Panel Discussion: interView with Dr. Thomas Uthup

Posted on May 1st, 2010 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit, InterViews, Video

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interView with Dr. Thomas Uthup

Response by Michael VanZandt Collins

Dr. Uthup’s question is a provocative one and, as he demonstrates, certainly does raise a number of challenges. He alludes to the question of religious authority in public affairs and the inherent suspicion that accompanies those who “speak” for religion. Not only is it problematic from a theological perspective, but also from a political one. Examples that leap to mind immediately are cases when a religious tradition is used to define a people or nation. Unfortunately, nationalist exploitation of minor differences has become a common theme in modern history. Certainly, in India the Bharatiya Janata Party utilized its political superiority to subvert India’s religious pluralism and to advance what some might call the Hinduization of India. Much of their policies came at the expense of India’s religious minorities, particularly its 300 million Muslims, who were made to feel that they weren’t sufficiently Indian. Similarly, in the 1990s, religion served as a convenient tool for nationalist causes in the former Yugoslavia. In particular, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches served to propagate a message of division to its congregants. Of course, these are extreme examples, but they highlight the threat posed not only to religious minorities but also minority voices within a given religious tradition.

As Dr. Uthup explains, the role of the media is critical and the “religious literacy” of media representatives is crucial to portraying the nuance necessary in reporting on religion. Of course, we do not discuss religion within a vacuum, and in places where there is not interreligious dialogue, the media becomes a primary shaper of the public’s perception of religion. Just as we expect reporters at the Wall Street Journal to have sharp business acumen, we should expect journalists covering religion to be literate and trained in their field.

Response by Anna DeWeese

Why is inter-religious dialogue often separated from inter-cultural dialogue? This is a fantastic question, and certainly one that is at the forefront of inter-religious work. Or at least, I believe it should be. As I understand through studying religion, most definitions of ‘culture’ include ‘religion’ as an example of the practices and beliefs that develop within groups of people. So, it would seem to me that discussions of culture ought to include a serious discussion of religion(s). The problem, though, lies in breaking through our modern world’s privatized, individualistic notion of religion; many people do not want to talk about religion because it is so very personal. This is a particular problem in the US, where many assume that a separation of church and state makes it inappropriate to bring religion into a public, cultural conversation. It is also interesting to consider the implications of a personal, privatized religious understanding during an age where the very words ‘private’ and ‘individual’ seem to have no meaning in a world of technological social-networking.

Dr. Uthup mentioned several challenges to inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue, and I agree that these challenges need to be addressed. But he also mentioned the need for finding connections with people at a grassroots level as a way of bridging great religious divides. As vital as I believe discussions on religion to be, I firmly feel that religion may not be the best conversation starter to address cultural (and global) issues.

Response by Liane Carlson

At the beginning of his interview, Dr. Thomas Uthup asks why it is that inter-religious dialogue seems so often separated from intercultural dialogue.  I have to confess that I have no idea how to answer this question, particularly given that the rest of his interview is devoted to deconstructing rigid academic categories imposed on religion.  We're told that it's often difficult to find any nominal head or representative of a religion divided into sects; that conflict can't be understood without context; that people interested in inter-religious dialogue ought to learn about other religions by personally interacting with them, not simply by reading about them.  The entire interview shows the arbitrariness of representation and of the categories we use to label people, practices, and beliefs.

The truth is that both "culture" and "religion" are extremely amorphous concepts, and, in the academy, at least, both are held in suspicion as Western categories imposed on a non-Western world, often without consideration of whether or not they really fit.  I can't comment on the politics or concrete practices of groups devoted to inter-religious and intercultural dialogue, respectively, but my suspicion is that precisely because these are such broad, expansive terms, each group thinks of its term of choice as cannibalizing the other.  Those devoted to inter-religious dialogue likely consider religion to be the more important category, with culture as a subset, and vice versa for the advocates of inter-cultural dialogue.  The real question is whether or not, practically, these divisions hinder in any way the efficacy of the dialogue.

Response by Anthony Paz

Dr. Uthup's call for religious literacy among journalists is perhaps one of the most important statements from this short video. It is almost stating the obvious for me to say that we rely on our newspapers, TV shows and radio stations to tell us about what's going on outside of our homes. However, leaving the confines of my university for my ministry placement has shown me just how much it takes to remain informed while working full-time. Uthup, as one who is so experienced in facing “the other” through study and immersion, understands that a nuanced, fair and accurate portrayal of that “other” is only possible with a huge dose of context. The implication? Reporting on economics and politics should regularly include some understanding of the values that theologies and popular religious practices give to the larger culture. Also, stories on religious issues must be considered in light of other cultural factors.

Why is this practice so rare? To venture a guess, in our own cultural context, matters of faith are considered to be quite separate from matters of, well, anything else. Even if a particular news organization in the US is not generally skeptical of religious belief and practice, it must do one of two things to maintain readership: either keep religious claims confined and protected from the messiness of human news to avoid alienating readers, or cater to a specific group by consistently confirming one set of beliefs over another through reporting.

The recent coverage of clerical abuse shows what happens when the media confronts an issue that is of religious and otherwise human interest. Many Catholics, priests and bishops especially, feel immediately attacked when a newspaper exposes the truth of terrible crimes committed in specifically religious contexts. Furthermore, readers draw conclusions about whole sets of religious claims (clerical celibacy or hierarchy) based on the crimes of few. The fact is that we are largely unable to live with the tension of good religion being in the center of very bad deeds. When there is no religious literacy to help discern what a religion claims versus what an individual does, then it is either drastically separate or completely bad.

3 Responses to “Panel Discussion: interView with Dr. Thomas Uthup”

  1. Mike Stygal says:

    Not sure how to answer the question posed. I wonder how often Intra- religious dialogue is connected to inter-cultural dialogue. It is interesting to observe how culture affects interpretation of a religion leading to people around the world following the same scripture, yet interpreting that scripture differently based on the local culture. I wonder if a connection has been made between different climate and landscape (physical, political and social) and how that might affect differences in religious interpretation.

    Maybe I’m asking questions that greater minds than mine have looked into academically and scientifically. I’m just an amateur.

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  3. Thomas Uthup says:

    Just wanted to update you on this line from Bob Wright’s review of an interesting book, AMERICAN GRACE
    How Religion Divides and Unites Us
    By Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell with the assistance of Shaylyn Romney Garrett
    “They conclude, for instance, that gaining an evangelical friend leads to a warmer assessment of evangelicals — by seven degrees on a “feeling thermometer,” to be exact — and gaining a non¬religious friend brings four degrees of added warmth toward the nonreligious. ” Full review