuhr once quipped, “the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine.”  Unfortunately, too many social conservatives have used this fact to argue for control and hierarchy.  In doing so, however, they failed to realize that the controllers are just as defective as the controlled.  While hierarchy simply limits the class of people who can do evil, it does not eliminate it and may indeed increase its magnitude.  Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary aptly defined a Conservative as being “A person enamored of existing evils.” (A liberal being a person who desired “to exchange existing evils for evils as yet untried.”)[2]

The events in the countries that used to be the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia are the starting point for this paper.  While I think careful reflection on those events provide a useful and pointed caution, I hesitate somewhat about beginning there.  I want to speak to the universality of their meaning and not reify existing prejudices about the Balkans.  As Pavao Pavličić wrote in his haunting volume, Lament over Europe:

Whenever Europe thinks about us, whenever she talks about us, her reasoning always shows the same bizarre prejudice: we are different from them.  We are less. . . .

This means that we need–and that we merit–less bread, fewer TV sets and less freedom than they do, that we can endure more suffering, that we die more easily and find life less precious.  That our life is worth less than theirs, not only in their eyes but in ours, as well.  And therefore, of course, that different standards are to be used for us than for them, Europeans.[3]

We must grapple seriously with what may well be the most important question of our time.  Namely, in a democratized world can people who understand themselves as fundamentally different live together in a functioning society without killing each other off?

Another anecdote.  When I first entered the gates of the old city of Dubrovnik during the last two weeks of ceasefire in 1995 I came upon large maps of the old city with the legend written in the trade languages of the region–English, French, German, Italian, and Croatian.  None of this is surprising–as a tourist center one would expect such a sight–what surprised me was the content of the map.  The map identified where every shell hit the old city during the “Serbian and Montenegrin aggression” to quote the accompanying text.  The strikes were color coded so one could tell whether the shells destroyed a building, a roof, or simply struck the pavement.

On that visit to Dubrovnik, bounded at its start by the Oklahoma, City bombing and a Serb attack on the Dubrovnik Airport on my scheduled arrival date and at its close by the end of the Yugoslav cease fire, the map loomed before me as I struggled with the meaning of violence and religion.  Not some understanding of the purpose of pain, suffering, and death–deaths unchosen have no purpose in and of themselves, although it is true that they often can effect certain ends, for which the survivors may be thankful and which even the dead might have considered sufficiently valuable–but of what they might tell us about the world and the future of human society.

Culture and history rear their ugly heads, reminding us that relatively well functioning human societies relatively productive of material sufficiency and protection are rare.  Even rarer are those that strive to protect their citizens, allow different peoples to live quietly alongside each other without violence, and do not engage in constant conflicts with their neighbors.  We delude ourselves by believing that progress is inevitable and that the evils of the past have been exorcized.  Human society is a frail thing.

We must acknowledge that conflict, in varying degrees, is the norm for human interaction.  From Hobbes to Hegel, Marx to Locke and beyond, this reality has loomed as central to human existence and as a fact which must be constrained if life were to be something other than a war of all against all.  Perhaps no one better spoke to this unending sense of conflict and its underlying reasons than James Madison.

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. . . .

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning Government and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have in turn divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to cooperate for their common good.  So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts.[4]

To work adequately with real, living human beings in overcoming the residual realities of violent conflict, we must, I argue, take this fact seriously.  To build our models upon a presumption that human beings always are willing to be something other than at odds with their sister and fellow human beings is to set ourselves up for failure.  I may have no wish to reconcile with my neighbor and I may be right in that wish.  My neighbor may be wrong, bad, or even evil.  If so, why should I reconcile?  There may indeed be good reasons (and I think there are such reasons) not to make all my actions and responses contingent upon my feelings toward him or her, but I may wish to have little or nothing to do with that individual except on the most instrumental level.  And that wish may not only be legitimate, it may indeed be the right thing to do.

Our agendas need to start out on a modest scale.  We need to focus on what is necessary to realize a society that allows most people to live in peace most of the time, and that minimizes the magnitude of conflict between and among individuals and groups.

Any attempt to address the consequences of human conflict must take seriously the sources of those conflicts.  This requires us to acknowledge that nearly two centuries of political-economy is basically wrong.[5]  To rephrase a line from the 1992 U.S. presidential elections, “It is not the economy, stupid.”  While only a fool would deny the importance of the realm of necessity on human beings’ activities, economic factors do not and cannot explain much human conflict or people’s willingness completely to destroy economies, cities, countries, and their lives in order to achieve certain ends.

In fact, as Albert O. Hirschman compellingly has argued, the transition to seeing economics as the dominant factor in human behavior did not occur as an explanatory factor but as a normative claim designed to inject reason, rationality, and prudence into human action.  The goal was to overcome the passions that dominated human behaviors, and to replace the violence those passions engendered with “the spirit of frugality, of economy, of moderation, of work, of wisdom, of tranquility, of order, and of regularity . . .” that came about by individuals pursuing their interests.[6]  The desire was that by convincing people to pursue commerce, to further their “interests,” the more violent passions would be constrained, indeed overcome.  Turning aristocrats into burghers would end the horribly, destructive violence such as marked Europe during the religious wars of the seventeenth century.

In this regard Francis Fukuyama’s argument in the End of History and the Last Man is particularly telling.

Liberal democracy in its Anglo-Saxon variant represents the emergence of a kind of cold calculation at the expense of earlier moral and cultural horizons.  Rational desire [defined and interpreted in a particular way, I might add] must win out over the irrational desire for recognition . . ..  The liberal state growing out of the tradition of Hobbes and Locke engages in a protracted struggle with its own people.  It seeks to homogenize their variegated traditional cultures and to teach them to calculate instead their own long-term self-interest.[7]

It is important to emphasize here that the goal was the transformation of individuals.  Turning the focus from passions to interests was not designed to explain why people acted in the manner in which they did, nor was it designed to argue that other values such as religion did not matter.  In fact, the point was that they mattered too much.  They were the problem for which commerce, economics, was the solution.

There remain, however, innumerable problems with this solution.  Not only is it to some extent ultimately unsatisfying, its realization is much more difficult than its creators’ epigones dreamed.  Additionally, the transformation of the theme into a picture of how human beings actually do act, rather than of how they ought to act has served to confound our judgment and to hinder policy making.

This failure to take both the power and seriousness of those other moral and cultural horizons seriously explains innumerable policy failures.  From Iran to Kashmir, Ireland to the former Yugoslavia, and even in the United States the real hot-button political issues have had little to do with economics.  They are as James Davison Hunter has said, culture wars, not class wars.[8]  The repeated failures of economic interpretations, from the delusion that the economic integration of the world would ensure that the Great War (World War I) would be short-lived, (prior to its beginning it was conceived of as being impossible), to the sheer irrationality (on many levels) of the Nazi war machine, through the Khmer Rouge’s attempt at national self-immolation, to contemporary Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

While it might serve our egos to dismiss such behaviors as the irrationality they are, such a dismissal only begs the question of why do people not act in “rational” ways, especially as this is understood in economistic terms.  The answer is simple.  For many, nay most, people at least some of the time there are certain goods, certain values that not only surpass doux commerce, in Montesquieu’s phrase, but which are so important that the complete destruction of an economy, a state, or a society is nothing beside their realization.[9]  We need to understand that the desire for the realization of these goods or values, most of which can be encompassed by the term moral-expressive values, cannot be channeled completely into “productive” or “rational” directions.[10]

They are not rational in that minimal understanding that has come to dominate our world.  If that is the case, the question emerges about how to understand and respond to actions that emerge from people’s moral-expressive values?  How can we best act to limit the magnitude of conflicts caused by people’s struggles to realize those values?  If conflict is the norm for human behavior, or at least a sufficiently significant element in human interactions then we need to take it seriously.  We also need to deal with the pre-eminent sources of those conflicts.

If the major source of conflicts is what I am calling moral-expressive values, those values upon which rest people’s understandings of the way the world works or ought to work.  Of these values, preeminent among them is religion.  One can make the argument that religion readily is the dominant and most powerful source people’s understandings of the how the world functions.[11]

Coming to grips with religion as a dominant source for human action is of utmost importance.  The role religion played in violent conflicts over the last thirty plus years has been an obvious and frightening reality. The genie which many felt was locked securely in the bottle has escaped with a seeming vengeance.  From Sri Lanka to Ireland, Kashmir to Sudan, the former Yugoslavia to Afghanistan, religion has emerged either as the source of conflict or as the symbolic galvanizer of multiple aspirations, that is to say as the source for people’s construction and understanding of the necessity for the conflict.[12]

In functioning at least as the ideological and rhetorical source for constructing this violence, religion seems to be fulfilling that role which was a powerful goad to the construction both of modern democracy and the development of civil society as it has been understood within the Anglo-American tradition.  Recoiling from the horrors of the 30 years war and, later, the English Civil War many European intellectuals both on the Continent and in England increasingly began to reconsider religion’s relationship to the state. This became a growing theme throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century as numerous men of action and reflection struggled to determine how a state could best be organized so that neither chaos nor tyranny would gain the upper hand.  Throughout this process religion as a “problem” remained preeminent in the minds of many.  As usual, David Hume framed the issue most directly.

The tolerating spirit of idolaters, both in ancient and modern times, is very obvious to anyone . . .The intolerance of all religions which have maintained the unity of God is as remarkable as the contrary principle of the polytheists.

