A Lesson in Friendship and Dialogue: Reflections on the Chamberlain Interfaith Fellowship

During this semester’s fall break, I and three other Eastern University students (Brooke Scott, Alberto Bonilla-Giovanetti, and Templeton student Anthony Barr) journeyed up to Boston as part of the Chamberlain Interfaith Fellowship. The Fellowship, named in honor of Dr. Ted Chamberlain (a Christian) who was dear childhood friends with David Feldman (a Reform Jew), seeks to bring students from their respective faith traditions together twice a year in order to form friendships and engage in interfaith dialogue. As I prepared for this Fellowship, I found myself reflecting on the nature of the relationship between friendship and argument, and I wondered what exactly the “end” was for the Fellowship, and how best to reach that end.

Prior to our trip to Boston, we read and discussed What Do Jews Believe, with Eastern’s chaplain, Dr. Joseph Modica. The reading and discussions were a blessing, for I found that I knew very little about Jewish thought, and the book provided an excellent overview of varying opinions. At the same time, I realized that the upcoming Fellowship would be a challenge, for some of the core beliefs of Jewish thought were starkly opposed to those I hold as a Christian. Thus, the dilemma: ought I seek to build bridges in friendship, focusing on the beliefs that Christians and Jews can agree upon? Or, should I be willing to find where the disagreements lie by seeking to understand how our Jewish friends thought, and by pushing the conversation towards the points where we do not agree?

Perhaps one of the most important things that happened during our trip to Boston was that I did not come to a clear answer on this question. Instead I learned that friendships formed between people of diverse backgrounds will not always form the same way, yet will always require respect, attentiveness, and a deep desire to know and love the other.

temple-beth-shalom

Temple Beth Shalom. Needham, MA.

Upon our arrival at Temple Beth Shalom, we were greeted by two of our three Jewish Fellow counterparts, Lily Altman and Dora Evans, and their families, who would be hosting us for the extended weekend. That first night was largely spent walking on egg shells, as everyone tried to figure out what constituted an acceptable question, and how much each of us could respond to (and disagree with) each other. However, it did not take long to realize that we had a deep desire to know the others, and would happily answer any question posed.

It was during our first night together that the three Christian Fellows staying with the Altman family attempted to explain the three main branches of Christianity—Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodox (each branch was represented by a Fellow), and what it meant that we disagreed but were all devout Christians. In turn, we learned about the Jewish understanding of the authority of the Torah, and how one determines which of the Talmudic laws, or mitzvah, are most important. Over the course of the weekend, further, and harder questions were considered.

I continued to wrestle with how much I ought to express my disagreements, wondering whether or not I could become true friends with someone I did not fully engage especially when that engagement may end with a deep disagreement. Yet, as the weekend continued, I found again and again that I could not treat each of our counterparts the same way. Some simply were not ready to argue, and thus I learned that one of the most basic elements of friendship is trust—and trust must be earned.

2016-17 Chamberlain Interfaith Fellowship Participants.

Still, I cannot help but share what was, for me, the most beautiful engagement of the entire weekend. On the last night before we returned to Eastern, I found myself sitting next to Rahel Block, the coordinator of the event from Temple Beth Shalom, and Anthony Barr, one of my counterparts from Eastern. Rahel is Jewish, and identifies as queer. Anthony is an adopted, African-American Roman Catholic. I, in turn am Caucasian, and a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. Over the course of a number of hours, the three of us had very intense debates on the nature of sexuality, sexual ethics, the ends of marriage, the nature of parenthood, the good of adoption, legislating virtue, the nature of freedom, and much more. We would ask each other a question, and listen intently as the others shared their thoughts, our eyes often wide with surprised as we realized just how drastically we disagreed. The conversation was, perhaps surprisingly, full of laughter and smiles, as the three of us realized that each person was deeply thoughtful, incredibly courageous, and marvelously beautiful.

I found myself thinking of what C.S. Lewis once wrote: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” By seriously engaging in intense debate, I had been confronted with the beautiful humanity of these others. We did not agree. Yet it was by taking them seriously and believing that their thoughts were worthy of response that the most beautiful friendships began to emerge.

Real friendship is hard, especially when entire traditions separate us from a shared vision of the good. Yet my experience with the Jewish Chamberlain Fellows, and my conversation with Rahel and Anthony, has taught me that people are worth knowing, and knowing fully. They are worth sharing with, they are worth spending time with, they are worth disagreeing with, and they are worth loving.

It is with true anticipation that I look forward to welcoming our Jewish counterparts to Eastern this spring, and to continuing to honor Dr. Ted Chamberlain’s memory by fostering community and working toward friendship and the common good.

–Jessica Nielsen (’17) is a Templeton Scholar and a member of this year’s Chamberlain Interfaith Fellowship.

