Thomas E. Reynolds is Associate Professor of Theology at Emmanuel College of Victoria University in the University of Toronto and a member of the organising committee for the Social Justice and Human Rights Conference taking place in April 2012. We interview Tom on topics related to the upcoming conference.
Daryl: The conference is described as "interdisciplinary, interreligious and cross-sectoral." What is the benefit of that as opposed to a more narrowly focused conference?
Tom: The benefit of an interdisciplinary and interfaith environment is it allows multiple perspectives to be put on the table and addressed, and this lends itself to a richer conversation. Often the danger of conferences like this is to overly specify the issues and overly specialise in ways that restrict the conversation and the implications of what’s been discussed.
In this conference, you get practitioners and academics, people on the ground and in school environments, and you bring them together and see that neither can actually do without the other. Practice without a theoretical framework that informs it is aimless, directionless and can go awry in so many ways; but so can theory, without rootedness in practice, become empty. Putting these conversations in motion among not only practitioners and theoreticians, but among different perspectives—like faith traditions—produces a conversation that is very rich, and one that hopefully will nourish conversations among the participants in the conference, those who registered and also far beyond it. The hope is that the conference isn’t a once-and-for-all thing, but will galvanize further conversations, which can make a social impact.
The interfaith component, especially when you talk about questions of justice, opens up a range of issues. Just what does justice mean in a Canadian society that both Muslims and Christians share, as well as Jews and Hindus—an environment that is shared and yet at the same time seeks to honour the distinctness of its different constituencies? Questions of accommodation, questions of group rights versus individual rights, all these come out in the interfaith dimension, so I am excited about the prospect of the conversation being energized by the diversity at play.
It is the temptation of academics to talk only to other academics, and here at this conference we have deliberately tried to avoid succumbing to that temptation, or avoid falling into the sin of academics talking to academics. A conference on social justice that doesn’t involve practitioners wouldn’t be living up to its intention to display the transformative aspect of academics.
Daryl: I have to wonder if a conference like this doesn't run the risk of not being able to keep up with events on the ground by being so broad itself. We see things in the news daily, the occupy movement, itself with a very broad range of issues, the Arab Spring, and other things, that seem to be far removed from the kinds of things that we're used to.
Tom: A conference like this is responsive to situations like the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement—or really Occupy movements, plural. The different contexts provide different ways of raising what’s at stake. With police now removing occupants from various places, arrests being made, there’s much here to inform our conversations. An important way to know our conversations are being informed by events is whether or not the conference provides impetus to policy changes and addressing rights in particular ways, because, like you say, the conversation can be so broad that it loses its kind of power to impact things on the ground. That’s a danger of academics—it’s perspective can be too broad, too theoretical and not specifically address contexts where the issues are being played out.
Movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy movements, or even just the Occupy Toronto issue, create real possibilities for transforming public discourse in a way that has an effect on how law is made, and on how human rights are parsed, discussed and considered at a public level. In fact, the Occupy movements force civil society to rethink itself in important ways, and you see that happening in academic places like the University of Toronto, where questions are being asked anew about economic disparities and about change.
In my own field of theology there have been too few books written on economics, and in the past few years many theologians are trying to address that, precisely because of contemporary economic currents. And I know there’s a book coming out that deals with the Occupy movements and theology. In a certain way, a conference like this can be responsive to all this and can offer a kind of reflective framework for thinking about and doing social justice. I believe academics is transformative, and it’s the conversations we have that set in motion a performance, and that themselves enact ways of being together, not just as head games, but as shaping visions that have impact and mobilize social change.
Daryl: Something that's been on my mind lately, again with reference to events on the ground on a global scale, is that within public discourse, and sometimes even more so within academia, any language of a religious nature seems to be unwelcome or in need of being made secular. It just seems unwise to exclude any voices at this time.
Tom: Take Habermas for example, who in his work initially asked for religious language to be translated into terms that could be parsed in secular terms. Now he has changed his view, and recently he permits faith discourse in public space much more. In fact, while I’m not a political philosopher, my own work is trying to imagine what a public space would look like that is pluralistic, not in a secular way of imposing neutrality, demanding all constituencies to translate their own particularity into voices digestible by each other, which in fact do an injustice to the unique individualities of groups and different voices, but instead in a way that honours the differences as contributing to an ongoing and robust conversation that creates public space. I’m interested in finding a way for philosophical discourse and political discourse to be Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and in ways that affirm the dignity and identity of these different groups at the same time that it asks for certain kinds of negotiations so that we all might share space productively. How that happens is a matter of human rights and justice. Like the Canadian Charter for Human Rights and Freedoms does, there needs to be a baseline set of practices of that honour shared human dignity and rights. That idea might go against some faith traditions, for example those that practice polygamy, but there needs to be a complex set of negotiations and compromises along the lines of how we share space, andI don’t think that has to mean that groups are forced to translate themselves out of the faith language with which they identify.
For example, the dignity of the human person is a concept used in secular contexts as well as Christian contexts—Catholic social teachings being one of them. The matter of dignity can be Christianly advocated without having to translate into discourse giving up the language of God, or giving up language of salvation. The notion of being "created in the image of God" is a resource for thinking about the integrity and dignity of the human person in a way that supports rights discourse. It also can be critical of rights discourse. For equality can be used to homogenise and render everybody the same in ways that reflect a dominant group’s ideology over and against groups that are deemed subordinate. It’s true that some of these ideas are quite complex and require detailed working out, but this doesn’t mean that particular religious voices need to become themselves denied.
There’s a great potential in Canadian society to be truly intercultural; maybe not multicultural, because of the danger of cultural silos existing in separate spheres, but rather cultures involved in a rigorous, enriching, mutual conversation about what it means to share space together in our differences without letting the "together" become a force for some sort of universalized and homogenised Canadian identity. And that’s the struggle. That’s what reasonable accommodation in Quebec has wrestled with, and that’s what was at stake with the issue of Sharia Law in 2005, here in Ontario. Debates are going to occur, but Christian academic institutions, especially those like Emmanuel and ICS, can be at the forefront leading the discourse in terms of promoting an interfaith way of sharing space. At least that’s my hope. That’s why I'm here.
February 2012 >