[I]f, among Christians, the English and the Dutch have embraced principles of toleration, this singularity has proceeded from the steady resolution of the civil magistrate, in opposition to the continued efforts of priests and bigots.[13]

Although framed in various ways and usually linked with particular understandings of natural law and natural rights, often divinely ordained, increasingly it became normative that the way to ensure that the state would not be torn apart by religious conflict was to remove religion from any engagement with the state.  This became the basis for the construction of democratic states from the late eighteenth century until the present.  Certainly there were variations on the theme–one need only examine the differences between the United States, France under the first and third republics, England, Italy, and India to understand that–but religion as the determinative factor for membership and participation in the life of a democratic state decreased in significance.

In fact, just the opposite attitude took hold.  Religion increasingly was viewed as a limiting factor on the development of democracy, equality, and human freedom.  As Hans Küng argued in On Being A Christian,

It was not the Christian Churches–not even those of the Reformation–but the “Enlightenment.” often apostrophized by Church and secular historians alike as “superficial,” “dry” or “insipid,” which finally brought about the recognition of human rights: freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, the abolition of torture, the ending of persecution of witches, and other humane achievements. . . .  If we were to believe the church history manuals, the great ages of the Catholic Church in particular were those of reaction to the modern history of freedom: the Counter-Reformation, the Counter-Enlightenment, the Restoration, Romanticism, Neo-Romanesque, Neo-Gothic, Neo-Gregorian, Neo-Scholasticism.  It was a Church therefore in the rearguard of mankind, compelled by its fear of anything new always to drag it heels, without providing any creative stimulus of its own to modern developments.[14]

This well-justified critique of the Church could, as one looks to the contemporary period, be expanded to include nearly all of the world’s religious traditions.  The particularity inherent within religious traditions, the claimed knowledge of absolute truth that seems to be at the core of nearly all traditions–including, to give the lie to Hume, those which are polytheistic as in the case of resurgent Hindu nationalism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka–seems to encourage the possibility of exclusion and force.  (And I would urge you to read the World War II era writings of D. T. Suzuki and other Japanese Zen masters if you believe Buddhism in any form is free from such views.)  Even where violence is not the norm, the very absolutizing nature of religion seems to place it at odds with the values of tolerance and democracy.

Contrary to expectations of social scientists, social theorists, and historians of the past century, religion does not seem to have disappeared as a social force.  The secularization thesis does not seem to hold and, in fact, seems not only to be demonstrably false, but it also leads to egregious policy errors among those who base their decisions upon it.[15]  As Mark Juergensmeyer has argued:

What appeared to be an anomaly when the Islamic Revolution in Iran challenged the supremacy of Western culture and its secular politics in 1979 has become a major them in international politics in the 1990s.  The new world order that is replacing the bipolar powers of the old Cold War is characterized not only by the rise of new economic forces, a crumbling of old empires, and the discrediting of communism, but also by the resurgence of parochial identities based on ethnic and religious allegiances.[16]

If religion cannot be eliminated completely and if it cannot be neutered by the state, then it must be accepted as a fact.  Any attempt to construct and to maintain viable democracies and civil societies in the future, therefore, must in fact take religions seriously as realities which play powerful roles in people’s lives, including how they construct the world.  In doing this we might be able to recover and to address more directly the positive and productive elements of religion in those constructions.

Religion, however, not only affects people’s lives, it also has a massive influence on the ways in which cultures are constructed.  This is especially true of the social norms of right and wrong, good and bad.  For this reason, understanding how dominant religious traditions construct the social norms under which members of particular societies operate, especially as those norms affect their relationships with those who may have competing values and interests, with the stranger, is key, to understanding both the ways in which religions can drive conflict or can hinder or even help in the process of reconciliation.  Understanding the complex roles that religion plays in how people understand what to value and how they ought to act may, in many ways, be the key to negotiating the tensions between universality and particularity.

To claim that religion matters, that it is important, perhaps even pre-eminently important, is not to claim that religion always is good or right.  Nor is it to claim that other factors do not and have not operated in human affairs.  In fact, other factors often have been (and remain) determinative to human actions.  One question remains, however.  Why is religious language so central to elaborating, elucidating, and rationalizing human actions and activities?  Why even in the process of violating religion have so many people used the tradition as the rationale?  Why have even the most violent and oppressive of tyrants felt compelled historically to use their monuments to affirm their positions as defenders of the faith as well as their liberality and generosity?  In Lynn Thorndike’s appropriately pointed words:

Indeed, it is hardly conceivable that any human legislator or religious teacher ever ventured to state as his aim the oppression of widows and orphans, or to boast that he had helped the strong against the weak.

[T]he occasional largesses by despotic rulers that have been written so large on the page of history, which resembles the modern newspaper in devoting much of its space to advertisements, were probably not peculiar to them but were adduced by their eulogists to show that they did not fall short of the conduct demanded by common humanity.[17]

While some may be distressed by the cynicism of these words, their verisimilitude cannot be denied.  The fact that rulers find themselves forced to affirm publicly their greatness by proclaiming their generosity, magnanimity, and their roles as protectors of the faith, by saying that they are “good people” suggests something terribly significant about how societies construct what they value and admire and how important these values are even for the most despotic of rulers.   It is just those values that they highlight when they make their appeals for greatness.  “Hypocrisy,” Oscar Wilde purportedly quipped, “is the compliment vice pays to virtue.”  But in paying virtue that compliment vice recognizes the priority virtue has upon it and upon the mind of society.  One rarely hides that which one thinks others will admire. One does parade, however, what others will applaud. The social nature of values and the role of religion in constructing social values must be understood if we are to try to uncover the ways in which an individual’s recognition and acceptance of social demands, even resignedly, can cause the individual to do good, even when the individual may be inclined to do otherwise.  Viewed from this perspective, social and cultural pressures exercise controls that are positive goods rather than merely objects of suspicion.  By serving to constrain human selfishness and the will to power and by goading individuals to act for the good of others, cultural and social norms are key to maintaining the functioning of society.  For that reason the role of religion in structuring those norms needs further examination and elaboration.

What then are the roles of religion in accomplishing those tasks?  Since the anthropologies of most religious traditions have shown themselves more complex, subtle, and valid than those of the secular world, they potentially can help us to understand how individual when confronted with the disparity between what is good for them and “what is good for others” can and do sacrifice the former for the sake of the latter.[18]

Additionally, religious anthropologies can help us to understand why the pressures provided by religio-cultural norms are not solely or even primarily structures of oppression and domination but provide the conditions of possibility for anything approaching a functioning society.  They may in fact be something not to overcome but absolute necessities for human existence.

To a great extent these claims are no more than the foundational bases of the discipline of sociology.  Unfortunately, not only has much of contemporary sociology tended to ignore religion as an independent variable but has completely transvalued the earlier understandings of social norms as necessary conditions for the possibility of human existence to simply expressions of domination and oppression.  The recovery of the positive role of social norms in human existence is important and even central to getting at ways in which religion plays a powerful (and positive) role in human society.[19]  This is not to suggest that all cultural norms are good, necessary, or valid and ought to be maintained, far from it.  It does mean to suggest that the mere fact that those norms impose constraints and limits on human willfulness is not be taken as inherently bad in and of itself, but in fact may be productive of significant social goods.  As Mark Twain is reported to have quipped, “Be yourself is the worst advice you can give to some people.”

We must, therefore, reject the long prevailing secularist models in the social sciences—especially in sociology, economics, and psychology—that created interpretive frameworks which view religion as an epiphenomenon or superstructure, rather than as a true explanatory or prescriptive factor.   Under these models religion existed merely as a smokescreen for the “true” factors influencing human behavior and action–namely class, self-interest, power, or ego-gratification.  While impossible to separate any particular manifestation of religion from its social and historical context, the unitary modes of explanation have failed to recognize that religious beliefs and religiously motivated behavior have consequences for the societies in which they exist and for the individuals whom they affect.  Additionally, religions are traditions, they perdure over time and embed within the faithful certain practices.[20]  As historical, they exist before and after any particular believer and place limits on what any given individual or groups of individuals can do and remain within the religion.[21]  Religious traditions shape and construct individuals and cultures.  They are not merely constructed by them.  Any attempt to understand the range of norms and values within a culture must begin by taking religion seriously as a phenomenon.  The refusal, or failure, to recognize that religions are significant realities, exerting tremendous influences on their adherents prevents any adequate understanding of a culture and its members.  If religion is “ultimate concern” as both Paul Tillich and the U.S. Supreme Court have claimed, it is completely inconceivable that it not affect people’s thinking and behaviors.[22]  To understand this effect one must take religion seriously as an object of study. The failure to do so, although capable of providing powerful interpretations and useful extensions of our knowledge, cannot help us to understand the role of religion in the lives of individuals and societies and in the role religion plays in both constructing violence and in mitigating it.

Religions provide an understanding (if not the understanding) of why the universe is the way it is, how it ought to function, and the roles and obligations of individuals in that universe.  Religions structure not only the way individuals apprehend the world but also the way in which communities and individuals structure and understand the world.  The result is that religions must be understood as having significant, if not a preeminent affect on the ways in which people behave and the ways in which their societies structure their understandings of the good.

