April 3, 2006

Dinner Spotlights Religion

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Members of the Cornell community attended an animated interfaith dinner and discussion, provocatively dubbed “I Believe In … Dinner,” with participants spanning the religious gamut from evangelical Christians and orthodox Jews to Sikhs, Cherokee traditionalists and agnostics Friday night in Trillium.

The seating design of the forum created religious diversity at each of the 29 tables, with each table member being of a different spiritual identity. Guests received specific e-mail instructions earlier in the week, “to learn, explore, and discuss – not debate or argue.”

As expressed by Father Robert “Bob” Smith, chaplain in the Cornell Catholic Community and the first of seven different religious representatives to open the evening with short remarks and prayer, “If you really want to have a discussion about God, you should feel you are amongst friends.” Like several of the religious representatives, Smith made mild quips about his own faith, suggesting to guests that they would soon be passing around the traditional Catholic collection plate. Leading the last prayer was Harpartap Singh ’07 of the Cornell Sikh Association. He introduced himself and told guests, “I’m pretty easy to pick out [around campus]; I’m the one wearing the turban.” The first interfaith discussion of this type and magnitude at Cornell, Friday’s dinner instantly earned talk of becoming at least an annual event, as members of its coalition planning committee deemed it successful on various levels. Planning committee chair Lee Leviter ’08 first had the idea earlier in the semester, after noticing the wide discrepancy between a Catholic and Jewish viewpoint over dinner table conversation.

“I thought how great it would be to get lots of people together and really talk about these things,” said Leviter, “… One thing I was jokingly afraid of was that people might get angry and there might be fights. It seems, though, that everyone had a good time … and we hope this will encourage people to keep discussing. There is currently a small interfaith dialogue on campus, which we are trying to expand.”

On each table were envelopes with discussion questions to help facilitate conversation, but as many dinner guests discovered, appetite for discussion was already abundant.

Saroj Kunnakkat ’08, on the planning committee as a Hindu Student Council representative, described the dinner as surpassing her expectations. “You have so many preconceived notions about people; I found that through even a little discussion, you can really change your views – I feel like I did,” she said. “I thought more people would be hesitant to speak, more held back … I think that an informal forum [like this] is good; it is not putting pressure on people, and they are more inclined to speak their mind.”

Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, when asked afterwards how his table fared, replied, “I learned so much tonight. What really stood out to me was the uniqueness of traditions but similarities of belief that underlie them … The only downside to this dinner is that I don’t know when I’m going to see the people at my table again. Our circles don’t really pass one another.”

One table discussed appropriate and inappropriate contexts for joking about religion. Leviter marked the difference between joking about one’s own beliefs and joking about someone else’s – “I make Jewish jokes amongst my friends all the time and we laugh because they’re funny. And I’m Jewish,” he said. I don’t think I’d be as comfortable making as edgy jokes about Christianity, for example.”

Hannah Rogers grad said, “Generally, comments about religion from a person of any faith at all do not offend me. At least we both share a respect for religion. But when a hard-line atheist makes fun of [God], I have less tolerance because I think to myself, ‘Who are you to talk?'” She went on to make a distinction between respectful and irreverent skeptics.

Father Smith said following the dinner, “Look at this crowd. The size and enthusiasm of the crowd shows we’ve touched something very real and alive at Cornell … Living at Cornell, there is the sense of trying to profit from diversity. Here is real diversity, look at the way they lean in to hear each other speak.”

Among the more unusual student groups represented at the dinner included the pagan coalition on campus, Axis Mundi, whose co-president Adam Hymans ’06 told The Sun a little about the group.

“Axis Mundi literally means, in Latin, ‘World Axis’, and in a lot of world traditions, there is some sort of pillar around which the world is organized,” Hymans said. “In Hinduism, for example, Krishna is depicted churning the milk. The Iroquai represent order in a world tree. The tree is a popular manifestation of the axis, an image connecting heaven and earth … but the most potent symbol of the axis is man himself. Man is where ultimate reality begins.”

Hymans, himself Cherokee, said anyone is welcome in Axis Mundi.

“Some of our members don’t practice a certain faith, but adhere instead to strong traditions. Examples of ‘typical’ members of Axis Mundi would be Practitioners of the Occult, Practitioners of Mysticism, and many indigenous religions,” he said.

The evening was sponsored by Hillel and co-sponsored by groups including the Near Eastern Studies Dept., the Islamic Alliance for Justice, the Protestant Cooperative Ministry and the Baha’i Club.

Archived article by Suzy Gustafson
Sun Staff Writer