Comments

  1. Annette Wilson

    A beautifully-written and thoughtful article. How do you see evangelism fitting into this dialogue? The Bible says that “he that believes not on [God’s Son] is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God….[He] shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (Jn. 3:18, 36). You seek the common good: Can a group of people thrive unless they go in the way of God’s commandments? You seek friendship: Is there a point at which love requires risking a friendship for the sake of a soul? “And this is his commandment, that we should believe on the name of his son Jesus Christ, and love one another” (1 Jn. 3:23). Jesus Christ came to give life to the world, but those who do not come to him do not have life (Jn. 6:33, Jn. 5:40). Without life, what does one have? Just some food for thought and possible application. Wishing you all the best.

    Reply
    • Jessica Nielsen

      Thank you for the question! I confess that I have been thinking about these things myself, and so while I can’t offer you a complete response, here are some of my musings:

      Two things come to mind, the first is regarding the nature of friendship, and the second has to do with the purpose of our interactions with others in the world, and the concept of evangelism. I’ll start with the latter, and since I referenced C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory once, it only seems fitting that I bring him into the conversation again. In the first chapter of this book, Lewis discusses what seems to be the frivolous nature of learning at a university during a war—the second World War, to be precise. He discusses how some are concerned that participating in a university at such a time is like fiddling while Rome burns, but then he goes farther. Lewis claims that for the Christian, the question is much more severe, for, any time we do anything but concern ourselves with bringing others to Christ, we are at risk of fiddling on the brink of hell, and letting others do the same. I found myself asking whether or not I was doing just this. But then, Lewis’ answer brought be just a little bit of comfort. He writes, “It is for a very different reason that religion cannot occupy the whole of life in the sense of excluding all our natural activities. For, of course, in some sense, it must occupy the whole of life. There is no question of a compromise between the claims of God and the claims of culture, or politics, or anything else. God’s claim is infinite and inexorable. You can refuse it: or you can begin to try to grant it. There is no middle way. Yet in spite of this it is clear that Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities. St. Paul tells people to get on with their jobs. He even assumes that Christians may go to dinner parties, Our Lord attends a wedding and provides miraculous wine. Under the aegis of His Church, and in the most Christian ages, learning and the arts flourish. The solution of this paradox is, of course, well known to you. “Whether ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (“Learning in War Time”).

      This is of course, not a complete answer to your question, for one might say that the very nature of the Fellowship is evangelism. It must first be noted that evangelism is not the reason for the Fellowship. Rather, the reason that Dr. Feldman sponsors this Fellowship in honor of Dr. Chamberlain is for the sake of building bridges where historically, they have notoriously been lacking. Further, the goal of the Fellowship is relationships, above all else. The question, then, is whether or not this is a worthy goal. I think it is. Of course, it is my hope that I might enter into the sort of dialogue with any and all persons I encounter so that we might discuss those things which I believe you and I would both deem the most consequential. However, I don’t think that a lack of these conversations renders our interactions pointless—in the same way that reading Homer is not pointless even if it is not the same thing as reading a biblical text.

      Yet, this does raise a question about entering into friendships with others. I admit that it is this question I have struggled with the most. By that admission, I do not mean to suggest that I question the validity of entering into friendships with those who come from different faith traditions. Of course I absolutely believe that there are some differences of opinion that would disallow the possibility of friendship between the one that held them and myself (I will never consent to being friends with someone who thinks cannibalism, rape, or murder is acceptable, for example), yet I don’t think this means one can only have meaningful relationships with Christians. Gerard Manely Hopkins writes, “For Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not His to the Father through the features of men’s faces” (“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”). Christ is present in everyone and all things, and despite differences, I think it’s possible to see Christ in all, and I think we should strive to do so by forming relationships with everyone we can.

      Now to my final point, regarding the nature of friendship. I’m often torn between two opinions, the one being that real friendship is a necessary precursor to heated dialogue (the sort one could expect when two people are disagreeing on the nature of God, truth, etc.), and that robust dialogue is a necessary precursor to friendship. I have found both of these options to be lacking. For, they both presuppose an Aristotelian understanding of friendship. If we are operating under that Aristotelian definition (two equal parties working together to pursue the good of each other, and loving the other as one loves one’s self), then I am of the opinion that dialogue is a necessary precursor, but only because the two already have a shared vision of the good. Thus, were I seeking an Aristotelian friendship with every person I encountered, I would whole-heartedly try to get them to strive for the good. But the fact of the matter is that I simply am not seeking this form of friendship with each person I encounter. I am seeking to love the other and will their good, but not always in such a way that I attempt to push them toward the good. I believe you were asking whether or not the sort of not-Aristotelian-friendship I am talking about is acceptable for Christians, when it risks letting that person remain apart from Christ. For the sake of respecting them, and for the sake being able to enter into the sort of relationship where the kind of dialogue that would allow us to agree on the good might be possible, I think it is.

      All that aside, I hope you will join in praying for all of the Fellows, both those from Eastern and those from Temple Beth Shalom, as we prepare for our conversations in the spring. Thanks again, and Merry Christmas!

      Reply

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