Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Teaching in a Time of Terror

lights the pyramids to show solidarity
with the people of , and
(Seen in The Guardian)
Just wrapped up my last round of 2015 public speaking, admittedly with some trepidation in light of the events unfolding in Paris as my travels began Friday evening.

A major terrorist attack. Another one!

But this one struck a stronger chord than usual with the American media and the public. It set off eddies of Americans talking about how they felt about the media coverage and media coverage about how Americans felt about the media coverage, and so on, until many news sources seem full of conspiracy theories and hawkish reactions. Mine were full of denouncements of those conspiracy theories and somewhat ridiculous statements about pursuing peace and unity (many, ironically, by calling for people to be more upset about more things, though others seemed mostly upset that people were upset and wanted everyone to just calm down). Seemed everybody was commenting on everything else until I dare not say or support anything at all, not with so many people so touchy.

Next on my plate is editing and publishing a set of Missions Catalyst News Briefs, and that will be delicate too, but there at least there's some time to pick and choose words and carefully frame them. Whereas getting up in front of these three Michigan Perspectives classes and talking about Muslims, immigrants and refugees, and understanding people from different cultures and religions, well, that seemed a bit fraught with peril. I didn't want to make things worse or add to what seems, to be, a growing cacophony of emotion and opinion.

One thing I folded in which I hope people found helpful was a discussion of essentialism and nominalism. Picked this up from the class I took a few years ago on contemporary issues in Islam.

Author Matthew Stone asks: what do we think of as being "really real," Islam, the Arab culture, and "the Muslim mind," and similar theories, ideals, and abstractions? Or are such things merely labels and models, simplified maps that may or may not accurately reflect the nuances of the religion, culture, or mindset of the specific community or individual in front of us, and guide us where we want to go? "Essentialism" focuses on the abstraction, while "nominalism" is more concerned with the specific or individual, what people have to say for themselves, not what they are "supposed to" believe or do according to a book or religious leader. Stone warns against what he calls cultural determinism, the idea that people come out of culture and religion factories and can be understood and evaluated according to what we think that factory is supposed to produce.

I think it's an esssentialist argument, for example, that the Qu'ran says (in places) that Christians are the enemy and Islam will triumph in the end, therefore "real" Muslims believe that, therefore "the Muslims" hate Christians and are trying to take over the world. So anyone who says otherwise, e.g., Christians like me or Muslims you actually meet who protest that kind of conclusion vehemently, are lying to you or deceiving themselves. A nominalist point of view can accept that there are Islamists who are trying to take over the world as well as lots of moderates who see things quite differently. Neither one is the "real Muslim," because what's a "real Muslim," anyway?

The making of maps and models gives us tools for communicating and understanding one another, but such tools can only take us so far. We soon find that people are much more diverse and complex. 

See also Models for Ministry (and their limitations).