“Mysticism can be the common factor which makes dialogue between religions possible” – Prof. Shafa Elmirzana and Prof. John Esposito discuss Christian-Muslim dialogue at Rumi Forum

Nose-diving straight into the intricacies of  Christian and Muslim religious traditions, theologies, Prof. Shafa Elmirzana,  of the Alwaleed bin Talal center for Muslim-Christian understanding at Georgetown university explained the historical origins of Christian-Muslim dialogue from the time of Meister Eckhart and Ibn Al-Arabi. She was speaking at an event organized by the Rumi Forum in Washington DC on  Tuesday.

Prof. Esposito started off the discussion by mentioning that the issue of dialogue has come into prominence in our times, simply because Islam has emerged as the next serious alternative to Christianity at the global level, and it while dogmas tend to divide both and there is also a tendency to look at the theologies and say there are stark differences between the two global religions, if we re-examine our beliefs and assumptions of God and God-head, this may turn out to be quite something else.

Prof. Elmirzana spoke about her work, which she has recently turned into a book, “The challenge of dialogue: learning from the two masters”, in which she examines the life and ideas of two great mystics – Ibn Al Arabi, a Muslim scholar and Meister Eckhart,  a German theologian. While both of them operated at the mystical level, and of two different faiths, their ideas about questioning the “God-head” or the “God” as we know it was crucial. Both knew and reaffirmed that there was a significant difference between the idea of God as we know and God in actuality.

“While every religion has three components: The institutional, mystical and ritual. A lot of times, peope tend to focus on one and ignore the other. It is important to look at all the three simultaneously if we are to get a comprehensive understanding of a faith”, she added.

“Both Eckhart and Ibn Al -Arabi believe in the infinitely readable text, and they champion this infinite readability in the hopes of combating the “idolatries of language” and “hermeneutical arrogance”, she pointed out, further elaborating on her earlier discussion that there are “a multitude” of interpretations of any religious text.

On naming God and interpretation of texts:

The limitations of understanding God through our limited consciousness was something that both the masters dealt with. “ Our limitations take many forms, one of which is the inherent adequacy of our various languages and modes of discourse, and the limited understandings regarding God – who is essentially beyond descriptions and words”.

 

During the Q&A session, she tackled questions related to the syncretism that occurred between Islam and  other local religions in India, Indonesia. “Islam is not a monolithic concept as we understand. There are so many cultural adaptations and flavors to how the religion can be adapted and has been interpreted. We must be aware of this, lest we become too focused on “one pure” Islam, which does not exist.  There are provisions for contextual interpretation of the laws and dogmas, which is a crucial part, if we are to completely understand where the practice of religion today is.

 

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“The boundary of political discourse unfortunately is around 4.6% taxes “

“The  boundary of political discourse today unfortunately is around  4.6% taxes “

– Jeffrey Sachs, Special Advisor to UN Secretary General  and Professor of Economics at Columbia Uni.

In a talk which offered a crash-course in  economic history of the modern US, and gave a glimpse into the  implications of the current administration’s policies in not addressing the key issues before us, Jeffrey Sachs sought to offer a  “differential diagnosis” of the problems and also offered solutions, which he thought would address the systemic problems that plague the country, and threaten its leadership position in the world. These insights are presented in his newly released book “ The price of Civilization”. The talk was held at The World Bank last week.

“ 39 yrs ago when I got started in this business, I thought that the US would not need our help, and my country would not need any sort of urgent attention, and one could devote one’s life to problems overseas; where problems were more acute”, he said.

He added  : “Economically, the US today is  a mess and our political system is a mess too. Since the political institution is one block East of here, and the work that this institution works involves dealing with this mess, we really do need to dis-entangle what is happening in the US and what can be done about it. It is my own way to find my way through this puzzle. Not to find the specific problems associated with the problems of Lehmann brothers , or the specifics of debate about the last quarter.  I do write a lot about that. But the bigger challenge is what I seek to address through my book”.

He further noted that as he criss-crossed summits across the world in over 22 countries, he was amazed to see the total lack of American leadership voices.

“A very strange feeling that what we see inside is also visible on the outside. Our presence is felt in war-zones and in war-torn areas, but not in problem solving areas. I am not sure I have gotten to the core of it, but writing this book and analyzing the issues  feels like peeling an Onion. And I had to take a societal view, a holistic perspective of problems as they are all inter-connected”, he pointed out.

