"'Thou shalt not' might reach the head, but it takes 'Once upon a time' to reach the heart." So said Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass, in a 2007 interview with The Atlantic. He might be right, but I can't help but wonder: What if we could reach both the head and the heart?
It's a question I asked myself many times over while writing my Master of Arts in Religion thesis on narrative and religion last year. Now, as the Managing Director of State of Formation, a new online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders founded by the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and run in partnership with Hebrew College, Andover Newton Theological School and collaboration with Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, I am so excited about the content that has flooded the site in its inaugural week -- and how our religious and philosophical academics are using both their minds and their hearts to enter into dialogue.
Our initial group of nearly 70 contributing scholars contains Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Protestant (among them Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and others), Hindu, Secular Humanist, Sikh, Agnostic, Greek Orthodox, Unitarian Universalist, Mormon, Evangelical Christian, Atheist and Lindisfarne participants. Some were born in the Bible belt; others grew up in places like Jamaica, Singapore, Japan, and Germany. They are gay and straight, liberal and conservative, religious and secular.
There is also a wide range of experience among them. Some have been engaged in interfaith dialogue and social action for years -- others are brand new to it. There are Ph.D. students, people in Master of Arts in Religion, Master of Divinity, and Master of Education programs, some fresh out of graduate school, community organizers and activists, and even a recent Master of Fine Arts graduate and current professor of creative writing who is at work on a memoir about growing up as an Evangelical Christian. Many live in various parts of the United States of America, and there are several in England, Israel, Australia and other parts of the world.
It's an eclectic cohort, to be sure, and already their dialogue is rife with questions, disagreements and attempts at answers. The singular consensus among these religiously varied emerging leaders? This dialogue matters.
Jason A. Kerr, a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College and a lifelong Mormon, has high hopes for this project. "I'm hoping that State of Formation will enable its contributors and readers to forge a new community, one that can amplify the capacities for good now present in those communities to which we already belong," wrote Kerr in his first post. "We're undertaking a very difficult sort of dialogue here, but also a very necessary one."
Kari Aanestad, a Master of Divinity student spending a year in Oxford, England, where her husband is a Rhodes Scholar studying the history of science, agrees. "Interfaith work ... is absolutely crucial, and as a Lutheran I could not be more committed to this dialogue. One of the primary tenets of my faith is that I am free to love and serve my neighbors, which challenges me to go beyond my local culture and hear the stories of those outside, to meet new people (yes, even non-Lutherans!) and learn from them," Aanestad wrote in her first post, a reflection on what she is discovering about interfaith dialogue by living in a context dramatically different from the Midwest, where her Lutheran heritage was commonplace. "While I have ultimately learned that my spiritual identity is not synonymous with Minnesota culture, perhaps there's room for a new potluck where everyone's dish is welcome."
Every contributor comes from a particular religious or philosophical background, but this difficult and enriching dialogue also enables each to be an individual, not just a representative of her or his tradition. "While I hold no illusions that my contributions to this space represent the Islamic perspective on any particular issue," wrote Garfield Swaby, a student working towards a Masters in Islamic Studies and Muslim-Christian Relations at Hartford Seminary, "I hope only to blog new reflections into existence informed by my understanding of Islam, or by any of my other commitments, for that matter."
By engaging with one another's commitments, they are already getting to know one another and making their dialogue more about mutual understanding than about academic knowing. "As young scholars, practitioners, and activists, our intellectual lives, our spiritual lives, or our careers might be in states of formation, but the public conversations about religion and ethics in the United States are also in a state of formation," wrote Joshua Eaton, a Buddhist and recent Master of Divinity graduate from Harvard University. "My hope is that State of Formation can help put some meat on the bones of that conversation by giving voice not just to the what of religion, but also to the who, when, where, why, and how. Religion could not be more important to our public life; we cannot afford to be uninformed."
This is a new and exciting endeavor for all involved, but perhaps maybe for none more than Brandon Turner. In his first post, Turner explored why an online forum may be an ideal platform for this challenging and transformative dialogue.
"Why did an individual who has never blogged, tweeted, or facebooked (is this the term?) decide to apply to a new interreligious initiative that will exist almost exclusively in the online world?" asked Turner. "I believe that ... those who are a part of this ever growing community are truly embarking on something unique. As we get to know each other over the next few months, I believe we will be, in many ways, defining what 'interreligious dialogue 2.0' will look like in the future."
To see the future religious and philosophical leaders of tomorrow begin to redefine the discourse on religion and ethics together today, please take a look at the website. We invite you to weigh in; as our diverse group of Contributing Scholars can attest, this is a conversation that not only needs everyone -- it needs everyone's heart and mind.
Follow Chris Stedman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChrisDStedman