LectureHop: The Subaltern Speaks at the CC Coursewide Lecture

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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.

dfdHaving 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?

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  1. i was disappointed  

    what those people were representing did not seem like accurate representations of religion to me. they are all worshipping the same God? how have theologians come to this point? it all seemed hopelessly postmodern and disconnected from anything resembling the state of religion today.

  2. hmm

    the question of religious pluralism tends to have a rose-colored tint to it.

    in case you're interested in at least one serious scholar on of one faith's take on pluralism, this is an interesting read if you can keep up with the terminology that would be more familiar to muslims: http://www.al-islam.org/religiouspluralism/

    Just trying to broaden the discourse

  3. Did it seem...  

    ...to anyone else that the guy who got the last question was basically asking, "So, what you you -really- think?"

  4. why  

    is spivak relevant here?

  5. Anonymous

    this post was all kinds of pretentious

  6. yeah  

    The 3 Abrahamic religions are definitely worshiping the same Abrahamic God. That's agreed upon.

    Beliefs about how this God has revealed himself vary--that's all.

    • yeah no  

      commonalities and interfaith dialogue are great, but the idea of the trinity messes everything up. jesus either is the son of god, or he is not.

      • ...yes

        but in Trinitarian thought, Jesus IS God, the same God that spoke to Abraham and requested the sacrifice of Isaac/Ishmael. Also, interfaith dialogue is between all sorts of faith—not just Abrahamic. Real meaningful interfaith dialogue is about understanding and appreciating, not agreeing.

    • Really?  

      It might be the same God in name, but there are no really much in common after that. Would the God of the New Testament send the plagues down to the Egyptians? I think not.

  7. ...

    very weak synopsis of the muslim scholars speach...

    "speaking last and representing the last of the religions"

  8. wow  

    talk about a weak description

  9. Heh

    Did anyone attend the play two years ago that featured a panel on religion that had the Hari Krishna fellow debating Helfand? Now that was a frank and interesting discussion on religion where Helfand threw off the gloves and called all religion bunk. We need more of that...and popcorn for when we watch it.

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