Taking a jab at the political parties, he pointed out “The Republican offer is simple “ Cut spending and cut taxes”, and taxes are the only thing in their model which can solve problems. In the Democratic model, they are all about “Stimulate”, and I don’t think it is an effective model to get us on track”.

America has become a two-tier society:

Sachs also sought to highlight the growing income disparities and pointed out that they were the key issue which subsequent administrations have ignored. Though president Obama came in with the promise of change, his policies have not done much to significantly address this complex issue.

“If Brazil has figured out a way to close the income disparities, we seem to have shunned this problem and ignored it altogether. Currently, the income share of the top 1% is 20-25 % of all household income and this is analogous to modern history. Up to 1980, the share was 10% and since then, we have had a steep incline in the gap. 12,000 households take home about 6% of household income. That’s a lot. That is more than the poorest 20 mn households”, he added.

Sachs also added that the current scenario is dismal, and one of the markers of this is that the peak of male household earning was in 1973, for 38 yrs there has been no increase in median earnings for male full-time workers. “Something clearly changed in American economy, something deeper than a financial bubble”, he pointed out.

Corporate America and the Political establishment :

The rise of  President Ronald Reagan clearly marked an era of the decline in American spending on “Non-security discretionary budgets” . This, Sachs remarked is one of the key reasons for the decline of the  American competitiveness and is a result of the “less government” movement in the country, which has had very negative effects on the economy as a whole.

“We got Wall-street to bail out Wall-street firms recently and this is a symptom of what ails our country” he added.

He concluded with the following note :” A differential diagnosis is what I have offered here. Once we have a better diagnosis, the way out is easier to find. I think that both political parties are not offering any serious approach to America’s problems”.  His solution to the problems facing the US included cutting defense spending by a few percentage points, by increasing the Non-security discretionary budget spending as well as looking at the problems holistically and taxing the rich, which seems to be the holy-grail of American political discourse.

Perhaps time will tell whether the political establishment heeds his advice. For now, President Obama seems to be busy trying to rally support for his jobs bill. Short-term gains seem to be the order of the day, when long-term strategic thinking is what is really needed. It is a time for visionaries, and perhaps, one for true leadership – which goes beyond rhetoric and realpolitik.

 

Nonprofit outlook : Where’s the light at the end of the tunnel ?

Nonprofit outlook : Where’s the light at the end of the tunnel ?

Is there a new normal for nonprofits ?  What is the role of government in regulating and working with non-profits ? What does a movement such as Anti-wall Street represent to us as a society ? These and other questions formed part of the thinking at the “Nonprofit outlook : Where’s the light at the end of the tunnel”, panel discussion at the Urban Institute, Washington DC today. The panel brought together eminent practitioners as well as thinkers in the field of non-profit management.

“This is no doubt a hard time for nonprofit managers and even for the boards. The need to be accountable and focused, has never been so important. The civil society’s role is also changing, with changing nature of our society. Do we have the fiscal-financial infrastructure to support this change ?” asked Marta Urquilla, Senior Policy Advisor to the White House Domestic  Policy Council’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

She added that in many ways, we can’t keep pouring money into ways of doing things,  when they aren’t producing results. It has value only in a broader context. Only to the extent that this adds value to other related things. Is there success or results ? Do we help organizations to build themselves over time ? Are they on firm footing. Can we invest in the  young leaders ?

While others such as Howard Husock, VP for Policy Research at the Manhattan Institute pointed out that the non-profits are actually competing with the government in provision of some of the same services that the government does. “The government should looking at what is working and what is not, and what is really out-moded. Will such thinking happen is the question”, he said.

Stephen Bennett, President and CEO of United Cerebral Palsy pointed out the difficulties in funding disability related work and the need for leadership, and for imagining futures where creative ideas  contributing to the solutions  we look for.

The issue of mergers of non-profits  and also partnerships between for-profit and non-profits came up, with several participants asking questions related to the need for exploring such synergies.

Analyzing the harsh economic climate in which non-profits are forced to operate in now, Urquilla added :” If you didn’t start off strong to begin with, there is no way you can make through. The amount of strategic management and guidance that non-profits need is immense. It is an opportune time. Under constraints, we have found that is when innovation is formed. To imagine alternatives, to put everything into what is working. I am hopeful and certainly mindful that it is a very difficult time, to engage with what is important. It is work that all of us in this country rely on : whether it is providing some services to the poor, or contributing to the cultural experience  “.

The discussion following the panel revolved around both management issues as well as the need for strategic thinking, building capacity of the nonprofits and learning to be frugal.