A final note on the role of religion in this regard involves a claim I make tentatively.  Despite the evils perpetrated by religious traditions, the evils perpetrated by anti-religious traditions, as obvious in this century, have been far, far greater.  I will argue that despite their absolutizing nature, religious traditions have an ultimate stop absent from traditions lacking a transcendental component.  As divinely ordained, religious traditions have an external limit on what they ought and ought not do or continue to do.  Religions have this limit because they are directed at some transcendental reality (or realities) to which is attributed power and authority beyond that of humans, in fact power and authority over humans.  Ultimately, in every religious tradition some transcendental component (usually denominated god) remains as judge.  Whereas in human social movements the nature of authority remains in the hands of human beings who constantly can manipulate the system for their own ends and purposes and when in positions of power do not find any viable judge on their activities.  Religion, therefore, despite its horrid excesses may in fact be less prone to evils than its absence.[23]

These are mere speculations, but speculations which we must pursue.  In this pursuit, however, we must proceed with clarity both of purpose and of possibility.  We need to start with an understanding of the limits of human being.  The focus must be on what has to happen (and can), not on what we want to happen.  Goods may emerge but we should steadfastly avoid producing greater evils.  There must, therefore, be an ongoing interchange between our ideas and reality.  The world does not always conform to our wishes and our desires for it must be realizable.  Can we expect more from most people most of the time than a grudging acceptance of the other?  I do not know.  But, I do not think we can begin for hoping more than that.  People not killing each other off, is pretty good.  Or at least looks pretty good to an historian.  Theologians, philosophers, and others may have higher expectations.  In saying this, I do not mean to imply that I think better is impossible.  I know it is, but maybe it ought not to be our initial goal, although it may be our hope.  And hope itself is valuable.  In closing, I leave with one other vignette, one that demonstrates the possibility.  After sitting all day in the Mehteb, the beit ha midrash, the study hall of the rebuilt Uzinovićki masjid in Stolac, Bosnia-Herzegovina, we broke for dinner, I passed one my fellow participants, an Orthodox Jew and a religious Zionist who runs an institute that undertakes democratic education among religious Zionists in Israel.  As I asked him whether he was coming, he responded.  “Not right now.  I am going into the mosque to daven.”  It was time for mincha, l-asr prayers were complete and the masjid provided a quiet and contemplative place.  It made perfect sense.  And it suggests where I hope we can end, but it cannot be where we begin.

Author Bio

Edward L. Queen, a 2006 ISSRPL Fellow, is director of the D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership and Coordinator of Undergraduate Studies at Emory University’s Center for Ethics. At Emory he also serves as Director of Research for the Institute of Human Rights and co-convener of the Initiative on Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding.

[1] See Crimes in Stolac Municipality (1992—1996) (Sarajevo: DID, 2001 (1996)).

[2] Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary( New York: Dover Publications, 1993).

[3] Pavao Pavličić, Lament Over Europe (Zagreb: The Croatian Writer’s Association, 1994).

[4] Publius (James Madison), The Federalist, No. 10 (New York: Bantam Books, 1982).

[5] In focusing this critique on the economistic argument, I do not mean to suggest that other materialist positions are not equally invalid.  It simply is an attempt to demonstrate the failings and weaknesses of such arguments and to open up the space for articulating a counter explanation.

[6] Montesquieu, Esprit de Lois (Part One), quoted in Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 71.

[7] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Avon Books, 1992), 214.

[8] James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

[9] A comment made by Slobodan Milošević illustrates this claim.  In a secret meeting with Serbia’s mayors at the Serbian parliament building, he proclaimed, “[I]f we don’t know how to work and do business, at least we know how to fight.”  Quoted in Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (New York: Penguin Books, 1997).

[10] With the phrase “moral-expressive” values I mean those goods (both material and immaterial) that individuals feel are necessary for the realization of a truly good life.

[11] See for example Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 87-125.

[12] Douglas Allen, editor, Religion and Political Conflict in South Asia: India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992); Mark Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War?: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Mark Juergensmeyer, editor, Violence and the Sacred in the Modern World (London: Fran Cass, 1992); K. M. de Silva, Pensri Duke, Ellen S. Goldberg, and Nathan Katz, editors, Ethnic Conflict in Buddhist Societies: Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988); Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby, editors, Fundamentalism and State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Roy Licklider, Stopping the Killing How Civil Wars End (New York: New York University Press, 1993); James A. Haught, Holy Hatred: Religious Conflicts of the ‘90s (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995); Francis Mading Deng, War of Visions: Conflict of Identities in the Sudan (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1995); Norman Cigar, Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of “Ethnic Cleansing” (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1995); Joyce Pettigrew, The Sikhs of the Punjab: Unheard Voices of State and Guerilla Violence (London: Zed Books, 1995); Olivier Roy, Afghanistan: From Holy War to Civil War (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1995); Andrew Boyd, Holy War in Belfast: A History of the Troubles in Northern Island (New York: Grove Press, 1972); Kay B. Warren, The Violence Within: Cultural and Political Opposition in Divided Nations (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993).

[13] David Hume, The Natural History of Religion  Chapter XI, IX (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1991).

[14] Hans Küng, On Being a Christian (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1976).

[15] Two egregious examples of this have occurred recently in U. S. policymaking.  The first involved the failure of the U. S. Department of State and its intelligence agencies to understand the importance of religion in the Khomeinist revolution in Iran as admitted by then C.I.A. Director Stansfield Turner during his testimony before Congress, and the failure of federal law enforcement officials to understand the Branch Davidians as an apocalyptic religious movement rather than as a criminal hostage situation.  See Lawrence E. Sullivan. “Recommendations to the U. S. Departments of Justice and the Treasury  Concerning Incidents Such as the Branch Davidian Standoff in Waco, Texas,” (Cambridge: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 1993).  The Soviet/Russian state has had perhaps an even worse time of it.  One need only recall the debacles they have experienced in Afghanistan and in Chechnya.

[16] Mark Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War?: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 1-2.

[17] Lynn Thorndike, The Historical Background,: in Ellsworth Farris, Ferris Laune, and Arthur J. Todd, editors, Intelligent Philanthropy (Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1969 [1930]), 25.  In using this example, I do not mean to suggest that religious traditions’ charitable understandings are the basis for moving reconciliation forward, I simply use this to illustrate the power that normative claims exert on individuals.

[18] For a discussion of this see Amartya K. Sen, “Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (1977), 317-344.

[19] See Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963); Weber, The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1958);  Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (New York: Bedminster Press, 1968);  Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1947); Talcott Parsons, The Social System (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1951).

[20] See Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System.”  See also Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

[21] This is not to suggest that new religions do not emerge within historical memory or that extant traditions do not change.  The claim is that any given group of practitioners of a particular religion has certain boundaries over which they cannot cross and still be considered members by others in the tradition.  An important example of this is that of Christianity separating from Judaism.  Corollary to this is that within those boundaries the meaning of any tradition can be, and often is, contested.  There exist different and competing interpretations of the texts within a tradition, their meanings, and of practices.  To some extent this means that religions always are available for manipulation on behalf of immediate and particular goals, including the maintenance of the status quo.  The claim that this is inherently the case for religion is essentially counter-factual, as demonstrated by the huge numbers of religious martyrs.

[22] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol I, “Reason and revelation, Being and God,” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 10, 12-14, 214-216, 220-223, and passim.  For the United States Supreme Court please note the opinion in United States v. Seeger 380 U. S. 163 (1965).

[23] For an example of this see the story of Nathan and David, II Samuel 11-12: 23.

2009 – ISSRPL Occasional Paper No. 2, by David W. Montgomery

Otherness and the Experience of Difference: From Encountering and Evaluating to Eschewing and Enduring

David W. Montgomery

The muezzin makes the last call to prayer and some men make their way to the small neighborhood mosque. Three blocks away, twelve women loiter for sex; men are also making their way to them. What is there to make of this ostensibly divergent movement and the chasm of morality it appears to represent? Much is made of the difference, but what seems to protect one from the other is the very understanding of difference, that both are “Other” and therefore distant, unrelated, and unnecessary.
—Field notes, June 2007, Istanbul

An unavoidable aspect of community is the creation of the other as a distinction of those who belong from those who do not. The utility of this process is far reaching; it encompasses domains of personal safety as well as the preservation of moral safety. “Modern” individual “free will” actors, as well as members of more traditionally oriented communities for whom “free will” is a less operative concept, all live within groups. Though the nature of what binds a group is varied, the boundaries that constitute a group become reified through membership and affiliation. There is an aspect of openness that allows like-members to be included in a group, but this openness cannot be endlessly inclusive, lest membership be meaningless and the group be characterless and too amorphous. In addressing the challenge of living together in the face of what seems to be a social fact—that differences are unavoidable and built into the very nature of reifying social communities—there is a process of recognizing otherness and assessing difference. Yet the outcomes of living with otherness are not predetermined. Furthermore, awareness of how this process develops constitutes one step toward living together in a world of difference.

From Encounter to Pivotal Response

Othering happens. It is learned at an early age through finding out with whom we can play and with whom we cannot. Over time these early aspects of prejudices and affinities become imbued with moral scaffolds, and by the time they do, they are often ingrained so as to be accepted as fact. The building of otherness surrounds us and is part and parcel of sociality. Though it may come with the baggage of prejudice, knowing the other begins with the first encounter. Encounters with individuals in our environment involves, both actively and passively, a realization or unearthing of variation; discovery of difference that is perceived along a continuum from negligible to threatening.

