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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Randy Paul Interview: The Irresolvable Conflict Between Religions

by jpaul (bio)

Over the past eleven years, Randy Paul (Harvard MBA, University of Chicago PhD) has focused his time, talent and energy on establishing a foundation that allows religious opponents to sit down together and have meaningful dialogue, not to resolve irresolvable differences, but to sustain them in peaceful tension. The following interview with Randy describes how the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy came into existence and what he hopes to achieve. Due to the length of the discussion, the interview will be shared in two parts.

The full audio recording can be found here: LINK

PART I: The Irresolvable Conflict Between Religions That Make Mutually Exclusive Truth Claims

Jeff: Can you tell me how the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy came to be?

Randy Paul: I studied philosophy and religious history and I had a chance in mid-life to go back to school at the University of Chicago and realized then what I want to study. I decided to study what might be called “the irresolvable conflict between religions that make mutually exclusive truth claims and authority claims.” Most conflicts in our society can be settled by some common measurement; you can compromise with a win-win solution, go to court and be paid x amount of money, or go to jail and pay your debt, but when it comes to conflicts over ultimate truths, there is no common metric that everyone will agree on. These conflicts are endless, continuous. The only way to get out of a conflict over religion is to kill your opponents, exile your opponents (or quarantine yourself), or convert your opponent. And I began to study that in a serious way.

I studied religious myths and religious texts of what we call “world religions.” I have found that they were telling stories about the ultimate nature and purpose and destiny of mankind that were different, that were not honestly harmonizable. (See Stephen Prothero’s new book, God Is Not One, on this point.) This was before 9/11, I could sense drooling in the world after the Soviet Union collapsed, there was still a lot of “ethnic conflict”, which was the phrase they once used to cover the fact that these conflicts were heavily religious in nature.

When I left my program in 2000, I wrote my dissertation on theories and actual historical cases of religious conflict. I realized I wanted to get involved somehow in public life and continue an intellectual pursuit of this question. I began the foundation with a couple collaborators and we took a few years to think about how religious diplomacy might be established in the world. Two and a half years ago, I left my business full-time and focused on the foundation.

Jeff: What are some of the foundation's greatest accomplishment to date?

Randy Paul:
During the last eleven years, our most important project, what I am most happy about, are the conferences that we’ve organized all around the world: China, the Middle East, U.S., and Europe which have brought together people that would never normally talk with each other, to face each other in discussion that addressed very difficult conflicts between them both socially and religious. It gave them a chance to build trust where there was only suspicion.

We’ve laid the groundwork for a true network of what we are calling "religious bi-linguals."  People who have learned another religious culture and religious language other than their own while maintaining an orthodox devotion to their own tradition. These people are going to be more and more valuable as credible, respectable bridges between religious communities when conflicts flare up between them. Building out that network is going to take years, but we’ve started it and I am very happy with that.

The second project I am very glad we’ve done is a documentary film, Consent Forms. This is a very short film that followed a Muslim fundamentalist thinker who was raising his children in America and how integrating his child into a public school system was difficult for everybody involved, and yet a school system that was sensitive about teaching religion in a public school provided the vehicle to build the trust and respect between the faculty, the parents, and the various students. Together, they made that experience for that young kid one where he could feel compatible with the American view of education even though he disagreed with many of the values and mores of those fellow students.

Jeff: Is Consent Forms available on your foundation's website?

Randy Paul: We are getting ready to put it on our website. We are also soon releasing a full-length documentary that cost a lot of money to make and took several years called An Act Against One is An Act Against All. It is a very provocative and moving film about the journey of a guy who was raised a Mormon in Utah, believed in his church, but also in the American Dream - that he could do whatever he wanted. He felt the evangelicals trounced Romney in 2008 because of his religion. He lost faith in both Christians in general and the American way. The movie is about how he decided to confront the evangelicals that he'd come to hate. He found he couldn’t paint the evangelicals in one brush, and he learned along the journey that all Americans need to learn that the American Experiment is not in coming to consensus over our beliefs, but it’s in disagreeing and fighting about our beliefs in a way that is honorable and respectful, and that is not an easy lesson to learn. It is an excellent movie.

Jeff: Sounds like an opportune time to release with the upcoming presidential elections.

Randy Paul: It is going to be so timely; we hope it gets into Tribeca, Berlin or Toronto Film Festivals. Any one of those would be great, but the film pitches to the right, to the left and to the center; to believers, non-believers and skeptics. If there is an enemy in the film, it would be anyone who claims one religion or one world view ought to be in control of American politics, but the real message is that once that enemy has been faced, what do we do with our irresolvable conflicts over values? What do we do in this culture war, how do we treat each other? One of our fundamental questions is answered with this statement; your religion shows most by how you treat your adversaries. We try to get everyone in our foundation to live their religion because we’ve discovered that the key to bringing together a society is to have people feel comfortable living their lives of integrity out in front of each other, not having to hide it in their homes and live a totally private life, but actually live their belief or their disbelief or their skepticism without being trashed by their fellow citizens for their beliefs.

Jeff: You mention on your website that peace is not a “tensionless state.” I love that phrase. You see us living together with friction but accepting each other’s belief as the ideal society?

Randy Paul: Victor Frankl is one of our heroes. He was the psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, though his family did not. After World War II, he started something called Logotherapy. One of his famous statements is that it was a serious mistake to assume peace or happiness was a tensionless state. He said, “Happiness or peace comes from struggling and striving for an ideal or a purpose that is worthy of the human spirit.” Therein is a gem when it comes to relationships between religious people who disagree about their religions.

There is also within the Quran, in Surah 5 verse 48, a discussion about relations between religions. God says in that verse, “If I had wanted there to be one people, one religion, one nation, I would have made the world so, but I made many so that you would vie with each other in righteousness.” I love the word “vie.” It translates to - struggle in competition in righteousness. Who is the most righteous is not necessarily a bad competition. Not who can blow each other away the most. It continues, “... and in the end time, God will tell you about your differences and tell you who was right and wrong.” There is this idea that it was a divine idea to have these differences and create this tension to make it a contest of goodness. I like to say it in Christian parlance; our God is a God that wants us to compete in love.

Jeff: Is peaceful tension the best thing we can hope for?

Randy Paul: Yes. To be able to hold those two things in your hands at the same time is to hold the future of our world. Coexistence is a crock except for people who didn’t know each other. Maybe in 3000 BC there was coexistence. Just like tolerance, it’s about the lowest form of ethical behavior; just above persecution you have tolerance. It is usually a term we use to cover our contempt, disdain, or total disregard we have for someone. We need something much better than tolerance. There isn’t a great word for it yet, but we are working on it at the Foundation ... maybe “engaged collaboration and co-resistance” – in which you are actively meeting with your opponents and you honor them by taking them seriously, by trying to listen to them before you try to persuade them to change.

In Part II, Randy will discuss his method for establishing meaningful relationships and having effective dialogues with those who have very different religious beliefs than your own.

You can also listen to a recent Mormon Matters podcast featuring Randy here: LINK

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