October 23, 2003

Three day Sharpe conference explores monotheistic religions

A delegation of academics convened at the University this week to explore the religious and ethical implications of the differences between the three major monotheistic religions.

The three-day convention "Humanity Before God" drew religious studies experts to the Divinity School to examine how the theological issues of pluralism and ethics intersect to allow for common ground among followers of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

"Today we have a special situation," said the keynote speaker, Seyyed Hossein Nasr. "The Islamic world has never been under such pressure before. There's a new political equation, and it has changed the Muslim mind. The oppression and repression has caused a reaction where the Islamic thinkers must go from universalism to particularism."

Nasr, a professor at George Washington University, also addressed the issue of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world. He repudiated acts of anti-Semitism, as well as suicide bombings. He said that if Muslims knew that only some Jews approved of Israel's military actions against Palestinians, then anti-Semitism would be much less of an issue.

"If we knew that not all Jews were proud of their actions—and I know rabbis and have Jewish friends who feel this way—the view would be very different. You don't hear these divergent views on CNN or in The New York Times." According to Michael Johnson, organizer and Ph.D. candidate in the Divinity School, the conference, which began Tuesday and ended Thursday, included speakers with expertise in several different fields, including law, history, and ethics. He said that this diversity of perspective—an element often lacking from speaker panels—lent itself to particularly interesting discussions.

Besides Nasr, the other keynote speaker was Hilary Putnam of Harvard University, whose remarks Tuesday addressed monotheism and humanism.

Johnson, who organized the event with fellow Ph.D. candidate Kevin Jung, said that the different perspectives complimented each other well and that a common thread emerged. "This idea of human responsibility really came out," he said. "This theme came out of human reality interacting with traditions."

As part of the Sharpe lecture series on social ethics, the convention aims to address an issue related to the Abrahamic faiths. This one focused specifically on the question of how to preserve the integrity of one's own faith while at the same time respecting and enhancing the overall community.

To Peder Jothen, a Ph.D. candidate in the Divinity School, the conference's topic came as a response to the attacks of September 11. He said that the religious conflict that has flared over the last two years—and the questions it raises—draws theologians back to age-old tensions.

"The issues have been there ever since the splinter groups of Jesus split from the Jews," said Jothen. "The academic community can be beholden to tradition, almost like a canon. Sometimes it takes an event like 9/11 to provoke academics on issues like good and evil."