Three internationally known scholars of Judaism, Catholicism and Islam came together for “World Religions — Finding Common Ground,” an event hosted by the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study on Wednesday evening.
Panelists included Amir Hussain, a Canadian Muslim and professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University; Pim Valkenberg, specialist in Christian-Muslim dialogue and professor of religion and culture in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.; and Rabbi Reuven Firestone, regenstein professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and faculty member of the School of Religion and the Middle East Studies Center at USC. Varun Soni, dean of the Office of Religious Life, moderated the panel.
All three panelists are scholars-in-residence for the fall 2016 semester through a research program jointly sponsored by the USC Caruso Catholic Center and the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC. Wednesday’s discussion was the first of several conversations occurring throughout the semester, centered on the theme “Race, Faith, & Violence: Learning from Three Religions.”
James Heft, USC’s Alton M. Brooks professor of religion, introduced the event by emphasizing the importance of interfaith engagement.
“It is important to realize that our country talks about toleration, and that’s a good alternative to violence, but it doesn’t build friendship. Instead of just toleration, what you really want and [what] this evening is about is engagement — respectful, informed engagement,” he said.
Amir Hussain also stressed the importance of interfaith understanding, specifically for reducing conflict.
“[It is key that] we know each other’s stories. Because like it or not, we are in each other’s lives and need to deal with each other, from a roommate-level conflict to much greater conflicts,” Hussain said.
Much of the discussion centered on a challenge all three religions have in common: engaging young people. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has grown rapidly in recent years, from 36.6 million in 2007 to 55.8 million in 2014. This unaffiliated segment skews towards millennials, with 35 percent of those born between 1981 and 1996 considering themselves unidentified. At USC, two-thirds of students consider themselves to be more spiritual than religious, according to Dean Soni.
“There is always constant tension between tradition and innovation, between the ancient and sacred and something more relevant, with things moving so much more quickly today,” Firestone said. “I think all three of our religions have failed to do a good job of translating the aspects of our traditions into ways that are relevant in the modern age.”
However, Valkenberg noted that the growing number of young people who don’t identify with a religion could be a good thing, if it means they are taking their time to develop their religion.
“I think that it’s a good thing as a student that you can look around and just develop, and I’m coming from the Netherlands, where ‘none,’ is the dominant religion,” he said.
The three scholars will participate in events for the “Race, Faith, and Violence” series throughout the semester. The official kick-off event for the series, “The Great Divide: Faith and Politics in America Today,” is scheduled for Sept. 8.