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Rabbi, imam, Iraq war vet discuss role of religion

Panelists say lack of understanding of the perspective of others can cause problems

Posted: April 3, 2009 12:42 a.m.
Updated: April 3, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Rabbi David J. Wolpe talks with a group of students about the impiortance of religion during Wednesday's panel discussion on the role religion plays in society.

 

Four people with differing religious backgrounds came together Wednesday to share thoughts about the role of religion in a fast-changing world.

The panel discussion at California Institute of the Arts originally was supposed to be a small classroom debate for the 15 students in Eric Gutierrez’s “American Jihad: God & War in the U.S.A.” class.

The idea to host the panel discussion grew out of an idea to explore religion on the diverse art-school campus, especially with the common conceptions about religion’s role in the world.

“It is common for religion to be seen as the root of all evil,” Eric Gutierrez, interim assistant provost and host of the panel discussion, said.

The goal was to take the discussion out of the theoretical and theological realms and into a practical discussion to show how people live their lives, he said.

“I would love to see the panel engage not just in the ideas and belief system, but the world today,” he said.

People typically turn to art or religion as a way to understand life, Gutierrez said.

“It helps them make sense of the world around them,” he said.

The discussion brought together Rabbi David Wolpe, Imam Jihad Turk, Iraq war veteran Alex Mack and Harvard Divinity School graduate Darren Frey.

Turk, who serves as director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California, elaborated on his childhood in Phoenix, Arizona that left him unable to connect to his culture. His college studies brought him closer to understanding Islam, he said.

“Through my academic studies, I was able to understand more about jihad and the way in which religion can be used to do great harm or great good,” Turk said.

Wolpe contested the notion that religion causes war.

“What has caused war fundamentally is not religion, but us, human nature,” he told the crowd of more than 50 students and CalArts staff members, adding that borders, politics and economic gains are often a major part of a war involving religion.

He also offered a piece of advice to people who consider themselves spiritual, but not religious, by advising them to be part of a religion.

“You will only change it by being part of it,” he said.

While religion can be molded to create evil, he noted, “It is also, I think, the only thing that will save us.”

Mack spoke about his perspective as a West Point graduate who was deployed to Iraq in 2004. He is currently a CalArts Master of Fine Arts student.

He recalled his initial days in Iraq and his attempts to understand religion.

Mack said that while in Iraq, trying to approach problems from the perspective of Muslim Iraqis helped him better understand them.

Still, a lack of understanding remained.

“To understand religion — it’s certainly a tool we were lacking,” he said.

Understanding religion at the Valencia art school is an ongoing topic and one that the school hopes to explore further.

The arts and arts schools can play a role in the understanding of religion, CalArts President Steven Lavine said.

“It’s going to be artists in part who lead us to a richer understanding, but only if they gain it themselves,” Lavine said.

 

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