Just us: Where there is hope

By From page A14 | January 29, 2012

* Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from a talk that will be given Sunday at the ninth annual Celebration of Abraham: “Where there is hope…” The event runs from 3 to 5 p.m. at the St. James Catholic Church Memorial Center, 1275 B St. One of many held around the country, the Celebration of Abraham began in the aftermath of 9/11 as a way to affirm and build on the essential interconnection between the Abrahamic faiths — Jewish, Muslim and Christian — in a time of violence, polarization and intolerance. See http://www.celebrationofabraham.net.

I begin with gratitude for the opportunity to sit with, pray with, break bread with, think with and be with people from all walks of life. This, first of all, gives me hope.

But, before going more deeply into hope, I want to start with hopelessness — because, if there were not hopelessness, there would be no need for hope.

Hopelessness is a reasonable response to our world — full of violence, hate, inequity over time, in all places, even our beloved Davis — and even in our own hearts (or at least my heart). When will they ever learn? Will we ever learn…?

I have known hopelessness. Some of this is rooted in personal experience. I have the opportunity in this life be equipped with a mind with a tendency to fall into shadow, and I struggle at times with depression and a sense of being broken, unworthy, unlovable. And yet, these trials also have strengthened my vision to see and nurture hope in the darkness. These personal struggles also have given rise to deeper compassion for the suffering of others.

Some of this hopelessness is political. In our birth century and today, I look around the world and see humans’ inhumanity toward each other: The deep shadows of nationalism, xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and religious extremism are cast across our world.

As a Jew (who also learns humanity from other spiritual traditions), I sometimes feel hopeless at the divides between the faith communities in the world — over versions of scripture and prophets, over geo-politics and over whose ox gored whose? The fact that some of these battles are fought in my name is especially painful. When will they ever learn? Will we ever learn…?

OK: Enough with the hopeless, already!

So, where is hope? Well, as I said, hope is in this room.

What is in this room is precious — precious in part because it is precarious. Precarious, because by simply sitting here together, and reaching out with open hands and open minds, we are attempting something radical.

Coming together across differences, not by shedding our individual or collective identities (Jew, Muslim, Christian), but by reaching out from the heart of these traditions toward each other, and therefore toward a transcendent wisdom that can embrace us all.

This kind of reaching out from inside faith is precarious, because it is all too easy to slip into zero-sum games. We might imagine: If their truth is seen as valid, then our truth is diminished; for our truth to be seen as valid, we must somehow invalidate theirs.

In this either/or vision, the deeper our faith, the more impermeable the boundary that separates us from the other, that elevates us above the other, that positions us in opposition with the other. This is, of course, a recipe for mutually assured destruction, not an especially divine fate.

So, what alternative vision might allow us to see each other, not as barriers or threats to truth, but as pathways drawing us ever deeper into our shared spiritual being? Where is there hope?

I feel hope when — in the words of philosopher Martin Buber — I can see you, not as “other,” but as “Thou.” That is, as human in equal measure to my own, and therefore, possessing the same depth of feeling and deserving of the same dignity I afford and seek myself. And, equally important, I am hopeful when I feel that you see me as Thou.

This is not the same as saying there is no distinction between us, for without distinction, there can be no relationship. I am not Thou: Thou are not I. This is not a call for transcendence; instead, this is a call for a dialogue, an encounter, a reciprocal engagement at the boundary of I and Thou.

To Buber, this was the heart of the religious experience. It was what both makes us fundamentally human and humane, and what opens a connection with the Divine.

I believe that this is the simple and profound work we are doing here today. We are here, sitting in our religious suchness and reaching out to those of other faiths, not as threats, as heretics, as barbarians at the gate, but as Thou.

We are not looking to debate, to convert, to vanquish our each other, or to paper over our differences, but instead to find a deeper connection through them.

This is a pathway of hope. What lessons of shared humanity, what visions of shared aspirations for deeper understanding, for peace, for justice, can we find as we walk this path together? These riches are illuminated in the words of Sufi mystic poet Rumi: “Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field; I will meet you there.”

— Jonathan London, Ph.D., is a Davis resident and parent. He shares this monthly column with Jann Murray-García. Reach him at [email protected]

Jonathan London

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