[PFBC] Friday
[PFBC] NJ Jewish News

[PFBC] Roots and Branches

The first panel of the day, led by Emily, Islamoyankee and me!

Emily Ronald begins by offering a definition of pluralism given by professor Diana Eck. She reads two fantastic quotes, which are available here at Islamicate. She talks about the theological stance of pluralism -- what allows us to engage others of different traditions -- and the citizenship stance of pluralism, e.g. the fact that we live in a diverse world and want to live in harmony. One of these speaks from faith; the other speaks from the interconnectedness of being neighbors in a society.

She digresses to tell us what the Pluralism Project does: tracking both what goes wrong (hate crimes etc.) and what goes right (people working together to help Katrina victims across faith lines.) "The challenges and blessings of pluralism come from its nature as a process," she says.

My question: where are the connections between us, and where we want them to be? Islamoyankee offers that when they started Islamicate, the first commentor was an Episcopalian woman and the second one was me. "While we were trying to figure out who we were and what made our blog different from the other Muslim blogs out there, Rachel picked up something we'd written about the prophet Muhammad (pbuh)...and at that moment we looked at each other and said, this is something we can do that no one else is doing, building these bridges across faiths."

Another question from me: how many of us could say that we only read blogs by our own community -- "I only read Jewish blogs," or so on. No one raised a hand. That seems to me like a sign that none of us is blogging, or reading, in isolation; there are implicit connections forming. And that makes it harder to paint any tradition with a single brush; I don't see "Christianity" writ large, I see individual Christians.

"It seems to me that...we are in a new situation," Reb Arthur says, "Except for maybe the 12-13th century in Andalusia, we're listening to each other more deeply [than ever before]! And going beyond, here's a more theological question: what are the differences through which we can communicate?" He cited Reb Zalman's notion that the different religions are like the different organs in the body. All are different, but all must be connected. "What is the DNA that pervades the universe, what unfolds in all of us?"

Chris from Philocrites asks whether people interact with folks who hold very different idological views; are we all just keeping in touch with progressives? "Do you interact regularly with people who hold very different views than yours?" Hands go up around the room. We agree that's a good sign. "It's easier to talk to a Muslim or a Jew or a Hindu than to talk to a Conservative Presbyterian right now," says one blogger. "The lines have been drawn in the sand." "If you're Christian you're nose-to-jowl constantly [with people who define your faith differently than you do,]" says Mata H.

Mik (JSpot) adds, "My experience has been that blogs attract people with very different opinions who maybe show up just to cause trouble, and I don't think that's terribly productive. On the other hand...how can we create forums on our blogs such that people are brought there to engage in real dialogue instead of to flame and incite?"

Chris (Philocrates) talks about TimesandSeasons.org, a Mormon site which spans the spectrum of Mormon political thought. Their email conversations became the basis for their blog, and it attracts a broad range of Mormon opinion. And because the bloggers are invested in remaining friends, they've obligated the commentors to be civil to each other. In the years since he left the Mormon church, he sees things like this site as a positive sign that creates community.

Steve (CrossLeft) isn't that interested in the conversation between communities because he fears that progressives know what we're against but don't know what we're for, and if we get into dialogue at this point we're not sure what we're saying. "We need to get together ourselves first, progressive Christians but also progressive folks in an interfaith context, and then have those conversations." We're against tax cuts for the rich, but we don't have a clearly-defined way of eliminating poverty. We need to redefine what progressive means.

But Tim Simpson  -- the president of the Christian Alliance for Progress, who blogs as Public Theologian -- who comes out of an evangelical Christian tradition points out that there's value in challenging the status quo for people in that community -- there are people who've never heard a Christian minister champion gay rights or speak against the war. Hearing that kind of thing can be transformational. "The people who are the meanest trolls are the people who are operating out of their deepest fears. They fear their own doubt."

Bruce Prescott notes that it's hard to find a progressive Christian on talk radio. How can we communicate, how can we get our message out, when we're not on the airwaves? What kind of a nation are we going to be -- a pluralistic nation that respects the rights of every person? He offers the point that what we're doing here may be really important work.

Emily asks "if the most important work we can do right now is extending our connections, letting people know that we're out there in all different traditions...how do we make that go farther than simply pointing? How do we turn a blogroll into a dialogue?" Pearlbear suggests that the work we're doing here, meeting and making connections, isn't in any way opposed to the work of meeting people in our traditions who are more conservative than we. Indeed, these can help each other.

Omar notes that the fact of this gathering suggests that as powerful as our blogs may be, this shows that we need to meet in person. He blogs at MuslimWakeUp and Progressive Muslims Meetup, and considers himself a progressive Muslim. He relates to a lot of what people have been saying: should we bother to engage the religious right? Or should we wait until we're better-organized? (And so on.) He points to two issues that inflame the radical fringe in his community: women's rights and the mixed-gender (and woman-led) Muslim prayer service, and gay rights. And the question became: how do or should we engage these parts of our community?

Islamoyankee adds some thoughts about how charged the term "progressive" is within Islam, and about extremism within Islam. He thinks extremism is happening both on the right and on the left. "The question is, what does it mean to be liberal or progressive?" And this is a big debate within the tradition. "The point is, where do we situate the text, and how do we use the text to move ourselves forward?"

I closed us with the metaphor of roots and branches: if our roots go deep into our traditions, if we're drawing on real sustenance from there, where do we want our branches to grow? And that was all we had time for; the conversation will continue at meals, in our blogs, and in the friendships we make and sustain this weekend and beyond.

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