In the spring of 1950, a young Black Baptist seminarian traveled to Philadelphia to hear the president of Howard University, Mordecai Johnson, give a lecture on Christian love.
In his remarks, Johnson argued that the paragon of Christian love in the 20th century was not, in fact, a Christian but an Indian Hindu activist named Mohandas Gandhi. Many people might have disregarded such a speech as being too out of line with the established orthodoxy to be taken seriously. (In today’s political context one might even imagine calls for “cancellation” in response.) Thankfully, Martin Luther King Jr.’s reaction to the talk was intense curiosity. His curiosity led him to become an avid student of Gandhi and to adopt Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha (“love force”) as the fundamental principle of the civil rights efforts he would go on to lead. While many forces influenced and shaped the Rev. King and other leaders of that time, our whole country is nonetheless the beneficiary of that moment of intellectual and interreligious heterodoxy, and the curiosity it engendered.
Could such a moment of religious iconoclasm and intellectual exploration happen in today’s academy? Nowadays, the dominant story about America’s mood is that we are too inundated by despair, division, and fear to curiously explore ideas we disagree with. There is undeniable truth to this narrative; countless articles and studies attest the country is more polarized than ever before. But while the poles themselves grow evermore vitriolic, there is also ample evidence to suggest that the center is both numerically larger and more exhausted than anything else. This suggests there is more to America’s unfolding story than we are allowing ourselves to hear.
A remedy to the relentless drumbeat of division can be found in King’s example. It is possible to shift the narrative of rising political distress through deliberate and concerted attention to — and curiosity about — the chorus of cooperation being sung across the country, often in unexpected places like higher education. Polling data suggests that Americans are increasingly losing faith that colleges and universities have a positive role to play in civic life. But for all that higher education has been lambasted for abandoning its commitment to free speech, and for all that it is rightly being criticized for its ideological echo chambers, it still remains a place where diverse intellectual, disciplinary, religious, and political perspectives are shared and curiously engaged.
In order to envision how the academy could better engage diverse religious viewpoints, the nonprofit organizations for which we work — Heterodox Academy and Interfaith America — partnered to create a yearlong initiative called the Deep Differences Project. With support from the John Templeton Foundation, we asked over 100 scholars and thought leaders across the North American academy to reflect on how best to effectively integrate religious diversity and reinvigorate interreligious engagement in higher education. Over the course of the project, we collected numerous opinions and recommendations. Taken in their totality, participant responses showed us that the popular story of irreconcilable political tribes and the debasement of open inquiry is not the only narrative of American higher education today. Rather, what emerged from the collective testimony of professionals and students convened for the project was the story of a nation blessed with courageous and curious leaders (educators, administrators, staff, and students) who are supremely passionate and committed to building connections across lines of difference.
We heard stories of a Christian university known for social and political conservatism “bridging the gap” with a famously progressive college through sustained student and staff dialogue; rigorous scholars who have identified how shared religious identity can serve as a bridge for racial reconciliation and how shared concerns for religious freedom can foster interreligious alliances; administrators and faculty who are dedicated to “relationship-rich education” and curating such experiences for their students; college and university presidents bravely owning how some of their best-intended diversity initiatives have failed, and what they learned from it; and so many more.
Curiosity emerged as a guiding theme of the project — curiosity about the stories of other members of the campus community; curiosity about the stories of the communities in which campuses are located; curiosity about the complex institutional, intellectual, and social stories and histories that have brought us to this moment; and, most of all, curiosity about the story that we can write together moving forward. Our discussions returned again and again to the transformational power of personal storytelling and the need to inspire, foster, and reward curiosity about others’ stories at every level of higher education.
Curiosity is the fundamental building block for collaboration, and higher education continues to play a vital role instilling it in students, campuses, and the broader culture by fostering spaces dedicated to the open and respectful exchange of ideas. Recent data indicates that 71% of fourth-year students experienced disagreement with friends about political views during their college career, and 65% of them reported that they remained friends after a politically motivated disagreement.
A practice of curiosity that fosters connection between people with opposing worldviews may seem like a drop in the bucket in a vast sea of insular, divided, and polarized thinking. But the act of asking others — especially presumptive antagonists — to share their story, and reciprocating with one’s own, is a radical and transformational process. It is also one of the most basic of human impulses.
As we find ourselves amid another election cycle, it is vital to remember that when the camera pans away from an ominous map starkly painted red and blue, what comes into view is this: countless Americans — across a variety of sectors — working expertly day in, day out to constructively and curiously engage diversity in their community.
The people whose views you cannot fathom each have their own story and, whether they know it or not, they are waiting for you to have the courage to lead with curiosity, reach out to them, and say, “Tell me your story.” You might be surprised by what you learn.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.
This article was also posted on heterodox: the blog from the Heterodox Academy.
Noah J. Silverman is the senior director of learning at Interfaith America, a Chicago-based organization working to inspire, equip, and connect leaders and institutions to unlock the potential of America’s religious diversity. He consults with higher education, writes about and develops curricula on interfaith engagement, and coedited Interreligious/Interfaith Studies: Defining a New Field (Beacon Press, 2018).
Kyle Sebastian Vitale is the director of programs at Heterodox Academy, a nonpartisan collaborative of more than 5,000 professors, educators, campus administrators, staff, and students committed to enhancing the quality of research and education by promoting viewpoint diversity in higher education. He writes about higher education and has taught literature and pedagogy for over a decade at Yale University, the University of New Haven, the University of Delaware, and Temple University.
Jane Ulring is the program manager at Interfaith America, a Chicago-based organization working to inspire, equip, and connect leaders and institutions to unlock the potential of America’s religious diversity. She is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity in Social Ethics and an awardee of Union’s Interreligious Engagement Prize for academic excellence in the IE field. Jane is committed to work braiding religious diversity, public service, and justice.
Interfaith America Interview