By:Stephen Chartrand- Specialty News Editor
In Feb. 13, Brock University hosted an interfaith discussion panel organized by Adam Cowan of the Student Justice Centre and, Collin Glavac and Rev. David Galston of Brock University’s Faith and Life Centre. Moderated by Prof. Galston, the panelists included student representatives from the Hindu Chinmaya Mission (Vikas Gupta and Madhav Khurana), Jordan Lee of Power to Change (Christian), Avi Ben-Zyi of Brock Chabad (Jewish), Aaron from the Muslim Students Association, Laura Raaymakers and Amanda Hendriks of the Brock Catholic Students Association, and Colin Anthes representing humanism.
The turnout was more than we expected. An audience of perhaps 40 to 50 students packed Thistle 259 to hear what the panelists had to say. The two-hour discussion was moderated by Prof. Galston who prepared five questions that would be asked to each of the panelists. As a result of the discssion, there was not enough time during either the hour-long formal discussion or the informal coffeehouse discussion at the Rita Welch Meditation Centre which followed it to get through all the questions. However, the representatives were asked in the allotted time to describe their faith, what it means to them in an increasingly secularized world, and how their faith or non-belief informs their opinions on controversial subjects.
Mr. Aaron, of the Muslim Students Associated, provided in his opening remarks, a distillation of the central tenets or five pillars of Islam and a brief overview of the characteristic qualities that define the true Muslim. In the “religion of peace,” Mr. Aaron emphasized, its first pillar is the “affirmation there is no god but God, [and] Muhammad is his messenger.” Obligatory prayers five times a day, almsgiving (charity), fasting during the month of Ramadhan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca embody this identity. His faith, Mr. Aaron said, has “taught [him] to fight [his] prejudices,” to look inward upon himself “rather than looking upon others,” and to be “a more optimistic person.” In one of the more interesting commentaries I encountered, I spoke with two ladies from the MSA during our coffeehouse discussion about the subject of moderate Islam in Canada. “We do feel,” they said, “the public is not approaching us to understand our faith but that we in the Muslim community are also not doing our part to help the broader public to understand as well.”
Colin Anthes, representing humanism, explained his position philosophically and through enlightenment values, that humanist thinking is rooted in “reason, empathy, ethics, and critical thinking.” But more importantly, Anthes stressed, “humanism rejects the idea that this life is merely just a dress rehearsal for the afterlife,” that religion fails to recognize “every human being is valuable in of themselves and is deserving of unconditional positive regard.” On the subject of secular society, Anthes was challenged by an audience member that without God, humanism inevitably appeals to total relativism wherein there is no absolute truth or absolute morality. Anthes responded that if one understands the philosophical implications correctly, “relativism cannot override our sense of empathy” for our fellow human beings.
Avi Ben-Zyi of Brock’s Chabad, representing Judaism, said in his remarks that while “exploring the Torah” and his commitment to his faith help guide him; “Judaism,” he said, “embraces the secular world.” It “offers advantages” and challenges one to make the right decisions in life in light of his faith, he said. Even though “some aspects of the Torah are wrong,” Avi said, “it teaches us not to hate, to follow the Golden Rule, and to respect everyone in society.”
For Jordan Lee of Power to Change, a Christian group, “my faith is my purpose,” he said. “It’s my identity, everything else is secondary.” For Lee, because we are fallen creatures born of sin, “We cannot reach heaven on our own nor can we be righteous on our own,” Lee said. Only by pursuing a personal relationship with God can we hope for salvation and “God’s grace,” Lee remarked. On the issue of controversial subjects, he discussed homosexuality and how his faith informs his opinions. From what the Bible instructs, on homosexuality, “it is wrong and sinful, [but] it does not encourage us to hate or disrespect people; we have to be accepting,” Lee said.
Vikas Gupta and Madhav Khurana, speaking for Brock’s Chinmaya Mission, represented Hindusim. For Gupta and Khurana, Hinduism is a broad and deeply philosophical faith. Between seeking salvation, a freedom from worldly attachments, and enlightenment, they described Hinduism as a “monotheistic-polytheistic theism.” A mix of faith and philosophy that “guides our behaviour” and “brings us closer to self-realization and self-integration,” they said. However, there is a tension between their faith and our modern secular society because Hinduism does not emphasize individual rights but community; nonetheless, both Gupta and Khurana see their faith as one that encourages its practitioners to question it, to not follow it blindly and to respect the freedom of others.
Laura Raaymakers and Amanda Hendriks of the Brock Catholic Students Association were also representing the Christian faith on the panel. From their perspective, the Bible and its traditions, the seven sacraments, and the example of Jesus Christ, “guides everything [we] do,” said Amanda Hendriks, “it is written on [our] hearts.” On the subject of abortion, while we must “always show love and charity,” they emphasized, the act of abortion is “inherently wrong.” In slight contrast to Jordan Lee, Raaymakers and Hendriks remarked that Christianity is “the last acceptable prejudice” in todays secular society.
As productive, insightful, and open as the discussions were, I left the event feeling slightly discombobulated. We failed to address at any great length the very purpose of the event: co-existence. How is a tranquil and harmonious multifaith society to be achieved? Is interfaith dialogue enough or is the secular godless constitution our only solution? Another panel beckons.