This encounter with difference can be instantaneous or protracted over the course of countless meetings, but it always leads to an evaluation of difference. The evaluation of our surroundings involves the rational alongside the irrational and an assessment that is pragmatically contextualized in relation to the needs of the individual and the obligations felt toward the community of membership, or primary affiliation for the purpose of assessment. As an individual is taken outside of his/her comfort group and support network that reinforced individual biases, a certain trajectory of the evaluation process develops. When a relationship begins, most aspects of friction are overlooked for the pleasure of appreciating the newness of place and effort to navigate toward the establishment of an affinity group within the newly formed group. Many groups in longstanding conflict or entrenched contexts of bounded communities do not risk engagement, for communities do not always interact; furthermore, in many groups evaluation has already taken place or is seen as predetermined, thus encountering the new is unwelcome. As newness subsides to developing familiarity—often under stress and resisting, at times quite viscerally—that which challenges and seems to threaten understandings of difference pushes the individual toward a position in relation to the other. The hope, at least for furthering an opportunity for living with difference, is not necessarily a state of reconciliation but the pivotal point of charting the path of future orientations toward difference: opting to endure rather than eschew.

The pivotal point in social relations is what is done in response to the encounter and subsequent evaluation of difference, where differences are either eschewed or endured. The eschewal of difference can be either a complete disassociation of the other from any social engagement or the overlooking of difference in deference to imagining sameness. The former iteration—of distancing oneself so far as to cease engagement—akin to building a wall and closing the door is, in essence, the end of a conversation. The latter variant of eschewal is one that is predicated on the (often false) idea of an ultimate sameness that, if searched for ardently enough, erodes the barriers of difference. This second approach is common to many interfaith peacebuilding initiatives that attempt to build dialogue and a foundation for overcoming religious difference by emphasizing the shared Abrahamic ancestry. Despite a common origin in heritage, this is not enough to embrace the pervasive reality of real, nonnegotiable difference; replacing difference with a pseudo-sameness is of suspect utility, for it quite dangerously fails to take as real the lived categories of religious difference. One only needs to think of how relations between coreligionists fall apart around the differences between understandings of doxa and praxis to know that shared claims to Abraham are, for practical purposes, insufficient.

Another evaluative option toward approaching difference is the realization of it being unsettling, uncomfortable, yet unavoidable. Within the context of religion, this enduring of difference both recognizes the nonnegotiable nature of many cosmological orientations and accepts that the eschewal of wall building is unsustainable in an increasingly interconnected world. At some levels, this contains the notion of tolerance with regard to allowing that with which one disagrees and finds distasteful or repressible, but at a linguistic level it captures the nature of the project being undertaken: differences that matter are not taken lightly, but endured. At first blush, this is a harder position to sell than a narrative of oneness and unified harmony, but in a world of complex and increasingly interrelated associations, it is the most tenable approach.

ISSRPL OP 2 - Montgomery - figure

The pivotal moment in a relationship between individuals and group members is the decision to eschew or endure difference, and all that goes into that decision. Although much of this is cognitively tied to the evaluative step, it is also not an altogether active process. The hegemonic space in which these decisions progress influences behavior, though at some points it is nonreflective and plays out in our doing (or avoiding doing) things together. This inherently influences the trajectory of conflict, which can be endless in opportunity and pervasive in social existence. An intersubjective realization of the move from eschewal to endurance leads to the substantive chance of multiple communities of multiple meanings advancing everyday peace, which is engagement at the neighborhood level.

Approaching the Pivot through an Experience from Turkey

The theoretical is informed, and in fact arrived at, through the experiential, through attempts to make generalizable sense of the particular. To move theory to the practical level of lived experience it seeks to explain, the 2007 International Summer School on Religion and Public Life held in Turkey can be described as an experiment in encountering difference. A group of twenty-seven fellows constituting converging worlds of difference was brought together for a fortnight of encountering the other. The group members came from different countries, cultures, and religious professions, thus bringing different experiential worldviews. While diversity is often advanced as a virtue in Western liberal parlance, the constitution of such a group in no way predetermined social harmony. Though an interest in the experiential process of the school was something shared, this paled in comparison to the historical tensions among the communities represented by the participants.

Two trajectories of difference were at play that influenced group dynamics. First, there was the background of societal differences, which for many represented a cultural environment of unfamiliar words, smells, sights, and societal histories justifying inclusion and exclusion. Turkey—with its Ottoman past, secular and Islamist tensions over the state, and wounds of ethnic conflict—resonated to varying degrees with the fellows’ experience. The second variable of difference was the group itself, which had largely been pulled out of its affinity group. The temporary excision from one’s comfort group allowed for reflection of the self through others without having to immediately commit to collective biases. As such, there was newness, openness, and vulnerability in the initial meetings. Early interactions were the encounter and evaluation stages where differences were sized up and the other assessed. Where the evaluative step carries resonance is in the doing together, for it is here that the depth of difference is tested and more fully appreciated. The move between eschewing and enduring pivots around this experience and, while it is always subject to ongoing (re)evaluation and negotiation, it constitutes a self-reflective openness necessary in a move toward toleration.

The first among these shared experiences was a visit to the Patriarchal (Orthodox) Church in Phanar with Jews (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox), Christians (Orthodox, Protestants, Roman Catholics), Muslims (Sunni, Alevi, Ismaili), and those who did not identify with a religious tradition. This presented a particular tension between those who saw the service as an environment facilitating a connection with the sacred and those who saw it in an anthropological light. We were spending much of our time trying to find connections of sameness that would give us a modicum of familiarity with each other, but because of our different religious backgrounds we came to the service with different capacities for appreciating it. The service had aspects of formality in the rituals and high liturgy but also informality in the coming and going of congregants, the directions given throughout the service by the clerics, and the continual photography that gave it a sense of theatrical performance. What could be understood and shared by everyone was only the process of having been to the service, not the meaning of the service or the cosmological door it presumably opened to some of the participants.

In visiting the Patriarchal Church in Phanar, part of the issue was the seeming disconnectedness felt when we are outside of the fold. In part, this can be associated with the difficulty of sustaining a feeling of connectedness, a relation. One of the challenges becomes respecting the boundaries and yet finding ways not to diminish them or belittle them, but rather to move beyond them, to make points of connection, of relatedness; not sameness, but associatedness. Though the difference the service presented to a Protestant, Orthodox Jew, or Sunni Muslim was far from the same some participants could share the desire for the service to be 30 minutes rather than 3 hours; an appreciation of art and ornament; or the basic experience of observing something different. But this sharing was very different than what presumably was shared by the Orthodox participants. We were encountering our differences.

Later, while visiting the Armenian Patriarchate, we saw that hard questions, sometimes aggressively asked, brought to light difference of codes of conduct for the group itself, how it regulates its members, and the expectations of the group members toward our hosts. The same applied to our visit to leaders of an Islamic group the following day. We were not yet a group in the sense of experiences having solidified our shared commitment to each other, but we were experiencing the challenges of having differing expectations of social codes that are often not as universal as we would like to assume. We had yet to develop a level of trust that would allow us to translate what we were experiencing. The politically correct answers given by the Armenian Patriarchate regarding the Armenian Genocide question; the message of Islam presented by the members of M. Fethullah Güllen’s movement; or the encounter with Orthodox Christian rituals that were meaningful for some and merely exotic to others, all represented experiences to be processed for meaning. But in ruminating over the codes of conduct for talking with others—avoiding aggression that confronts a host in a way that is beyond what could politely be expected—we began to formulate ourselves as a group. Representatives from the Armenian Patriarchate and Güllen’s movement were not in a position to tell us about their innermost feelings on the Turkish state and national and religious feelings because too much was at stake and too little was to be gained. Groups of difference often find parallels in such calculations, not knowing how much to risk in sharing with someone clearly outside of the self-identified interest group; our group was no exception. We were all in the process of evaluating our differences.

The pains of being in a group that constituted such difference played out in many settings, but two I mention here were representative of the religious and national questions posed by being together. With time together leading us beyond introductions and toward familiarity, differences became increasingly clear and uncomfortable. Being hosted by the Alevie community, the very nature of Islamic identity was challenged for some Muslims in the group who, at various levels struggled to accept the legitimacy of Alevies as coreligionists. This made all too clear that the “Muslim” category in the group was anything but precise when it came to the margins of what was seen as the nature, or essence, of a religious identity. In the same way Jews (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) in the group struggled over the question of counting women as part of the minyan, the Sunni Muslims and Alevie in the group struggled over issues that mattered at a deeply personal, intimate, and cosmological level. Some Sunnis refused to eat the food of the Alevies and some went through a process of othering the Alevies in the classical way of advancing an orthodox-heretic dichotomy.

The same happened when ethnic categories were raised and members of our group recited diverse experiences of the Kurdish question, ranging from the experience of Kurdish persecution to claims of Turkish vilification. The pains of having different realities—seen most vividly when forced into being recognized or articulated in the ways of practice—brought strain to the definition of a pluralist group and the easiest way to resolve the problem was to downplay it or attempt to create an all encompassing category to eschew it. Although Sunnis and Alevies can be Muslims in the understanding of Christians or Jews, they are not always seen as such within the “Muslim” collective. Likewise, in Turkey, encompassing Kurds as being Turks by nature of being a Turkish citizen is clearly different than the rub of distinction that is politicized as Turkish-Kurds and Turkish-Armenians experiencing the state in a way that Turks in majority do not.

To eschew the difference is, in part, the trope upon which sameness is built. But as the closeness of the group made poignant, the thin and unstable ground of building an inter-group relationship on what can be shared overlooks the practical fact that so much cannot be shared. There are strains to defining the group and not everyone can be satisfied. But such is the nature of group membership; people cannot be completely pushed outside if there is to be sustainable relations. Setting boundaries is essential to establishing the other and establishing the group. But the difficultly, and success, of bringing a group together is seen in the distrust and reservations that yield to eventual moments of connection and collective experiences, which create glimpses of ways we can live and work together in spite of our differences.

