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Woodstock Interreligious Dialogue on Education: Faiths Finding Expression

By John Borelli

published in Woodstock Report No. 89, Fall 2007

expression1Dr. Siva Subramanian and Dr. John Borelli addressing Georgetown students on "Faiths Finding Expression"

As he navigates interreligious engagement for Georgetown University, John Borelli chronicles how Woodstock was well ahead in recognizing the value of pluralism in building communities, such as Catholic institutions of higher education.

Woodstock Theological Center and Georgetown University share a rich interreligious resource. That became ever more evident at the first “open interreligious conversation for Georgetown students” on March 21, 2007.Woodstock Theological Center sponsored the event, but in reality, the event marked a new phase for the Woodstock Interreligious Dialogue on Education.

James Redington, SJ, inaugurated this dialogue in January 2002, while residing at Woodstock as a senior fellow. Five original members remain in the conversation today: Michael Timpane, Siva Subramanian, D.C. Rao, Hashim El-Tinay, and Venerable Uparatana. Another, Rev. Elizabeth Orens, an Episcopal priest with an assignment to the National Cathedral School, was welcomed to the group at its last meeting convened by Fr. Redington in May 2003, and is also participating. Dr. Timpane, a Catholic, co-convenes the group and advises on education and policy issues in his retirement. Dr. Subramanian is a neonatologist at Georgetown Hospital, and Rao is a retired economist from the World Bank. Both are Hindus. Dr. El-Tinay, a Muslim, promotes programs of relief and justice in his native Sudan, and Venerable Uparatana is spiritual head of a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple in Wheaton.

Fr. Redington left Woodstock for Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley in the summer of 2003. During this time of transition, I was in conversation with President DeGioia and several persons whom he designated on campus on what roles I might serve if I were to be his special assistant for interreligious initiatives. One of these was Fr. Gasper LoBiondo, who eagerly helped me through two quick decisions. He seized quickly on my musings that it was time that I took the Ignatian Exercises since Georgetown would be my third Jesuit affiliation.My wife, Marianne, and I attended St. Louis University, and my doctorate is from Fordham University. Thanks to him, I started the Exercises on January 3, 2004. The second decision was for me to pick up Fr. Redington's project. I seldom say “no” to an opportunity for interreligious dialogue.

The Woodstock dialogue has now added another Muslim, Maysam Al-Faruqi, a Zoroastrian, Kersy Dastor, two Evangelical Christians”"Ron Mahurin and Aroon Datta, a Jew, Adi Haramati, a Jesuit, Fr. James Walsh, a minister of the United Church of Christ, Barbara Brown Zikmund, and, recently, another Buddhist, Souk Sayasithsena.

We have experienced losses, too”"Monica Hellwig was a member from the beginning until her untimely death in September 2005. Others have come and gone, always with regrets, because of relocation, changes in schedules, sabbaticals, or the advancement of years. The last reason was why Dr. Thomas Kang, a Confucian, who served at the Library of Congress for many years, stopped attending.We miss this perspective, rarely offered first hand in our society.

In a certain sense, the members of the dialogue are “seniors,” persons generally comfortable and established in their careers who also introduce themselves as spiritually minded persons and well-informed about their religious traditions. A few, but not most, serve ministerial functions.

The dialogue was ready for a meeting of minds in 2004. Frustration had resulted from external issues, principally related to the Middle East. Those who remained with the dialogue wanted honest discussion and no issue left off the table. Since then, we have had excellent conversations on our feelings about how our communities deal with religious pluralism, what the obstacles are that prevent honest dialogue, how we pray and why we pray the way that we do, and our more disagreeable interreligious experiences.

The dialogue began with an eye towards affecting public education but now has shifted a bit in our desired outcomes.We produced a rationale two years ago in which we asked two questions: “How do religiously committed adults, established in their professions, develop interreligious understanding and what distinguishes this learning from other forms of knowledge?” In other words, how do you communicate interreligious understanding? In August 2006, we spent a day together looking into where we have been and identifying specific goals. In preparation, we read Jonathan Sacks' book, The Dignity of Difference (New York: Continuum, 2003).We decided that we need to communicate what we are experiencing, but we have yet to develop an adult religious education program and environment for its presentation.

An opportunity for working with students fell into our laps. Usually teaching one course per term, I pulled out one of my alltime favorites”"Yoga and Meditation, which I had taught since 1986, and 84 students ended up on the final roster for the fall 2006 term. I kept this large group because I had the help of an assistant and in that term, President DeGioia was inaugurating his Nostra Aetate Lecture Series with four lectures by the Paulist priest who staffed that document on interreligious dialogue during Vatican II. The University hosted Fr. Thomas Stransky, who lives in retirement at Tantur Ecumenical Center, located on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and I fed my students into his lectures, requiring them to attend and write a short article on at least two. They surprised me with their enthusiasm for this course on spiritual practice and their interest in interreligious dialogue. In the end, I asked my 84 students how the Woodstock Interreligious Dialogue on Education could help them. They were generous with their responses, and the result was a Wednesday evening program in March 2007 that did not interfere with exams or basketball schedules. The dialogue held an open interreligious conversation entitled “Religion”"Problem or Solution?”We listed three sub-questions in the notice: Is religion a problem or a solution? Do religious differences really matter? Why dialogue: conversion or conversation? We offered pizza and soda, and the turnout was excellent. At least 60 students attended, and many stayed chatting afterwards.

One presenter, Aviad Haramati, who teaches at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, noted that this was the first time he had spoken publicly on religion. The presenters were excellent on the importance of difference and the need to understand interreligiously, but I truly believe, as I have reflected with the dialogue members and others, that the success of the evening was the image of five persons, committed to being who they are, talking together in a pluralistic context. The presentations were short. Dr. Subramanian pointed out the ill effects of exclusivity, Dr. Haramati lamented the loss of one more Christian family from his Jewish neighborhood, Dr. El- Tinay emphasized how everyone is a part of any problem, and Dr. Zikmund presented the injunction not to bear false witness against one's neighbor as applying to what we say about the faith of others. They each touched on many lessons for religious interaction. Once these pithy offerings were over and the first polite question or two was asked, a veritable floodgate of questions and comments opened, pouring out a range of topics for discussion. Here are a few examples: what do you think about forced conversions, you know, when parents insist their children go to church; how am I to deal with the contrast where in Lebanon, my home, religious identity is essential, but here it is something you hide; are there two sets of truths, one for yourself and one for dialogue; why is it that an intolerant minority can spoil a whole society; and how can you believe what you do when you respect the views of others.

One student, who had been in my fall course and had told me that he goes to many of these interreligious events, shared his essay, which he had prepared for another course. He said that he had just been listening to John Lennon's “Imagine” as he walked to the class and was hoping that this panel of accomplished guests could convince him that Lennon's idea of “no religion” was not the solution. You recall the lines of the hit song:

expression2(left to right) Dr. Barbara Brown Zikmund, Dr. Siva Subramanian, Dr. John Borelli, Dr. Hashim El-Tinay, and Dr. Aviad Haramati

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

That was the lens through which he evaluated the speakers, and he especially observed what each speaker said about why boundaries exist between religions. Imagine, students wanting us to show that distinct religious practice in a world of engaged religious pluralism is important!

The dialogue feels that it has carved a niche in campus life, an important step and point of reference for planning the next step.