Wednesday, July 27, 2011

NAIN Report (Day 2)

Rachael and I were up for a 7:30 breakfast meeting of The Interfaith Observer (TIO,  Rachael and I serve on TIO’s Advisory and Editorial Boards, respectively.  About 20 folks associated with TIO are here at NAIN and Paul Chaffee wanted to host a little meet & greet.  In a group of about 30 people, 25 were Christians, 2 were Muslims, and 3 were Witches.  I am noticing that most interfaith efforts seem to be organized and led by Christians & Jews, while the only other folks who show up for the organizing meetings are the ones who feel threatened in our society.  This leaves the few Witches to speak for the interests and concerns of ALL non-Abrahamics.

The opening plenary was introduced by Eldred Spain, the President of the Arizona Interfaith Movement (AIFM).  He introduced a Baha’i named Ernie Bruce who led three other Baha’is in opening prayers: one sung in English, one read in Spanish, one sung in Arabic, and one read in English.

Eldred then introduced the day’s keynote speaker, Dr. Harry Gensler (who will be my co-presenter tomorrow).  Harry is a professor of Philosophy at John Carroll University in Cleveland I was more than a little confused by his presentation.  While he described himself as a leading defender of the Golden Rule, he started right off by saying that “sometimes the Golden Rule is hard to apply & gives confusing results” and so it needs to be reworded to be understood.  He gave us his version: “Treat others only as you consent to be treated in the same situation.”  While he was addressing an audience of religious professionals, his presentation used stories of funny, talking animals to illustrate common “fallacies” in interpreting the Golden Rule and his chronology of the Golden Rule started with its use by Fred Flintstone c. 1,000,000 BC.  This might be fine for a grade school class, but it seemed out of place in this setting.

Harry’s first fallacy was the “literal” one.  This was illustrated by “the foolish GR monkey” seeing a fish in water and knowing that HE wouldn’t want to be underwater, lifting the fish up onto a branch, thereby killing it.  Kita, the smart GR monkey, imagines what it would be like to be a fish, and realizes that if she was in the same situation, she wouldn’t want to be lifted onto the branch.  (“Kita” stands for “Know, Imagine, Test for consistency, Act”.)  I noted that this requires that a person know that they don’t know something in the first place in order to then seek out knowledge.  If the monkey doesn’t know that fishes and monkeys are different, then there is no reason to inquire.  Similarly, people who assume all people are like them won’t inquire into another person’s circumstances before acting.

Fallacy #2 was the “soft” one.  In this example, Willy, the baby squirrel, wants to stick his fingers in a light socket and Mama Squirrel follows the Golden Rule and lets him do it, to predictably ill effect.  Many of us found it difficult to imagine ANY mother stopping to consider the Golden Rule ramifications before protecting their children, but be that as it may, this example requires that one party have superior knowledge such that they can say to themselves “Well, if the other person knew what I know, then they would want me to act this way.”  I found this highly problematic since most humans tend to assume that they know more than others and this would provide a carte blanche for subverting the intent of the Golden Rule.

Fallacy #3 was the “doormat” fallacy.  This basically interpreted the GR to say “I wouldn’t want someone to say ‘No’ if I asked for money, so I can’t say ‘No’ to them when they ask me.”  The workaround requires thinking, as Harry said, “But hey, I’m willing that others say ‘no’ to me in similar circumstances!”  I can think of a LOT of folks through whose heads Harry’s thought would never cross.

Fallacy #4 was the “third-party” one.  This did not consider the effect on third parties.  The example was giving someone an undeserved A in a class so the person could get into law school.  The third-party effects could include another, deserving person NOT getting into the same school and, later, another person hiring a crappy lawyer.  The workaround requires yet another alteration and expansion of the Golden Rule: “Act only as you’re willing for anyone to act in the same situation, regardless of where or when you imagine yourself or others.”  At this point, I was beginning to feel that if the main defender of the Golden Rule was having to restate it and amplify it so often, then he was making the case for its inadequacy for me.

The final fallacy Harry presented was the “easy” one.  This boiled down to mistakenly thinking that the Golden Rule could be easily applied in all circumstances without thought or consideration.  You can say that again, as the above has shown.

