One local effort to dig deeper deserves our attention. The “Interfaith Scholar Weekend” (ISW) is an ongoing attempt to think critically about religion. This effort began in 1998. It has grown into an annual crosstown collaboration of religious and educational organizations.
The subject this year is Mahatma Gandhi. From February 21-23, the ISW will host Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, a professor from the University of Illinois. Professor Gandhi will speak at events at Fresno City College, Fresno State, Temple Beth Israel, and Wesley United Methodist Church (the Fresno State Ethics Center is a co-sponsor).
Jim Grant, the ISW chair and director of social justice ministry for the Diocese of Fresno, explained that the Central Valley has a robust and growing interfaith community. He shared stories with me of a number of examples of how people from different local religious communities have worked together to defuse religious tension, injustice, and hate.
The impetus for this year’s visiting scholar is the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Gandhi is revered as a “mahatma”—a great soul or saint. Gandhi helped to liberate India. He developed strategies of active nonviolence that were employed in the American Civil Rights movement.
But Gandhi has his critics. Some say he did not speak out forcefully enough about racism and India’s caste system. Others blame him for not preventing the partition of India and ensuing violence among Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.
In light of this, it is worth noting that local Sikhs and Muslims are among those sponsoring the visit of Gandhi’s grandson. The point of this event is to think critically. What we might learn is that no one is perfect.
Gandhi’s grandson makes this point in his recent book, “Why Gandhi Still Matters,” where he describes his grandfather as a “fallible” man. But he points out that the Mahatma is held to a higher standard. Gandhi is blamed for not overcoming the challenges of his own time and for “not solving all of the problems of our age.” But his grandson reminds us that no one can solve all of our problems. Perfection is too high of a standard.
This message is important, I think, for efforts to develop tolerance. We often give our own preferred saint the benefit of the doubt, while leaping to condemn the heroes of the other side. This is a truism of the history of religious conflict.
It is also a feature of our fractious political life. Some applaud Pelosi. Others cheer on Trump. Some love Rush Limbaugh. Others hate him. Each side vilifies the other.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that nothing straight can be built from the crooked timber of humanity. Gandhi might agree. With regard to religion, the Mahatma said, “I hold that all religions are true but imperfect inasmuch as they are presented through human agency and bear the impress of the imperfections and frailties of the human being.” In simpler terms he explained, “All religions are true; all religions have some error in them.”
The problem, of course, is that we are quick to see the errors in other people’s religions while remaining blind to faults in our own. The solution is to look more carefully, dig more deeply, and think more critically. Gandhi gives us another clue. He said, “I claim no perfection for myself. But I do claim to be a passionate seeker after truth, which is but another name for God.”
We are all flawed. If Gandhi wasn’t perfect, then neither are we. But like him, we can seek truth by trying to learn more, think better, and judge less.
IF YOU GO
The Fresno Interfaith Scholar Weekend will be held Feb. 21-23. The opening event is a free lecture, “Truth in an Age of Untruth,” and it starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Old Administration Building at Fresno City College, 1101 E. University Ave. For the full schedule and to learn more about the featured speaker and activities, go to http://interfaithscholar.org/.