Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A vocabulary of hope

Prelude: Herzlich tut mich verlangen ~ F. W. Zachau ~ Bart Dahlstrom, organ


Bahá'ì                         Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.

Christianity                 All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, so ye do to them, for this is the law and the prophets. - Matthew 7:1

Confusianism             Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state. - Analects 12:2

Buddhism                   Hurt no other in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. - Udana-Varga 5,1

Hinduism                    This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you. - Mahabharata 5,1517

Islam                           No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. - Sunnah

Judaism                      What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary. - Talmud, Shabat 3id

Taoism                        Regard your neighbor's gain as your gain, and your neighbor's loss as your own loss. - Tai Shang Kan Yin P'ien

Zoroastrianism           That nature alone is good which refrains from doing another whatsoever is not good for itself. - Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5

Postlude: O Lamm Gotts, unschuldig - BWV 656 ~ J. S. Bach ~ Bart Dahlstrom, organ

This semester we’ve been asked to share our hopes for the coming term.  Thinking about this, I started reflecting on the word “hope.”   In troubled times, that seems like a scarce commodity.   Martin Luther King said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”  Perhaps we can also say that it’s the language of the hopeless.   So one hope I have for the coming term is to be able to offer a vocabulary of hope.  Hope can be used with many shades of meaning.  But I mean not a naïve expectation that everything will turn out OK, but rather a sense of agency.  It’s a belief in our capacity to act and make a difference.   

To believe this is not to ignore history, but to understand it.  The 20th century, for example, saw the retreat of antiquated world views such as male superiority and white supremacy.  At the beginning of the century in the US, women could not vote, were excluded from many professions, and regarded as an inferior breed – barriers that fell during the course of the century.   In 1900, reconstruction had ended in the South and the nation was headed into a period that marked the low point in the history of race relations.   2008 marked the election of the first black president.   In the wake of two ruinous world wars, the world took its first clumsy steps toward international governance.   Nations voluntarily started creating instruments of governance on an international level that mediate disputes, set standards of international law and human rights, and undertake humanitarian work in the fields of health, education, and economic development. These instruments are clearly flawed, but their historical significance should not be underestimated.  

Yes, there’s still racism, sexism, and violent conflict.   But we’ve crossed a threshold of beginning to recognize the oneness of the human family and beginning to implement this principle in our institutions.   Despite temporary setbacks, there’s no going back.

The 20th century also saw the rise of an interfaith movement, in which followers of historically antagonistic religions were drawn together; by the end of the century interfaith gatherings and services were common, something unthinkable a few decades earlier.   But is there a danger that these efforts become a feel-good exercise that lacks a coherent purpose and spiritual commitment?  Can religion catalyze the kinds of progress I’ve described?  Or will it still be captive to narrow sectarian dogmas that divide and balkanize humanity, suppress the life of the mind, and sow the seeds of hatred and fanaticism?   The goal of interfaith work, as I see it, is to enable the world’s religious communities rise to the challenge of promoting the high aims of ennobling human character, encouraging the investigation of reality, creating authentic relationships, and building a just and progressive civilization.

Last fall, in The Tech, I spoke out in defense of the Muslims on campus, while at the same time calling on the world’s Muslim religious leaders to allow for greater critical inquiry and efforts for reformation.    I also stressed the importance of interfaith work.   I’m happy to report that a group of students have responded to this call, and have begun to conduct a series of dinner gatherings that draw together participants from diverse religions.   My hope is that we can create close friendships, have probing discourse, and do collaborative work on the task of building the world for which we hope.

Speaker: Brian Aull, Bahá'í Chaplain, MIT