Interfaith group examines pluralism, symbolism

The bi-weekly interfaith group, Children of Abraham, held their first meeting Thursday, Sept. 14, in the Loras College Ballrooms with the discussion topic of Symbols: The Star, Crescent and Cross.

Dr. John Eby, associate professor of history at Loras, opened the event with the mission and goals of COA. He described how the Dubuque community can grow in its appreciative knowledge through openness to learning about the wonderful and distinct religious groups within the community.

The definition of Pluralism is “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.” Yet, Eby took this definition further by asking the audience to recognize that pluralism is more than this dictionary definition; pluralism is the community reality that everyone lives in.

“Pluralism is intentional positive engagement with diversity,” Eby said, “an effort to use our diversity for positive outcomes.”

This is what the Children of Abraham is moving to accomplish. In other words, pluralism is living not only in community, but working with community.

The event included a panel of three spiritual leaders within the Dubuque community. Representing a Christian perspective was Dustin Lyon, a priest from the local Orthodox Church. He shared his story of discovering the beauty of the Orthodox Church, its tradition and its ancient roots. He identified that the focus of the human life should be death and then birth into heaven. Lyon’s depiction of the mystic beauty in the structure, history and organization of the Orthodox Church was remarkably similar to the long list of reason of why many people love the Catholic Church and the faith tradition.

Representing the Jewish tradition was Alan Garfield. An energetic professor from the University of Dubuque and good friend of Eby, he opened his speech with a Seinfeld joke. He then spoke about the essence of Judaism, or rather, the impossible task of speaking to the essence of Judaism. Instead of focusing on life after death, Judaism stresses one’s conduct in the present and accountability to one’s neighbor as well as the challenge to be a blessing to the world.

Garfield closed his discussion by stating that all students are on a journey to discover what tradition they identify with and what profound quotes to hang on their dorm walls.

Local Imam and devoted psychologist, Adib Kassas, spoke about the lack of symbols in Islam. Within the tradition of Islam, the only necessary representation of God lies in the Qur’an, the word of God. Kassas gave the room a brief vocal lesson, calling the audience to pronounce “Allah,” with him, showing how air flows through the human body when pronouncing this specific word. Through this exercise, he suggested that speaking the name of God involves more than thought.

“One of the things that stood out to me was that all three wanted to show that the emblems of faith have less significance than is often given to them,” Eby said after the event. “The crescent and star are almost purely cultural, and the cross is a sign but not a symbol.”

Following the three presentations, audience members were given the opportunity for small group discussion. Students from Emmaus Bible College talked about their unique take on the validity of the Bible in regards to being the word of God in the Christian tradition, in comparison to the Qur’an which Muslims acknowledge at the literal word of God. Through activities such as small group discussions, Children of Abraham hopes to encourage dialogue and foster pluralism in the Dubuque community.

All three presenters identified the distinct differences in their traditions, but a main takeaway from this discussion was the pronounced similarity in these uniting belief systems. The essential message is to live in community and to care for that community.

The next Children of Abraham meeting is Thursday, Oct. 12 with a Scripture Study at the Temple Beth El, 475 W Locust ST Dubuque. For more information, visit  http://cofabraham.org/.

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Patricia is a staff writer for The Lorian.

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