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Volume 95, Issue 3
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Civility and the pursuit of truth
Can the two be reconciled in a university setting? Faculty and students meet and debate.

It was a curious juxtaposition: life-sized angels carved from the ceiling ridgepoles soared above a scattering of yarmulke-covered heads, the former absorbed in their wooden scholarly readings and the latter in an interfaith dialogue on civility, attempting to bridge the divide between disinterested scholarship and communal inquiry. The question on the floor was posed to the faculty panel by moderator Daniel Brudney, associate professor of philosophy: “Why should I have respect for someone who believes my view to be pernicious?” How, he pressed, can civility be maintained in an academic setting? And what can the teachings of the three major monotheistic faiths—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—lend in finding an answer?

PHOTO:  Where academics fear to tread:  a University-wide civility code.
Photo by Dan Dry

Where academics fear to tread: a University-wide civility code.

Some 50 faculty, students, and visitors were present January 13 in the Divinity School’s third-floor lecture hall to open a two-quarter conversation on civility. The event, “A Forum on Civility: The Resources of Different Religious Traditions,” came on the heels of the president’s September statement to the Council of the Faculty Senate that Chicago will not adopt a civility code, retaining instead the structure of free exchange outlined in the 1967 Kalven Report. The forum was the first in a series organized by the Civility Project, a committee of faculty and members of the University’s Hillel Center, chaired by Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of law and ethics.

The common thread running through the panelists’ remarks—that, as the three religious traditions demonstrate and Provost Richard Saller concurred in his opening remarks, civility can exist without rules to define it—sparked a lively discussion and some dissent.

Presenting the Christian approach to civility was David Tracy, the Andrew and Grace Greely professor in the Divinity School. “How do you command love for neighbor? It is one of the great paradoxes. Yet if a Christian acts to follow that command, they will be empowered to do so,” he said. Citing the Christian theory of love from the school of Reinhold Niebuhr, which divides the virtue into mutuality, self-sacrifice, and equal regard, Tracy noted that equal regard describes how to act in the absence of laws. “If Christian thought is to contribute to this discussion,” he reflected, “it can do so only in a welcome, pluralized world, where the desire is not to proselytize but to articulate what love and justice mean to the Christian and to see if that is helpful for the other: Jews, Buddhists, Muslims.” Yet courtesy and respect, he said, are only part of what’s needed for civil discourse. Debate, argument, inquiry, and interpretation must also have a place.

Similarly, Islam calls on its followers to practice "right conduct" that is not necessarily laid out by laws, said Rasheed Hosein, AM'01, a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations studying early Islamic history. The five pillars of Islamic faith—prayer, pilgrimage, fasting, charity, and declaration of faith—are, he said, “both intensely personal and intensely communal,” creating the “mortar of the civilization.”

The 29th chapter of the Koran, Hosein continued, addresses civility across faiths: “Be courteous when you have discourse with people of the Book [i.e., Christians and Jews].... That which is revealed to us was revealed to them. We all surrender ourselves to one God.” And come Judgment Day, he concluded, “the heaviest thing on the scale is how you conduct yourself” within the community.

In the Jewish perspective, according to Michael Fishbane, the Nathan Cummings professor in the Divinity School, the basic necessity for civility is right-mindedness. The Talmudic notion of tikkun olam, he explained, outlines an obligation to maintain order so that life is sustained and flourishes within a community. “Scripture and religious traditions cannot say everything,” he said. “You have to enter every situation without the claim of total truth, and as a result, a huge amount of space is opened to the cultivation of equity” and, therefore, civil exchange.

Several hands went up as the floor was opened for questions and comments. “What do we do about evil?” asked one man. “We’re all trying to be good Christians, Jews, and Muslims, but what do we do about those who aren’t?”

Each panelist offered his take on how the religious traditions deal with evil. Noted Fishbane, “These traditions are trying to maintain hierarchies of morals, to cultivate patterns to move beyond the evils that are always possible and toward a higher ideal.” Yet it was Provost Saller’s empathetic response that seemed to resonate most with the audience. “One thing I find distressing but don’t think happens often on this campus is turning the opposition into evil,” Saller said. “It’s the most distressing to deal with, and I don’t have an answer for how to do it.”

Next Richard Strier, professor of English, spoke from a back row: “The demand of civility is minimal, as these panelists have all shown. Yet so often it is not carried out. Why, given how undemanding it is, do we at the University still fail at it?”

“I don’t think I’d accept that,” Saller replied. “On the whole I think this is a remarkably civil community in its debate.”

This prompted philosophy professor Josef Stern to join the discussion. “The speakers all confirm the wisdom of the University not to establish a code—the refusal to commit to rules has long been a tradition here—and talked instead about trying to cultivate a sensibility,” he remarked. “Yet in religious traditions this takes place against the backdrop of rich, baroque systems of law. In the absence of that rich sense of rules, what are we at the University to do?”

The answer, offered Saller, lies in the University’s higher purpose: the pursuit of truth. “I think this University as a community is very motivated by that purpose. And as compared to a lot of communities, it is fairly unified in this pursuit.”

As the session ended, attendees lingered over tangerines, rugelach, tea, and coffee. Later in the quarter they’ll reconvene to hear student speakers and continue where this conversation left off.

Sharla A. Stewart

Corrected 2/28




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