I couldn’t help thinking that the more Harry said how much the Golden Rule needs to be reworded and amplified to apply it properly, the more he undermined the argument that the Golden Rule is “the’ guiding moral principle.

During the Q & A that followed I pointed out that Harry had argued both that the Golden Rule is severely undermined whenever we assume that we know more than the other person and that (in the case of Fallacy #2) it was necessary to assume a position of superior knowledge to prevent little Willy Squirrel from electrocuting himself.  Since humans are usually prone to assuming that they know more than others, I asked, doesn’t this create a considerable risk in being guided solely by the Golden Rule?  Harry’s response was basically that “we have to be better in knowing when we do and don’t have superior knowledge.”  I remained unconvinced.

The morning presenters introduced themselves and gave previews of their programs, followed by a short break.

During the break, I reconnected with Earl Smith of the Church of Scientology of Toronto.  We had shared a suite at the first NAIN Connect I attended in Southern California many years ago and had had many wee-hour conversations about Wicca and Scientology.  Earl is a great spokesman for Scientology and I always enjoy conversations with him.

After the break, we had our first choice of workshops, between:
* The Golden Rule and the Ethics of Reciprocity
* Women Transcending Boundaries
* The Golden Rule Curriculum for Schools

I attended the first, given by Jeffrey Wattles, Professor of Philosophy at Kent State University.  Jeff discussed Golden Rule-like concepts, wandering between Chinese Confucianism, Ancient Greek philosophy, early Jewish thought, and late 19th century US Christian Revivalism.  In the last case, he focused on the philanthropic life of textile businessman Arthur Nash.  This last was the most interesting part for me as he discussed how ministers & businessmen (not theologians) emphasized the Golden Rule as “a mean between competitive ruthlessness and naïve idealism” in guiding ethical business practice.  (“How do I make money and still be a good guy?”)  He also discussed the Golden Rule’s use as a symbol at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions of interfaith unity, cooperation, and friendship.

He closed with an interesting quote from Moby Dick, but without comment, leaving several of us wondering what point he intended to convey.  Ishmael writes about Queequeg:

<< He then went about his evening prayers, took out his idol, and removed the paper fireboard. By certain signs and symptoms, I thought he seemed anxious for me to join him; but well knowing what was to follow, I deliberated a moment whether, in case he invited me, I would comply or otherwise.
I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth - pagans and all included - can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? - to do the will of God - that is worship. And what is the will of God? - to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me - that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. >> (page 51)

For whatever reason, Jeff didn’t give us the rest of the quote:

<< So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world. >>

In the second morning session, we had two workshops to choose from:
* The Golden Rule and the UN
* Women’s Leadership.

Again, I attended the first one, led by Grove Harris, who is known to many of us.  This was a VERY good presentation on the ins and outs of trying to do spiritual / environmental work at the UN.  Grove discussed the complexities of protocol, the competition for time and resources between different administrative entities, the personal difficulty if addressing heart-rending global crises in clinical terms, and more. 

She said that at first she was put off by the US’s approach of never signing on to anything that they weren’t already doing, until she saw how many declarations and plans full of lofty words and expressions of intent came to nothing.  She talked about the “buzz words” and phrases that can get you into hot water because they refer to some conflict behind the scenes that you may know nothing about.

She gave us a thumbnail sketch of many of the UN groups that would be of interest to us:
* Interfaith Consortium for Environmental Concerns
* Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
* High Level Panel on Sustainability
* Forum on Forests
* Forum on Oceans
* United Nations Environmental Program
* UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
* Rio +20 / Green Economy

Grove said that all documents and declarations are finalized BEFORE the events about them, so folks are surprised when they show up for a conference and discover that they have no input into the document coming out of the conference.  The time for input is well in advance of the event.

She said that the UN buildings are constantly under construction as the number of countries in the world continues to increase.  Delegations from new, small, poor countries arrive at great expense only to find that only a couple of their people can have an office.

She reminded us that ALL negotiations at the UN are political.  Each delegation is representing, first and foremost, the interests of THEIR people.  Political interests and consensus process are often in tension.  There is also a great tension between human rights and environmental protection.  Many delegations have no choice but to focus on the immediate, desperate humanitarian needs of their people, relegating the ultimately more crucial issues of environmental collapse to second place.  Grove commented that the Golden Rule really didn’t offer much guidance in these matters since it is so human-centered.