As the two weeks went by, it cannot be said with any certainty how many of the fellows returned to their comfort communities to advocate enduring the other as an approach to difference, but by the end of our time together it had become the operative approach in our engagement with one and the other. Arguably, this allowed us to develop a more substantive appreciation for each other. As the Summer School started, there was a belief that by participating in the same program we constituted a group; by the time it was over, we saw that the only way to really become a group was through struggling to share experiences that lead us to endure difference through an individual decentering of the self.

When enduring difference, modest progress is made in encountering the other in a way that is decentering; we are forced to evaluate it and our own stereotypes with a seriousness seldom seen in the practice of everyday life. We generally eschew the other, though in reality we have to endure the other as well as the difference he or she embodies. In so doing we are presented with a choice. The default, perhaps, is to retreat to our own communities of identification. We can also take stock of having experienced the difference of the other—and being decentered by it—and make the other part of our group. There is hope in the latter approach, because it acknowledges that we all have suffered and recognizes that discounting the validity of another’s experience is both self-serving and myopic. We tend to bring assumptions and prejudices to our everyday lives that, in a normative stance, occlude most efforts to objectively assess ourselves. These are the limits of discussion in which we reference ourselves back to a familiar domain and a general insistence of walking within such restricted parameters. But living with shared experience and something close to shared memories, the value of and livability in enduring difference lays the foundation for expanding the pursuits of tolerance.


There is no way out of a world of others. The way in which the prejudices and affinities play out in relationships is often the focus of conflict and discourse about conflict with little attention given to the micro-negotiations of living with the other—of crossing daily boundaries of difference—that contribute significantly to peaceful coexistence. This acknowledges something about social relations and societies in general: difference is othering, unpalatable, and disliked. Those on the fringe of society are often condemned in moral terms rather than in a context reflective of economic realities or social prejudices—this can be migrant workers or businessmen, prayer goers or prostitutes. In thinking of groups and socialization, it is at the fringe where public outrage ceases to question the veracity of attempts to regulate the behavior of what is seen as a social threat. It becomes of primary importance that it be controlled.

Most of us live within the extremes of morality: we claim piety and rightness as our own whereas wickedness and depravity we assign to the other, from whom we choose to distance ourselves. In most groups that live together differences are minor, yet narcissistic differentiation becomes magnified. Modernity seems to do two things: bring together groups that would not necessarily associate into living situations where they interact and foster a context of sameness/homogeneity. Groups often thrive in separation and in some instances exist because of it—one has only to think of ethnic (Kurds) and religious (Alevies) groups that find themselves persecuted and living in separation from the majority in order to mitigate the more burdensome realities of being the other. Yet in the interdependent reality of the world where the need to live together becomes more apparent, the building of walls, although perhaps the instinctual response, is one that cannot be sustained: social integration means isolation becomes less tenable, but it does not mean difference must be forced to assimilation and sameness. Attempts to eradicate and annihilate difference are invariably met with resistance. Though some government policies in Turkey are aimed at neutralizing the spurious aspects of difference either programmatically or through ignoring the salience of minority claims, the differentiation of a higher “national” identity of Turk is de jure offered to all citizens but de facto less salient to Kurds and Alevies who want to maintain their identity.

The reality is that encountering difference can be abrasive and riddled with inherent friction; and having to endure it can be a threat to the very nature of a national, religious, or individual-constructed identity. Bringing together a diverse group of individuals who, for example, take religion seriously, as a lived category—either as members within their particular faith communities or as self-described secularists cognizant of the foundational contributions of religious traditions to contemporary social order—creates a microcosm of the challenges of living with the other in the broader society. Being placed in a setting outside of their home community, people are often more accommodating and willing to search for common connections on which to build initial relations; this aspect of civility is usually very thin and rarely enough to build a lasting relationship. Yet the search for and attempt to highlight similarities is something that many programs advocating peace through understanding seem to support: that if we know each other well enough and see that religions (and people more generally) have an “essence” that is the same or at least shared, then we can move closer to peaceful coexistence. As people spend more time together and in settings where the foundations of their religious understanding is challenged by the fundamental differences inherent in the cosmological view of someone with whom they presumably share a similar essence, the inescapable nature of difference creates its friction. In other words, the similarities between Muslims and prostitutes, Turks and Kurds, and Alevies and Sunnis are not always enough to assure peaceful coexistence.

Various mediums emerge to overcome difference—such as the nation-state, where nationality is intended to create a regional unity tied to territory and modern notions of state, or economics in a global system, where encounters are narrowed to the exchange of goods rather than the thicker relations of the traditional market imbued with far-reaching social obligations—but the reality is that difference is inevitable and encountered on a regular basis. The significance of difference is evaluated in the very process of othering and the outcome is either difference being eschewed or endured. Recognizing the unavoidable nature of difference leads to an imperative requirement to find ways to live together in difference that move beyond attempts to create sameness or an essence of what can be shared. In reality, the more we know about someone’s religious or political beliefs, the more difficult it can be to call such beliefs “similar” or “similar enough”; often they are threatening. Our best hope for peaceful coexistence is to recognize that otherness permeates all aspects of relations and human interactions, and differences are best endured.

Author Bio

David W. Montgomery is Coordinator of the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life. He is also a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding Initiative at Emory University.

ISSRPL Meeting of the Schools

The ISSRPL Meeting of the Schools took place on April 18-19, 2013 in Boston, USA, supported by the Luce Foundation and the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University. This meeting brought together staff, past ISSRPL local directors, and others to collaborate in planing the expansion of our pedagogy as CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion builds on the achievements of the ISSRPL.

2008 – ISSRPL Occasional Paper No. 1, by Adam B. Seligman

Pedagogic Principles and Reflections Developing out of ISSRPL Practice

Adam B. Seligman

Temples have their sacred images, and we see what influence they have always had over a great part of mankind. But in truth the ideas and images in men’s minds are the invisible powers that constantly govern them, and to these they all, universally, pay a ready submission. It is therefore of the highest concernment that great care should be taken of the understanding, to conduct it aright in the search of knowledge and in the judgments it makes.—John Locke, Of the Conduct of the Understanding

The idea behind pedagogy at the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life (ISSRPL) is that knowledge is embodied. It is no doubt true that there can be no knowledge without some degree of generalization. Abstraction as such is built into the very use of words. Yet, there is also always a loss of certain types or modes of knowledge in this very generalization—even in the use of words. One of the ISSRPL’s aims is to minimize this process of abstraction and to convey certain “bits” of information as purely experiential date. This is why practicums, site visits, and the relocation of the school each year are such important parts of what we do. For ultimately we believe that our knowledge base is a mixture of what can and cannot be abstracted and generalized and even of what can and cannot be translated into language. It is for example just as important, if not more important, to see a member of the group with whom you have been together for two weeks rise up to take communion at Trinity Church in Boston, or some members separate from the group to partake in Muslim prayers in the mosque in Edirne, Turkey, as it is to read a chapter on Christian belief or Islamic worship. The experience serves to locate the act or acts (the prayer of one’s fellows) within a context that is not present in the written text. First, it locates it within the context of one’s own life. The praying Muslim or Jew or Christian is not a general, abstract other, it is Enver or Adam or David who is related to us in all sorts of complicated, contradictory and ultimately ungeneralizable ways. The general (category of praying Muslims or Jews or whatever the case may be) is given a particularity that a written text cannot, by definition (except perhaps in poetry), convey. This particularity gives it a presence, an aura or a “feel” that it would not have in its abstract categorization. Moreover, and because of this embodiment, the analytic place of this information within the body of our knowledge, within the “bits” of information that make up our understood world of Muslims, Jews, Episcopalians, or Catholics is different. The personal connection enhances the analytic framework of the knowledge, not just its affective contours (though to be sure the two are related) but also in a sense that the affective dimension itself adds to the analytic understanding by thickening the framework within which the particular “bit” of information is placed.

Thus, we learn that the categories that we usually use to parse experience and to explain the circumstances of our life are not the only possible or necessary ones. What is written in the books, newspapers, or passed on through our grandmothers’ stories are not the only ways to interpret or explain the world. In fact, a Muslim you see praying one the street might also be a basketball fan (a fact not usually pointed out in the New York Times articles on Islam or in the Italian textbooks). He and I can talk for hours about the Celtics, leading me to realize that my relationship to a Bosnian Muslim can be much more complicated and thick than I have always believed. He and I both relate to basketball, while he very much remains a Muslim and I a Jew. Do note that I am not saying here that we found a commonality, that is not the point (although it may also be the case), rather that we found a nexus of relationship that we would not otherwise have imagined, given the ways generalized knowledge is distilled and presented. The point is that we can come together, engage one another, around the topic of basketball (as we could if we were also, say, engaged in trade or building a cabinet) that is important here; not that we have discovered some point of common reference—some point of reference of self in alter or alter in self (basketball fandom). Although this later understanding is the most commonplace way of framing our shared interest in basketball, I believe it to be mistaken and potentially dangerous for it often leads us to believe that we have now discovered something that we “share” and that we can “scale up” from this shared bit of life to more and more shared attributes, interests, and desiderata. This however is a very risky process, almost certain to break down at the first serious economic downturn, political murder, or divergence of interests. It is useless to abstract a shared moral world from a common interest in basketball. However, if we understand basketball as a, albeit imagined, world where we do something together (exchange statistics of players, knowledge of team records, youthful, or not so youthful passions, etc.), then we begin to see the shared basketball as a space where we do things, rather than as an index of commonality. It is here, I posit, that a new way of living with what is different can be approached.

