When I was a child it was a common social norm that one should never discuss religion, sex or politics in polite company.
The reason behind the saying was clear – any discussion involving these subjects would inevitably create social discomfort, if not outright argument. It was always better to keep things ‘nice’.
But as I’ve always found the topic of religion fascinating rather than disturbing, the prospect of devoting four days to a broad ranging discussion of faith and its place in the world seemed likely to be an entertaining and stimulating way to spend a wet Melbourne winter weekend.
During the three Faith and Culture events I attended, passionate philosophers with diverse perspectives put forward their arguments for how we should understand the world we live in and the people in it. Lively but respectful debate was the norm and the audience was also polite and interested, small but positive evidence that perhaps we really can be the tolerant, multicultural, multi-faith society we aspire to.
More than 20 speakers participated in the free lectures and panel discussions held over the weekend of June 14-17, many of them internationally acclaimed writers, theologians, philosophers, academics and historians: Dipesh Chakrabarty, Bernard Avishai, Asma Barlas, Stanley Hauerwas, Tariq Morood, Susan Neiman and locals Archbishop Philip Freier, Morag Fraser, Kristina Keneally, Susan Crennan and Shakira Hussein, were just a few of the names included in the impressive line-up. Members of the three great Western religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism, were all represented, as were believers and non-believers of all varieties.
Curated by author and moral philosopher Raimond Gaita, and organised by The Wheeler Centre, Faith and Culture: the Politics of Belief sought to understand what it ‘means to be religious and the role of the voice faith in the conversation of citizens in a multicultural, democratic state and in the community of nations’.
On Friday night, acclaimed Texan born theologian and self proclaimed theocrat Stanley Hauerwas presented his lecture The Voice of Faith in the Conversations of Citizens, a dense speech that at times I struggled to understand, making me feel like a student who has come to class without having done the reading. Jumping straight into an intellectual discussion of Christianity, subtle distinctions wriggled out of my grasp as I struggled to understand the references.
Mr Hauerwas packed so many big ideas into his speech, most of them unfamiliar, that it was like listening to a new language. Yet a few key messages leapt out: Christ’s beliefs have political implications; if war is not just, what is it? And another puzzling idea – Christendom is on its way out, leaving the church free to be what it must be. But what exactly that future might be was unclear to me.
The moments Mr Hauerwas stopped to spontaneously explain a point or elaborate an argument worked best, making it clear that as always, successful communication is all in the delivery. Having an essay read to you is far less compelling than engaging in a real conversation. That’s why when he was joined on stage by facilitator Morag Fraser, NSW MP and former Premier Kristina Kenneally and Archbishop Philip Freier, the evening became more lively. It also soon became clear that the serious Mr Hauerwas also had a sharp sense of humour as well as a powerful intellect, making digs at contemporary American society worthy of a stand-up comedian.
US-born Kristina Keneally was thoughtful on the subject of her Catholicism and both she and Mr Hauerwas expressed the need to find like minded Christians to help them keep their faith. Archbishop Freier was surprisingly meek, happy to listen to the two talkative Americans.
Stanley Hauerwas’ theological abstraction was a difficult entry into this lecture series and I left hoping that the next day’s presentations would be more accessible.
In BMW Edge on Saturday afternoon, Susan Neiman focused on the ways the philosophers of the enlightenment fundamentally changed the way we think about God and helped create the modern era. The author of Moral Clarity, and a director of The Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Ms Neiman has the gift for telling a story and her reading of the philosophers of the age made me want to start a reading list of own: Kant, Voltaire, Socrates, Hume and Ms Neiman’s own books on morality and evil all joined my new must-read or re-read to do list.
In The Voice of Faith and the Challenge of Reason in National and International Politics Ms Neiman gave us a brief overview of the most important enlightenment thinkers, delighting in some of their most controversial and pointed criticisms of traditional religion. Yet she argued that the concept of a wise and powerful creator was one of the things that should be preserved from traditional religion. She spoke of reverence as the source of true religion – a concept best explained by what it is not than what it is. Gratitude for our creation and our dependency on was also part of the equation, she said.
In the next session, Ms Neiman was joined on stage by facilitator Shakira Hussein and feisty and assertive speakers Asma Barlas (The Voice of Faith in Islam’s Challenge to Europe) and Tariq Morood (The Voice of Faith and the Challenge of Democratic Multiculturalism), making me instantly regret that I had missed their sessions earlier that day.
Throughout these sessions discussion of God was notably absent. Gender politics, the media, war, feminism, faith, community, justice, and the place of hope – to both inspire and to provide a practical road-map for change – all had their place in the discussion.
During the panel discussion, Susan Neiman referred to herself as a Pollyanna, always looking for reasons to be grateful. That a group of diverse thinkers representing a range of beliefs and philosophies could come together to passionately and peacefully discuss the ways in which we might move forward to a better, more just society, seemed a very good place to start.