If religion is the opium of the people, as Karl Marx suggested, then the world just may be one toke over the line, to quote those well-known philosophers Brewer and Shipley.
Pope Francis was not thinking of Marx when he made his prophetic call that the church be an inclusive “home for all” and not a “small chapel” for select groups. But his timing could not be better. Today’s religiously charged political climate is bubbling over. We see it in Syria and the Sudan, in Iraq and Ireland, in Afghanistan and, at times, in America. And it’s not discriminating. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and others are all affected.
The Pope’s vision that “God is all promise” is echoed by Eboo Patel, a distinguished Muslim advocate for interfaith dialogue, who believes the nation’s colleges and universities can be catalysts for productive faith-filled discernment and service.
A member of President Obama’s Faith-based Neighborhood Partnership and CEO of the Interfaith Youth Core, Patel was recently in economically hard-hit Reading, Pa., to talk to students and community members about the interplay of religion and politics. He believes students at American colleges can become interfaith leaders, marshaling the mind-power, energy and enthusiasm needed to make religion a bridge, not a barrier -- a shield, not a sword.
It’s a vision compatible with the Pope’s challenging analogy -- that the church be a “field hospital” after a battle, where wounds are healed.
It is not just in the Middle East that religion is used to divide, even polarize, societies. History provides a sad encyclopedia of examples, including the long history of religious prejudice in the United States. The presence of Patel on Alvernia University’s campus drew objections from some outside the university who complained about the mere appearance of a Muslim, just as they had when an imam participated in an interfaith service at my inauguration.
Universities are often criticized for hosting a speaker who holds positions at odds with a particular religious perspective. Outside protesters at my campus did not object to the content of Senator Robert Casey’s recent lecture, but instead felt that because of some of his opinions, he should be barred from speaking at a Catholic university.
It is ironic that the speeches of Patel and Casey dealt with the importance of civility and respectful discussion about religious and political differences. And ironic, too, that both men sought to motivate students to be active citizens. Such controversies help explain why religion sometimes gets a bad rap.
Yet religion is, for many, a positive inspiration for personal and social transformation. Religion can unite rather than divide us, especially in a country with a far stronger tradition of tolerance than of narrowness and prejudice. And it is in the university that differences of religion and politics should be engaged -- disputed strongly, sometimes stridently, yet always responsibly.
The university, in its treatment of such differences, should model for students the democratic culture envisioned by Thomas Jefferson and others. It should be a “sacred space” for dialogue and debate. A place where students are encouraged to explore the values -- including religious beliefs -- that they hold dear.
There is social good in this: studies confirm that religious people are significantly more likely to be civically engaged and serving those in need. So those colleges and universities shaped by distinctive religious traditions -- be they Catholic, Lutheran, or otherwise -- have added responsibility to ensure ethical, values-based perspectives infuse intellectual inquiry and campus culture.
Before his convocation address, Patel and I discussed his observation that Catholic universities are ideal places for Muslim students since such schools support the personal and spiritual growth of all students. By celebrating differences of belief and the common ground of shared values, interfaith dialogue models the civil discourse at the heart of the contemporary university.
Marx’s dismissal of religion as an opiate may seem strangely out of date today, when religion inspires both destructive strife and positive passion. Interfaith dialogue at a university rebuts Marx by helping ensure religious faith is an active force for good. It requires the self-reflection, collegiality, and genuine openness to the beliefs of others we value on our campuses and sorely need in our nation’s capital and throughout our country.
As Pope Francis said, “We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one.”
Thomas F. Flynn is president of Alvernia University, in Pennsylvania.
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