Creation of such a space forces contestation between it and existing bodies of knowledge, assumptions, cognitive grids and, ultimately collective conceptualizations that we have in our always-already-prepared toolkit of ideas and ways of dealing with reality. It is sometimes the case (though less so as we get older) that reading something forces us to reframe and rethink the sum of our existing conceptions, assumptions, and prejudices. But by and large, our existing body of knowledge is rarely challenged to the core by something we read. If contradictions occur between what we “know” and what we read, we usually find a relatively easy way out of the cognitive dissonance that results—most often by disclaiming or discounting the new bits of information, and it does not appear to be too difficult to do this. It is more difficult to do this with something we have ourselves experienced. The immediacy of the experience sets up a challenge to our already existing “wisdom” that makes life difficult precisely because it has the potential for upsetting our existing assumptions and turning the coherence of our world inside out.

None of this is to denigrate or minimize the importance of abstract and general knowledge. There is, of course, no civilization without general knowledge. But there is also no civilization if all particularities and individual histories, experiences, and insights are reduced to what is most abstract and communicable over distance; that is, to what can be digitalized and transmitted by an electronic file (by written text earlier). Any act of human creativity becomes a balance of the general and the unique, the abstract and the particular, the universalized and the embodied. The trick is to find the balance in whatever the given circumstances are. To a great extent, to too great extent, the knowledge valued and transmitted in the university tends to be only generalized and generalizable, abstract and universal in nature to an almost total disregard of the particular, unique, and singular—which is the experience of every one of us.

Part of this generalized default of the universities and the knowledge base it develops is rooted in the very mission of the universities to transmit knowledge in a manner that is cost effective, in fact, that is profit producing for the universities and which does not impinge on the ruling ideological definitions of personhood, separation of public and private realms, privatization of the good, and so on. One might ask why? For to transmit particular knowledge in particular forms is labor intensive and time consuming and involves a degree of commitment and inter-personal communication, trust, and sacrifice that liberal-individualist mass societies cannot ask of their members. It is much closer to what is communicated in a yeshiva or a madrassa or a monastery, which are dedicated to the reproduction of religious knowledge, indeed of a religious system that defines the most abstract and general in terms of the most personal and unique (God and the individual).

The pedagogic challenge then is to develop something approaching the practice of these religious institutions without the particularistic visions that accrue to them (i.e., their definitions of the sacred, regardless of their denomination). The challenge of the school is in fact, if we can develop an embodied pedagogic practice that is shared by members of different sacred traditions, that is, among those who do not share the fundamental terms of meaning? Perhaps one of the reasons the ISSRPL is so difficult and emotionally exhausting is precisely because of this aspect of its practice.

Where we are now in the development of the ISSRPL pedagogy is far from systematized. We are, in fact, engaged in a sort of ad hoc orchestration and coordination of the different visions rather than any attempt to “summarize,” “integrate,” and hence, generalize. We are in effect working toward some “rules of the road,” toward ways of allowing different terms of meaning and modes of explanation. So we have many particular voices raised, many idiosyncratic frames of knowledge presented and rather than adjudicating among them, we are trying to find a way to have them coexist. As we are dedicated to an enterprise that, by definition, resists systematization and generalization, we are constantly faced with the question of what we put instead. In slightly different terms we can say that the pedagogic problem of the school is: How can different truth claims coexist in a shared public space?

Generalization, of course, tends to reduce the difference. The particularities, which are precisely where the differences are felt, are relegated to the trivial, or lost completely (in some sense they become art and poetry). They are no longer assumed to be part of a shared knowledge base. The shared is precisely what is seen as generalizable. Of course what really happens is that the particular is not “lost,” it simply retreats into the private realm, into the synagogues, mosques, temples, and churches of the world. There, it continues to formulate the terms of meaning, the boundaries of trust and the most intimate grid of explanation for community members who live a “split screen” existence between what is shared in their general—now global—culture, and what is “really” shared, within each particularistic community. Often but not always, these are religious; for example, in the United States, race is a huge definition of particularistic terms of meaning, belonging, and experience, whereas in other countries, ethnicity plays this role; for example, Kurds in Turkey.

Here is where the group dynamics aspect of the ISSRPL begins to play such an important role. For “the group” is an attempt to model a broader society wherein these different particular interpretive grids are heard and are part of the group dynamic without being either generalized, or reduced into the purely individual, and idiosyncratic experience of each individual actor (which is the liberal-individual default that so many of the facilitators fall into without thinking and lose the point of the whole exercise).

In some sense, the real challenge of the school is to see whether we can take individuals from diverse context-rich communities, with different interpretive grids, and share a pedagogic experience without either turning everything into a form of generalized and context-free knowledge (the type we are so good at developing in the university context), or without reducing everything to the purely individual, liberal, and relatively atomistic vision of self and society. So far we seem to manage, albeit with great difficulty, exhaustion, and uncertain results. The task is to try to understand how we do this and perhaps produce a broad set of, admittedly, general rules of the road, for how this could be accomplished. If this is accomplished, we would have made some real progress toward understanding how to live together differently, a task I believe to be the overwhelming challenge of our new global order.

Perhaps the key has to do with explanation. David Hume pointed out that “Explanation is where the mind rests.” Thus, explanation is not the arrival at some ontological truth, or the “real” state of affairs, the final causal or prime mover of whatever event or sequence of events into which we are inquiring. This task is in fact, simply beyond our power as human beings. Rather, we deem a particular conundrum explained, when we cease—for whatever reason—to ask further questions. There is, we may note, something very pragmatist about this claim of David Hume (though 150 years or so avant la lettre). For when does the mind rest? Minds are, after all, very busy creatures always moving, questioning, and querying – people spend a lot of time doing yoga and meditating to get their mind to rest. When, indeed, does the mind rest? Most often it rests when the particular purpose of its questioning has been fulfilled.

For example, I may have a need to explain why the hammer is not in its proper place (because Joey forgot to return it after he made his workbox for shop) so as to be sure that next time it will be in its place (and I make a mental note to tell Joey in no uncertain terms to be sure to return my tools whenever he takes them). I do not need (or think I do not need) to know why Joey forgot to return the hammer (i.e., it is irrelevant for me if it is because his friend Pete called him out to play ball before he had finished cleaning up after he made the workbox or if it was because he came in for a glass of milk and dropped the bottle and slipped on the milk when cleaning it up and had to change his shirt and then his grandmother called, and so on. The endless regress of reasons is irrelevant for my purpose of making sure the hammer is always returned to its place after use. The mind rests when the purpose for which an explanation has been pursued has been met.

What then is the purpose for which we need explanation in much of our interaction with others? To answer this I would like to draw directly on the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey and his definition of an idea as “not some little psychical entity or piece of consciousness-stuff, but . . . the interpretation of the locally present environment in reference to its absent portion, that part to which it is referred as another part so as to give a view of the whole.”[i] An idea is a mental construct which frames and thus gives meaning (in Dewey’s terms, “interprets”) to a given and empirically present reality in terms of a set of factors not immediately present, but yet, by completing the picture of what is before me, serves to make it meaningful to me. Thus for example, I do not know what that guy from Bosnia is doing on the floor everyday at about 1:15, in the afternoon, but when I put it together with ideas I have about Muslim prayer (5 times a day, involving the salat) I can reach the conclusion that he is praying. What I am suggesting is that the explanation at which the mind rests, is in fact Dewey’s definition of idea. When we have an idea of something it generally means that we have explained it to our satisfaction. Our satisfaction is, in turn, determined by our ability to frame the given reality facing us (the guy from Bosnia on his knees) with sufficient supplementary information for us to know what to do (act respectfully toward him, or run to help him as perhaps he is suffering from internal bleeding in his stomach, or wait for further help to arrive . . . or as was actually enacted in a most macabre fashion in at least one U.S. airport, call the police, because it was feared as a prelude to a suicide bombing).

Explanation rests with an idea that we form of something; this idea is, according to Dewey, an amalgam of the currently available, physical reality before us together with additional, interpretive data that frames this reality in a broader, meaning giving context, defined by our specific purposes. Now there are certain types of action, particular tasks or sets of tasks such as studying for an examination, building a carburetor, preparing dinner, purchasing garden mulch, performing open-heart surgery, bidding on a stock option, ordering food in a restaurant, and so on, when it is relatively simple to see this process of explanation and idea formation at work. They are not our concern here. We are interested in a much more difficult task—to get at a set of ideas; those revolving around the self, the Other, and how to share social space with people who are very different from us and with whom we do not agree on what is most important to whom and what we are.

At its most successful, what the summer school allows us to recognize is that our ideas of these matters are very much what the French founder of sociology termed, “collective representations.” They are often not purely personal, idiosyncratic, and individual notions; rather, many of our ideas of our selves (or rather of the social part of our selves—and of the other—the part that is a Jew or a Muslim, a man or a woman, etc.) are manifestations of a collective conscience. They are collective ideas. In other words, in these matters (of our attitudes toward Jews or Christians or whites or blacks) the place at which the mind rests, is a collective place. As such, the purposes that they serve are collective ones as well.