(Actually, there was a LOT of information in Grove’s presentation.  Too much to even try to reproduce here.  Fortunately, NAIN was videotaping the talks and they’ll be available soon on the NAIN website.)

During the Q & A, the issue of overpopulation came up often.  Grove said that there is a constant focus on feeding people rather than having fewer people in the first place, and that it is vitally important that the religions get on board with endorsing condom distribution and use.

After this session, most of the folks got onto buses to visit a local Indian temple – very unusual in that it combines a Jain temple and a Hindu temple in a single complex (  Once again, I stayed at the hotel, since the visit would involve a sumptuous Indian feast for lunch, a gracious act of hospitality that I would have to refuse.  Rachael also remained to work on a project for the NAIN Board, so we grabbed lunch in the Mexican restaurant in the hotel.

When everyone returned, we had a panel on “Broad Questions Faced by Interfaith in the 21st Century”.  Salim Jaffer, a Muslim, spoke about the importance of reaching out to youth and about looking to Canada as a model of religious pluralism.  Rabbi David Kunin, who had originally prepared a program somewhat similar to mine, but found himself placed on this panel instead, read the foreword from his paper warning about the dangers of a “narrative of similarity” in which the uniqueness of our faith traditions is lost in language that implies greater similarity than actually exists.  His points were clear, concise, and very well-received.  Beverly George, a practitioner of Soka Gakkai Buddhism, tried to make some point about dependent origination using Buddha’s story of the Poisoned Arrow, but I confess that neither Rachael nor I could figure out what point she was trying to make.  Finally, Jason Smith, whose faith tradition was listed as “Young Adult”, brought up some very interesting thoughts about how the interfaith movement might engage “secularists” and “exclusivists”.  His remarks were also very well-received.

During the Q & A, Bettina Gray (current NAIN Chair and long-time interfaith friend, dating back to the Berkeley Interfaith Council) mentioned that 20 years ago, Diana Eck (of Harvard’s Pluralism Project) had warned that while the “exclusivists” rejected the faith traditions of others, we could also b e SO INclusive that we ended up doing the same thing.  David observed that while a syncretic religion could be a member of NAIN, syncretic religiosity itself is not a goal of NAIN.

After a short break, we reconvened for NAIN’s actual annual business meeting.  Unlike CoG, almost all of NAIN’s business is conducted by its Board and is merely ratified by their membership at the annual meeting.  There was a remembrance of those who had passed in the last year, the usual introductions of and thank yous to the Board Members (including Rachael), approval of the previous year’s minutes, and a presentation of the budget for next year: ~ $9000, over half of which is for youth scholarships.  However, this budget is a deficit one and the Board pledged to raise more money.  Even so, they did not raise the membership dues, which are $125 for an organization.  Rachael was appointed Chair of the Internal Communications Committee.  Next year’s NAIN will be in Atlanta GA and NAIN Connect 2013 will be in Toronto.

After the meeting, it was back on the busses for a trip to the L.D.S. Student Center at Arizona State University.  Our L.D.S. hosts told us about the recently-opened center before serving us a yummy dinner.  Dinner was followed by a panel of the 10 recipients of Young Adult scholarships to attend the NAIN Connect.  They were asked to answer questions about using the Golden Rule in their interfaith work.  While the Golden Rule itself seemed to have little bearing on their answers, we were VERY impressed with just how much they are doing in community service and how deep their commitment to interfaith in their private and professional lives seemed to be.  (I wasn’t able to take notes or I would have a lot more to say, as the Young Adults were the most interesting and lively part of the whole program.)

On the busride back to the hotel, I sat with Josh and had a fascinating discussion of “religious naturalism” as a new form of atheism gaining popularity among the youth, which sounds suspiciously to me like a less devotional form of Neopaganism.  We agreed that there are some important connections to be made here and exchanged emails to pursue later.

Over dinner, I had been informed that some strings had been pulled behind the scenes and a separate room had been arranged so that Harry and I could each present our own programs in a full time slot.  This was great news, but meant that I now had to take what I had prepared for half of a joint presentation and retool it into a single, 50-minute piece.  Staying up late attending to that made this report a day late.

More to come... the last day of the conference.

Blessed Be,
Don Frew
National Interfaith Representative

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