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Religious Tolerance: Learning How to Disagree Well, A Conversation with Dr. Brian Flanagan

By Laurie Callahan

The first Europeans to come to America were seeking religious freedom and tolerance. By the time Alexis de Tocqueville visited the young nation in the early 1830s, such freedom and tolerance were clearly evident. In Democracy in America, de Tocqueville wrote, “The religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States.” After careful observation and much questioning of clergy and laypeople alike, he concluded that the separation of church and state was a central strength and defining characteristic of American society.
 
As de Tocqueville knew, history is replete with wars fought over the toxic mix of religion and politics. And, though the United States continues to stand firm on its foundation of religious freedom, Americans are not immune to the fear, hatred, and intolerance of differing beliefs that persist in today’s world.
 
Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ongoing concerns about terrorism, have made many westerners fearful and distrusting of Muslims. Many Muslims distrust the west, with its predominantly Judeo-Christian foundation. Even within faiths, there is a lack of tolerance for differing views that too often leads to sectarian conflict. And extremists of every persuasion fan the flames of fear, hatred, and violence.
 
Here, Marymount Assistant Professor of Theology Dr. Brian Flanagan provides some perspective on the complex issue of religious tolerance and the search for understanding and acceptance within the human family.

Q: How can history help us understand the fear and dislike of people who believe differently?

A: I look at the arguments being advanced against building the Muslim Community Center in Manhattan, or the question of what role Muslims should have in American political life, and they sound a lot like the arguments that were used 150 years ago against my Catholic ancestors. Back then, it was argued that Catholics were taking over, that they were having too many children, that they were part of a plot against the United States. Today’s arguments sound very familiar if you know 19th century history. Yet we see how immigrants have always transformed and enriched America.

Q: How can people of good will counter the divisive talk on radio and television?

A: Hate speech appeals to people’s base emotions – fear, anger, self-interest. It doesn’t involve any genuine examination of self or interaction with others. In short, it’s easy. The slow, careful, sometimes really awkward work of inter-religious dialogue is much harder to do, and much harder to “sell.” There’s not going to be a simple 30-second news item on that. It’s much more likely that what we’ll see on the evening news is someone threatening to burn a Koran or expel a Christian missionary.

I think our best bet for countering the hate speech is to promote common spaces where people can come together.We have to provide ways of talking to each other – as opposed to talking about each other. Understanding arises out of interaction, out of a dialogue in which each individual is really willing to see and hear the other person.

A university setting is an excellent example of a space that encourages such interaction. Arguably, a liberal arts education is about learning how to disagree well, learning how to understand, to take positions, to respect the disagreement, and to work on that together.

Q: How is the dialogue advanced at Marymount?

A: Marymount provides a place that’s open to differing religious views because it’s a Catholic university – open to the “God questions” as matters that are important to think about. And, as a liberal arts university, Marymount teaches students to be open to the various ways in which people ask and answer those questions.

We have a diverse population on our campus, and different religious voices are respected here. I see that in my classrooms. We have a large Muslim population; so, for our students, Islam isn’t an abstract, over there, scary sort of thing. Whether they’re Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or from another religious or non-religious tradition, Islam is something they encounter every day through other students. It’s hard to hate someone you borrowed notes from. It’s hard to hate someone who helped you when you got locked out of your dorm room. This interaction puts a human face on the differences and moves us beyond assumptions and stereotypes.

Our students also get some sense of the diversity within the Muslim population. There’s not one kind of Muslim, any more than there is one kind of Christian, one kind of Catholic. They see a range of people on our campus and, by extension, in the world.

One of the courses that I teach every semester is “Theological Inquiry.” This is part of our new core curriculum, so all undergraduates at Marymount take this course at the start of their theological and religious studies education. In it, we look at some big questions, existential questions: where-we-come-from-and-where-we’re-going questions. And we’re all asking the questions together.