Furthermore, these purposes are often not oriented toward opening ourselves, including our group selves, to alternative and sometimes challenging and conflicting definitions or understandings. Conversely, they are often geared to maintaining group boundaries, solidarity, and the sense of self and of self-righteousness. After all, the sense of who we are and why we are is very much a part of what makes up our collective representations and so our definitions of the situation—our ideas and explanations of any given event. These then come to constitute a grid, which we impose on experience. Explanation in fact, is not the beginning of experience, it is very much its end, it is the place where already-before-the-event, I know where I will locate it. One of the reasons that the summer school is so grueling is because we take  apart these collective assumptions (of each of us) and agree to submit ourselves to working out a common mode of knowledge, interaction, and understanding with no such collective, a priori set of explanations predicated on the collective consciousness of each.

In essence then, what we do is eschew any final explanation; we agree to set apart broad, inclusive, and generalized explanations (and hence, à la Dewey, ideas). And although none of us questions our own belonging to such meaning-giving communities (which could be Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or secular-humanist) we are forced, by the environment of our shared time together, to eschew the types of explanations and ideas, precisely those interpretive frames to experience, that these would (and in other environments often do) provide to what we encounter together in these two weeks.

Agreeing to submit ourselves to this hiatus in explanation is no mean feat. It is extremely difficult and exhausting an exercise. It is, moreover, not something agreed on or formally declared before the start of our time together. In fact, the only “rule” we invoke is that we act “as if” no group, including our own has the monopoly on human suffering (this is true whether we are Jews, Palestinians, women, blacks, Armenians, or Kurds). This formal rule, which required no inner or sincere “assent,” is meant as no more than a traffic regulation to make continued interaction possible. However, the very need to adhere to this rule (whatever one feels inside) often (not always and not always consciously) has the consequence of forcing us to delay final judgment on events, people, and situations we encounter during the time together. In short, it forces reflection, what Dewey termed “reflective thinking.” Adhering to this rule (and it needs to be said that we do not always manage to do so, certainly not all the time), then contributes to a feeling of suspense, to our understanding of the situation as incomplete, doubtful and problematic. We admit lack of full knowledge, without yet accepting that we live in total ignorance and by blurring any absolute distinction between the two states we set up the possibility of “forming conjectures to guide action;” the very process that Dewey in fact described as the foundation of scientific thought.

I want to highlight the difficult nature of this endeavor, a difficulty which, in its general contours, was already discussed by Dewey. To quote him at some length, “Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves the willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry, and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful. . . . To maintain a state of doubt and to carry on a systematic and protracted inquiry—these are the essentials of thinking.”[ii] This thinking through experience, suspending judgment even as one forms new conjectures leading us to new forms of action, is at the heart of the school’s work. We attempt this in only one very particular realm: that of our interactions with people we understand as different; that is, as sharing different terms of meaning, participate in different truth-communities, and who generalize trust and sense of belonging in very different ways. Not surprisingly it is precisely around these differences in religious belonging (between Christians and Muslims or Orthodox and Reform Jews) that the school orients its shared practice.

To refer back to the earlier quote by John Dewey, what we seek to arrive at through this suspension of judgment is that the “absent portion” of the “present environment” is no longer defined by the collective representations that each of us bring to the encounter. Or perhaps, more properly, when these representations are made public they are most often challenged and thus showed to have much more to do with the reality of the group making the interpretation (Muslims of Jews, Christians of Muslims, Orthodox Jews of secular Jews, etc.) than to any “objective” or “empirical” reality that is “out there”.[iii] This is the value gained by the suspension of judgment.

The understanding of this process is slow, cumulative, and not always conscious. What it necessitates is the experience of straddling boundaries. The individual retains his or her membership and terms of meaning as provided within their truth-communities, but comes to recognize the only partial, fragile, mutable, and heavily freighted nature of the interpretive frames that these memberships provide to events in the world; to realize, in fact, just how much these interpretive frames are marked by Bacon’s idols of the tribe, marketplace, cave or theatre.

What this makes possible is a redefinition of the purposes toward which explanation is oriented. The mind then, we can say, comes to rest in a different place. Distancing our collective representations of who we are and our own commitments to our own traditions from the process of idea formations and explanation in the particular and specific contexts of the school, allows us to redefine those purposes toward which explanation is oriented. These are no longer defined by the collective purposes of each participant’s own “in-group.”

We thus begin to localize our ideas and circumscribe our explanations toward what is most or more immediate without engaging our own particular collective philosophy of history, man, God, and existence. We learn to live, if not without the latter, at least without the latter forming the ground of each and every decision involving the other. By distancing these grand or meta interpretive grids from every environment in need of an explanation, we create a space where alternative and competing practices among members of differing and even mutually exclusive interpretive communities can construct a common life (even while remaining mutually exclusive in their truth-claims and all that follows from such). We learn to act (according to our newly formed conjectures and judgments) rather than react (according to our received prejudices and cognitive grids).

A concrete example is perhaps in order here. In the Jewish tradition, one of the fundamental principles regulating relations with gentiles is known as darchei shalom, the ways of peace. This is interpreted to mean that we must fulfill obligations of neighborliness with our gentile neighbors even if not explicitly commanded to; indeed, even when the written law absolves us of the obligation to treat the gentile neighbor in the same manner that we treat our Jewish brother. Most contemporary understandings of the darchei shalom principle interpret this behavior as purely prudential:: we act in such a way so the gentiles will have no reason to complain at Jewish behavior. However without such a concern there would be no need, for example to return lost property to a gentile. Such is the usual, “on the street” understanding of this term that one would find in many orthodox and ultra-orthodox synagogues. Yet, the fact remains that there is a great debate around the concept of darchei shalom and of the purely prudential understanding of its force. This debate goes back to the time of the Talmud (ca. 6 century CE). In fact, the Jewish tradition itself, from the Babylonian Talmud to more contemporary Halachic decisors, all recognize the problem with this very limited understanding of darchei shalom and thus offer a much thicker, richer, and value-laden interpretation of its obligatory nature. The point is, that one can find in the tradition, what one wishes to find and one’s scholarship will develop accordingly. Moreover, one may well be so under the sway of the idols of tribe or the cave, as to blind oneself to the richness of possible interpretations and understandings that the tradition permits, or even encourages.[iv] This is extremely relevant because often people standing with a tradition—be it Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, or Protestant—claim to be obligated by their acceptance of transcendent dictates and revealed texts and that it is these obligations rather than any prejudice, failure of judgment, idols of tribe, marketplace cave, or grandmothers, which direct their behavior. What we are suggesting is that this is often not the case and one can very well accept and live comfortably within a heteronomously ordered tradition and still be open to experience and hence thought. Needless to say this is encompassed in the very meaning of halacha, or sha’aria—and was also the original meaning of the Christian religion—both of which mean way or path. For if all were finished, complete, and wholly assured no way would be called for, only a binary and in the nature of the case, finalizing decision, that would make all that followed meaningless.

This brings us to what I like to call the idea of embodied knowledge; that is, knowledge focused on particularities and hence what is, in essence, experience. Experience, as Dewey has taught us, is the central component in thinking. According to Dewey, “To learn from experience is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy and suffer from things in consequence. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying; an experiment with the world to find out what it is like.”[v] In this process, the intellect cannot be separated from experience and the attempt to do so leaves us with disembodied, abstract knowledge that all too often emphasizes “things” rather than the “relations or connections” between them.[vi] In so doing it is of precious little help in our attempt to connect the multitude of disconnected data that the world presents into a framework of meaning. Meaning, as is clear to all, rests not on the knowledge of “things” but on the relations between them. These relations, in turn, as Dewey so brilliantly argues, can only be assessed through experience because only through experience do we bring the relevant relations between things into any sensible sort of juxtaposition. Hence, the relevant relations between fabric, wood, staples, hammer, stain-pot, and brush are only made relevant in the construction of the chair. Without the experience of chair making, the relations between the components—even the definition of the component elements—is open to endless interpretation. Thus, meaning—emergent from experience can only be supplied by the goals toward which we aspire; as indeed, experience, as opposed to our simple passive subjugation to an event, is always in pursuit of a practical aim.

How then, one might ask, are these insights into the nature of experience and of thinking relevant to the practice and mission of the school? Having “bracketed out” or suspended our received impressions (of an abstract—and all too often, collective—nature) in the search of new judgments based on experience of a particular and embodied nature (the Muslim guy who likes basketball or the Jews who argue among themselves) can we say anything about this experience (of the school) that leads us to new types of judgments and conjectures? Can these new ideas (or even the process of arriving at them) in turn be formalized in any way and used as tools for further experiments in judgment formation outside of the school, and thus carried forward into other organizational settings and institutional arenas?

Perhaps the best way to answer these questions is to define the “backward and forward” motion that is achieved in the school. I consider the backward motion to be our existing preconceptions and uncritical knowledge base—often of a generalized nature, not tested by any real experience, only the received knowledge of the tribe, cave, market place, and so on. The forward motion is our continued process of conjecturing and idea-formation—now to be informed by the particular experiences of the school and not solely by the “received wisdom” of our respective communities (including, I must add, the community of liberal individualism, which, to no small extent, extends to that of the Western universities).

From this it becomes clear that the “thing” that we are acting upon and which in turn is acting upon us is not a block of wood or a screwdriver, nor the deciphering of a text or of a problem in geometry; but rather the “thing” is our ideas of ourselves in relation to people who are different from us. A small matter it would seem, when put so simply. Yet it goes to the core of our existence, both as individual egos and as members of collectivities. Whether we turn to the problems of ego’s differentiation from mother or of collectivity’s struggles to maintain their existence over time, the problem of self and world (which is the problem of the self and the non-self, or of self and what is different from self) is, in fact, one of the defining problems of existence.

