By James Martin
Interview with Barry Levy
The rise of “reasonable accommodation” as a political hot button in Canada—particularly in Quebec—underscores the great need for McGill’s proposed Institute for Interfaith Studies, which will offer graduate courses, house think-tanks and host conferences. Barry Levy, former dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies, discusses the ideas behind the Institute.
What kind of work at McGill laid the groundwork for proposing the Institute?
For 10 years, we’ve taught a summer course which brings together a half dozen professors of different religions and about 25 undergraduate and graduate students. They’re given a topic; one year was “Dying, Death and Beyond,” another year was “Sexuality, Textuality and Spirituality.” They meet from six to 12 hours a day for dialogue, debate and visiting various Montreal religious communities. It’s a transforming experience, and one little piece of what we’d like to do with the Institute.
Is that success indicative of widespread increased interest in interfaith studies?
There’s been a huge increase. On the organizational level, there’s been remarkable growth. For example: Four years ago, in Seville, Spain, an Israeli think-tank called the Elijah Interfaith Institute brought together over 40 high-level leaders of world religions to discuss the topic of “Hostility, Hospitality and the Hope of Human Flourishing.” Scholars produced papers that demonstrated, from within the classical literatures, how their religions could sustain the notion that each was hospitable to all other religions. The
gathering worked so well that a second one, about the crisis of the holy in world religions, was held in Taiwan a year ago, and there will be a third one in India in November 2007.
At McGill, a lot of the work in the Faculty of Religious Studies has this same interdenominational thrust to it. Last September, we hosted more than 1,800 people, from 85 countries, for a conference dealing with religion after 9/11. Right after that, we co-sponsored a conference about Syria as a crossroads of the world in late antiquity; it brought together Christians, Jews and Muslims.
Is all the interest in interfaith studies at the organizational level?
Not at all. On the grassroots level, we’re really seeing people who want to learn about interfaith, who want to share, to be respectful of each other. Here’s an example: About three years ago, a woman came to me with a project about making art and sharing it with people of different religions around the world. My wife is the principal of a Jewish elementary school in Westmount, and I have colleagues here who are connected with the Muslim school system, so I told her, “We’ll work out an interfaith school project.” A few months later, three schools—one Jewish, one Muslim, one Christian— held a two-day program, with parents, teachers and students making art together and building relationships. But here’s the tragedy: They invited the media, and no one showed up. This was a very successful project, but it wasn’t reported on at all because nobody was burning down a church.
Is too much attention paid to acts of aggression?
Yes, it’s very badly overreported in order to stir up yelling and animosity. And when people do positive things, like the art-making project, they don’t get any coverage whatsoever. So it gives the impression that religions are always attacking each other, but that’s not the truth. Xenophobia exists, but it’s more important that we deal with how to defuse it, rather than to give certain people a forum for continuing their outrageous attitudes. The Institute would produce research and provide training so people would learn how to conduct conflict- resolution meetings and to work for greater harmony in society. But we’re not interested in people patting each other on the head and saying, “You’re wonderful, now tell me how wonderful I am, then we’ll all go home and be happy.” This is about very serious educational activity that gets to the core issues in each religion, that has experts teaching, that has people trying to get inside the dynamics of cultural and religious decision-making.
The whole idea is to create leaders who are actually able to handle these kinds of issues intelligently, and to serve as the facilitators for better understanding and breaking down these barriers. Having closer associations among representatives of these groups will go a long way toward eliminating some of these tensions.