Sneak Preview of Symposium to be held April 20-21, 2007

In Honor of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard’s 30th Anniversary:
A Symposium on the “Dialogue Between Religions, Cultures, and Civilizations.”

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support…”

This beautiful statement by President George Washington in a 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island set forth an historic vision for a nation that would be truly inclusive of the great plurality of voices and communities within it. Washington’s was a vision of dialogue between the communities that comprised America—dignified by their differences from one another, and unified by the pursuit of a humanistic ethics that would be the basis for citizenship. It is significant that this vision was articulated in dialogue, in context of correspondence with the Touro community, not merely a unilateral decree.

Today, while the United States has not fully succeeded in perfecting Washington’s project, it has helped develop what can become a model for the global citizenship that is increasingly necessary. The world’s peoples, religions, and cultures are urgently called in the 21st century to deepen a dialogue with one another. In this dialogue all should be dignified by what we hold as distinct while finding covenant in common work to expand universal human capabilities. The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard believes that the world’s great universities must be leaders in modeling such dialogue. On each of our modern campuses we have a “United Cultures:” African, Asian, European, Middle Eastern, North and South American Studies programs that can set a trend of increased interaction with one another. This symposium at Harvard could provide an unprecedented opportunity for scholars, public figures, and representatives of diverse backgrounds within the fields of cultural and religious studies, philosophy, the sciences, the humanities, and politics to come together. It could provide a new way to approach perhaps the most important of all issues facing humanity: how can we increase that which is common between all people and peoples while allowing healthy difference to flourish?

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