LectureHop: The Subaltern Speaks at the CC Coursewide Lecture
Written by Bwog Staff
No, it wasn’t our fair University Professor, but three religious scholars who gathered in Roone Arledge Auditorium today to discuss God, truth and the other. Bwog Daily Editor and Sophomore Justin Vlasits reports.
Having a coherent discussion among lay people about religion in any contemporary university is very, very difficult. In a setting that gets its defining characteristics from an unsteady mix of Enlightenment and post-colonial theory, like at Columbia, it is much more difficult. Today we saw the best attempt at it that I have ever seen—scholars from the three Abrahamic religions came together around their sacred texts and talked about how to approach them in a university setting.
In his opening remarks, Rabbi Michael Paley of United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York said perhaps the truest thing in the entire discussion: one always gets out of a text what one is looking for in it. If you approach the Tanakh from an historical point of view, you will look at sources, and get historical information. However, if you approach it from a religious perspective, the Tanakh becomes something completely different: a nuanced story with guides on how one can live righteously and come closer to God. And, Paley said, as much as he loved the historical approach to the text, at the end of the day what inspires him is narrative, like the one in Exodus of the liberation of an enslaved people, the making of a covenant with God and the return to a promise land.
Brigitte Kahl of Union Theological Seminary and an ordained Lutheran minister added to Paley’s thesis, remarking that in the vast number of interpretations of the Bible, one must always seek to contextualize the book in the Jewish tradition in order that one may get any kind of meaning out of it. Speaking last and representing the last of the religions, Mehnaz Afridi of Antioch University said that in order to study Islam, you must study Judaism and Christianity.
Amidst jokes about who stole which stories from which traditions, important questions were raised by both moderator Roosevelt Montás (Michael Stanislawski had the flu; don’t worry, Bwog sent flowers) and the panelists discussed the nature of monotheism and the otherness that such ideas create. What was so interesting about that discussion was how all of the scholars seemed insistent on the fact that they all believed in the same God, the same parables and the same stories, despite the fact of the completely different states of their religions today and, as Paley said, “religious discrepancies have filled streets with blood”.
The scholars, in their explanations of their religions and the tolerance preached by them, consciously took the oldest ploy in the theological book, justifying all of their predominantly modern viewpoints about human and civil rights as well as tolerance with ambiguous biblical passages. For example, when discussing the Tower of Babel passage in Genesis, Afridi said that God could have made one nation, but made many nations instead because that was better.
In short, the discussion fell short of the kind of critical discourse that is needed in theology today—they preferred to talk about similarities between their religions than differences—but they did have discourse, which is no small step. As Paley said at the close of his talk, “in this history of the world, this is an abnormal panel”. If in the safe-haven of multiculturalism we can begin to discuss discrepancies, unities between religions poised on opposite ends of a culture war, it may be possible to resolve these tensions constructively. I’m not holding my breath, but, then again, how often have you seen devout religious people come together and celebrate each others sacred texts?