The individual/psychological aspect is relevant here; for what we have learned from D.W. Winnicott, Marion Milner, and other object-relation theorists is how important it is to have the capacity to, at times, posit the relations between self and world with a certain degree of “fuzziness” or indeterminacy. Winnicott’s work on the “transitional object”—the object (e.g., child’s teddy or blanket) whose origins is never questioned, which thus remains curiously undefined and which in turn allows the ego (self) to differentiate from mother and so to actually perceive the existence of mother as a separate entity is a case in point. It is not coincidental, that when Marion Milner comes to discuss the very ability of ego to perceive the other as external object she repeatedly comes back to the loss of ego boundaries—that is of boundaries between ego and object as one necessary stage in the development of such apperception. The very “confounding of one thing with another, this not discriminating, is also the basis of generalization,” the basis—as she goes on to quote Wordsworth—of the poet’s ability to find “the familiar in the unfamiliar.”[vii] Generalization, which is a necessary component of empathy, itself rests, as pointed out by Ernst Jones, on a prior failure to discriminate, a prior tendency to note identity in differences.[viii] Again, boundaries blurred and reconstituted. Moreover, the ability, says Milner “to find the familiar in the unfamiliar, require[s] an ability to tolerate a temporary loss of sense of self, a temporary giving up of the discriminating ego which stands apart and tries to see things objectively and rationally.”[ix]

I would suggest that the “temporary giving up of the discriminating ego” is on a par with what Dewey was referring to when he discussed the painful process of suspending judgment and living in the suspense that results. By suspending judgment, I am, after all, suspending one of the prime activities of the “discriminating ego.” Holding judgment in abeyance, I am in effect reigning in the ego’s will to dominate through explanation the given situation. There are to be sure situations, such as erotic attachments, where the pain of this suspended judgment is mitigated or replaced with pleasure; what we must learn to do more consciously is to suspend judgment even when the immediate benefits do not seem to outweigh the loss.[x] This is one important pedagogic role of the school. The critical analytic point to make is that fuzziness of boundaries is a result of suspended judgment. Labile boundaries—boundaries that exist, but are not absolute—are a function of suspended judgment. One recognizes that judgment must play a role in organizing our relation to the world and in structuring our activities (hence the positing of boundaries) but, at the same time, one temporarily suspends judgment (thus blurring the boundaries) about certain aspects of the relation between self and world.

This, what we may term, “boundarywork” comes to play a not insignificant role in the education toward empathy, resting as it does on a decentred self, and on an ability to generalize out, beyond one’s own experiences. For such to take place, boundaries must in some sense be fuzzy and less than strict and fully discriminate, even when judgment is, in many cases, suspended.

This long aside into individual psychological traits is important as it helps to clarify for us another and critical dimension of the Deweian insight regarding suspended judgment: such suspended judgment reorients us toward our own boundaries (essentially those between self and non-self, whether on the individual or collective level) and brings a certain fuzziness to bear on our relation to these boundaries—a fuzziness where empathy, tolerance, and a new attitude toward the non-self can be developed.

One critical component of this process, especially in our own attempts to understand its working along collective lines is the role of symbols. Symbols act as mediums, intervening substances (transitional objects) that, in blurring boundaries between ego and object, make possible to eventually perceive objects outside of ego. Symbols, as transitional objects, are the critical link that allows us to perceive Other, through a process of not quite incorporating Other within our internal space. They allow both the blurring of boundaries and their reconstitution, analogous to what Winnicott claimed for the transitional object and, indeed, for all acts of creative play. In the context of the problematique of the summer school, the symbols referred to are not crosses, flags, or six pointed stars, but they are the very ideas we form that place “where the mind rests,” in our regard of the Other. Although not reducible to an image, they nevertheless provide a code or grid, framing both ourselves and alter in a web of significance and meaning. In Deweian terms, we are thus referring to those ideas, which provide the supplementary information we need to make sense (i.e., explain) our meeting with the Other.

Symbol systems thus function as mediating structures, transitional objects that mediate the relation between self and world (essentially the role of culture). But, if we return to our example of the Jewish laws of relations with gentiles discussed above, we see that these systems are themselves open to endless interpretation and divergent understandings, their own boundaries are fluid, to be determined by the conjectures, judgments, and goals that define the situation within which they are invoked. Yes, they may well mediate our relation with the world, but let us not confuse that with defining either us or the world. Holding such definitions in abeyance (a process which demands the suspension of judgment, the mental pain of such suspension, and the blurring of boundaries) allows a malleability in our approach to these cultural (and hence by definition, collective) systems that, in turn, permits –a thinking through of our relations to the Other, which is not otherwise possible. New conjectures, new judgments, a new experience of thinking is now possible, as the experience of difference is disembodied from existing judgments, conjectures, and “idols.”

If we follow the logic of the preceding argument, empathy and the tolerance of difference must, if they are to be long lasting and constitutive of our practice, rest on the very type of duality between boundaries and their dissolution and for which certain types of iterated activity may provide an important propaedeutic. They must, we are claiming, arise as conjectures born from experience, rather than as a particular ideological position, or a priori interpretive framework such as one stemming from the received wisdom of liberal-individualist precepts, for example. In a word, they must be born of experience, rather than ideology. John Dewey has claimed that “ideas are not genuine ideas unless they are tools in a reflective examination which tends to solve a problem.”[xi] Characteristic of such ideas are “a willingness to hold final selection in suspense [as well as] alertness, flexibility, curiosity.” In contrast, “dogmatism, rigidity, prejudice, caprice, arising from routine, passion and flippancy are fatal”.[xii]

The school attempts to provide a framework where the framing of such ideas (as opposed to ideological positions, (however “benign”) can take place. We do this through a particular approach to the perennial challenges of collective action. These challenges, (i.e., problems that all human collectivities must solve) include: (1) the organization of the division of labor; (2) the generalization of trust beyond (and for that matter within) primal units; and (3) the provision of meaning. The summer school creates an environment where one of these components of social order is understood as shared, one is understood as not shared at all, and the challenge, within these conditions, is to generate the third. To put it more explicitly: the “division of labor” is shared. It can be understood as all of the collective activities that we do together (and we do almost everything together). These include lectures, preparation for lectures, trips, visiting different houses of worship, practicums, meals, providing for the religious needs of different communal members (Jews, Muslims, Christians, including not only prayer service and times, but also special meals), organizing time together, and coordinating different needs.

The “provision of meaning” is understood as the very different religious and sacred commitments of the group members, which may prevent them from eating the same food as other members, traveling on the same days, or interpreting events, actions, and beliefs in the same way. Mention should be made that in such situations as the ISSRPL, the default of group participants is always to hide or deemphasize what is different and highlight what is shared among them. This is understandable and to an extent necessary. However, if the group does not progress beyond this stage of “how we are the same,” little is gained from the experience. After all, if we are the same, why leave home and come to the school? It is therefore a very tricky challenge for the organizers and staff to slowly move the group to accept their differences and recognize that they can still be a group despite their differences.

Finally, the “generalization of trust,” or, given the extremely limited circumstances, the generalization of some rules to allow an experience held in common (or, in the Deweian sense, of shared experience) is the challenge of the school. I think that every year this is up for grabs and its success is nowhere assured. Every year the extent to which this is achieved and the extent to which this is achieved in relation to the willingness to recognize real, constitutive difference is somewhat different—but this is the real lesson of the school. The extent to which this is accomplished (and we see that it can be accomplished) is the success of the school and its unique pedagogy.

The long-term success of the school will be measured (with time) in terms of its ability to bring a certain (even small) percentage of the fellows to duplicate this analytic exercise (not necessary the content or form) in their host countries and in programs that they are already working on (whether in the field of education, law, religious/community development, etc.). We are perhaps a long way from knowing how to do this, but the 2008 school in Birmingham, UK which will put in place local (in-site) structures to further these aims indicates a very good start in this direction.

Author Bio

Adam B. Seligman is Director of the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life. He is also Professor in the Department of Religion and Research Associate at the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, at Boston University.

[i] Dewey, John. 1916. The Control of Ideas by Facts. In Essays in Experimental Logic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 239.

[ii] Dewey, John. 1997 [1910]. How We Think. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. p.13.

[iii] This is why it is so important for the participants to have a modicum of trust among themselves, to grant one another some “moral credit.” This takes the form of sharing their beliefs and assumptions about the other, as well as on present conditions in a manner in which “outsiders” can witness the debates and conflicts among “insiders” (Muslims witnessing acrimonious debates between observant and less observant Jews, Jews and Christians witnessing debates between those who claim to be Muslims and those who refuse to admit a certain group to the Muslim fold).

[iv] Note that the tribe at any given moment is not coterminous with the tradition.

[v] Dewey, John. 2004 [1916]. Democracy and Education. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. p. 134.

[vi] Dewey, Democracy and Education, p. 137.

[vii] Milner, Marion. 1952. Aspects of Symbolism in Comprehension of the Not-Self. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 33: 181-95. p. 182.

[viii] Jones, Ernest. 1948 [1916]. Theory of Symbolism. In Papers on Psychoanalysis. London: Maresfield Reprints.

[ix] Milner, Acts of Symbolism in Comprehension of the Not-Self, p. 279.

[x] We may add here that the key feature of tolerance is precisely the suspension of judgment. When one tolerates what one finds distasteful or wrong one in effect suspends a final judgment on such acts rather than accepts them as right or beneficial (in which case tolerance would not be necessary).

[xi] Dewey, How We Think, p. 109.

[xii] Dewey, How We Think, p. 105–6.