Wednesday, August 04, 2010

London and Oxford, July 2010--Part 3 (Roundtable, Day 1)

I woke up Monday morning to the sound of pigeons--something I would hear every morning in Oxford. There were two that liked to sit on top of the chapel, and one liked to hang out in the tree outside my window. I've seen pigeons on streets, in parks, many places--but I've never heard the sound they made. It was a bit disconcerting at first--almost reminded me of an owl. The weather was refreshingly cool; if my trip had been worth nothing else, it was worth getting away from the disgusting, hot, humid Northeast U.S. weather. I think someone needs to do a study on weather and depression/anxiety, independent of seasonal affective disorder.

Monday was the first real "work" day of the Round Table conference. Breakfast was at 7:30, and we were in sessions from 8:30 to 4, with one coffee break and a lunch break at 12. I know the approach to this conference was supposed to be more seminar-like, perhaps more like a think-tank, but I really didn't know what to expect. As it turns out, there are multiple presentations (I hesitate to say "papers", as no one could possibly deliver a long paper in 20 minutes), followed by about 20 minutes of discussion. Sometimes two or three papers were grouped together, with one 20-minute discussion period. Someone is chosen to "lead" the discussion by making the first comments, and/or asking the first question.

On this first day, we had 9 presentations. The morning sessions were largely devoted to religious liberty and law, though there was one presentation on Montesquieu's thought and its application to religious liberty. The very first presentation discussed the difficulties in U.S. policy making due to the frequent overlapping of religious and secular interests. The line between "church" and "state" is not always so clear cut--in fact, it's not clear cut at all in some areas. A later presentation discussed the specifics of Constitutional law as it relates to religion in the United States. I think the paper that struck me the most in the morning session was by Dr. Leslie James, who talked about religious tolerance in the context of post-colonialism. Dr. James was originally from the Caribbean, and found it interesting that all of us ex-British colonists (this would include U.S. Americans) were back at the "center" in the UK, and wondered how religions shape themselves in the midst of Empires. Disintegration tends to prompt a sense of retention--a need to "retain" the previous identity. He questioned how we might get beyond that point.

The afternoon sessions were a bit more--controversial. There were some very good talks on tolerance, and one on the history of Native American persecution in the United States, which is often overlooked. Unfortunately, the discussion of that paper was overshadowed by the very last one, a geneticist trying to shoehorn certain findings about DNA structure and the intelligence of apes into a justification for the Biblical creation story. Many of us were not involved in the "hard" sciences, but those that were said the paper was full of factual scientific errors, never mind trying to apply it to religion.

I should note that we had a number of conservative, "anti-evolution" folks at this conference. And while everyone was cordial to each other--including these folks--it was clear at the table that they felt they were at war, under attack. They may not have said too much, but in looking at their faces--their fists were clenched, their face was hard set, eyes bulging, like they would explode. Almost anything said in favor of evolution or hard science was met with a sniping or passive-aggressive response, as if we were there trying to "score" points for one side or the other. It's rather sad, because Christianity can be perfectly valid without all of this literalism--it's not necessary, and doesn't invalidate the value of the Biblical text for believers. It was not ever meant to be read so literally (I've shared my views on that in many blog posts), and I don't understand the need to paint oneself into that corner in the name of "Christianity". You'll notice that Jews, who are the people who wrote the creation stories, all 5 of them, and all different, don't validate this interpretation. But I could go on about that for far too long, as anyone studying comparative religion could, so I'll stop here. To be fair, there were people on the "science" side of the debate who could be equally dogmatic, not allowing for any validity in the religious worldview. It was an interesting continuum.

With regard to the geneticist, I had to mentally compare my own interest in quantum physics, and the theory of a holographic universe (discussed in another blog posting). I could take that theory and say, "This is evidence for the Hindu notion of maya--everything is an illusion." While it's an interesting correlation, it proves nothing from an academic standpoint, and isn't even necessarily meaningful. But it was hard for me to comment on the discussion, without getting embroiled in it. And I have no need to get embroiled in the virtues of the dichotomy, as I don't really see the need for the dichotomy. Religion and science are not incompatible worldviews; any worldview that is narrow, literalistic, and dogmatic, regardless of religious or scientific belief, is going to be incompatible with almost everything else. There's no real room for debate or real conversation there.

After the day's session and dinner, I went out with a group of other participants to the Eagle and Child pub, where the Inklings writing group met in the early 20th century. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were probably the most well-known members of this group, and indeed we sat in the "Rabbit room" where they used to meet. We had some interesting conversations about pedagogy (as many of us were professors), the differences in perspective between men and women, and more in-depth discussions of issues raised at the round table. I think these kinds of discussions are often more interesting and enlightening than the formal sessions. We trudged back to the college after last call, and most of us were wide awake in our rooms, as we were still on American time (i.e., it felt like it was only 7 pm). Needless to say we were a bit less bright-eyed in the morning for the next day's session. But that's tomorrow's post.

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