What’s really fun, fascinating, and I think a good learning experience for students is when you have the religious differences, and sometimes political differences, jamming up their assumptions about what they can expect from someone. You find some Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims arguing a point on one side, against other Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims who see the question differently. You begin learning that it is important to ask, and listen, before you leap to any conclusion about what someone else thinks.

As a teacher, it’s exciting for me to be a part of this process. It’s exciting to see students realize that, in religious discussion, you’re not encountering an abstract, scary “other”; you’re encountering actual people. This human interaction provides a strong basis for understanding and valuing difference. It goes beyond tolerance – a sort of live and let live attitude – to real day-to-day dialogue – what is sometimes called the “dialogue of life.”

Q:What does the Catholic Church advise on the subject of religious tolerance?

A: The Catholic Church clarified its teaching regarding members of other religious traditions and also the role of religious freedom in the Declaration on Religious Freedom at Vatican II, called Dignitatis Humanae. This document was based largely on the work of an American Jesuit priest and theologian named John Courtney Murray, who had observed how the American experiment of religious toleration had actually allowed people to be more faithful to their belief in the dignity of each human person – which is the language that the document uses. The right to religious expression is based on a real appreciation for a person’s choices, for their conscience, and for their dignity as an image of God, their dignity as a person.

Q: Don’t the major faiths of the world hold many basic tenets in common?

A: Yes. We share many similar beliefs about how people should treat one another, and this includes not just the various religious traditions, but lots of non-religious philosophical traditions. Think of the Golden Rule, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Though worded differently in different traditions, this is an idea that is widely shared. Unfortunately, it’s not something that we all live all of the time, but it is a shared teaching. And this is just one example. When we put our minds to it, we can come to enough shared agreement that we are able to work together on such major issues as how we can protect the weakest among us, how we can serve the poor, how we can work for social justice.

Various traditions differ in the frameworks by which they make sense of how and why to do these things. There are also significant differences in our explanations of why we are often unable to live up to our best selves, to do those things we know that we ought to do. And that’s where the different traditions have legitimate disagreements. As a Christian theologian, I naturally think that my tradition has something very valuable to say about why a better life for the poor is crucial, why encountering others with a sense of religious tolerance is vital, and so on. And I’m going to explain that tradition through my understanding of God in Jesus Christ. Being honest about our beliefs, and our deep commitments, is foundational to any healthy dialogue, interreligious or otherwise.

Q: People often view their own faith as the “right” way to believe. How do we open hearts and minds to accepting others who think differently when beliefs are so strongly held?

A: First of all, we have to understand that the world is not black and white; that is too simple. But true understanding and acceptance are also not about “I’m OK, you’re OK.” That, too, is extremely superficial and suggests that we aren’t taking the questions seriously enough.

The trick is to ask the questions together, in a respectful and receptive manner. In the classroom, you can almost feel the shift in the dynamic a few weeks in, when students are achieving real interaction. They differ theologically, politically, and in many other ways, but they find that they are comfortable enough with themselves and with others that they can actually start disagreeing well. That’s the hardest thing: learning how to disagree well.

I’m doubtful that you can do this on a wider scale without starting first on very small scales. The face-to-face encounter is essential, whether it’s in a classroom, in a community with neighbors, or in multi-religious families. That’s where people start learning how to disagree well and to respect others’ traditions while respecting themselves and their own traditions. That’s where people make real progress in terms of working together to identify shared concerns and values that can form the basis of positive human relationships.

Q: Are you hopeful that religious tolerance can grow?

A: I’m very hopeful. The issue of the relationship between different religious communities is actually related to the question of how those of us within Christian churches coexist and interact. One focus of my research is ecumenism and ecumenical dialogue. Can Christians of different denominations take the skills we’ve learned through interreligious encounters into our own communities to provide another model of disagreement – not the intense polarization we see in the political world, but the disagreement of people who are, at the end of the day, profoundly in relationship with one another? That’s one of the things that religious communities can bring to American public life, and that universities like Marymount can bring, which is absent in the world of cable television news.