The International Summer School on Religion and Public Life (ISSRPL) is an annual international, interreligious summer school that meets in a different country every year for approximately two weeks. It provides a framework where students, civic leaders and prominent academics from different countries can explore the issues of religion and the public sphere with an aim of developing new strategies of tolerance and pluralism while maintaining a commitment to tradition and religious identity. The program is centered around three academic courses together with the processes of group building and the construction of working relationships across religious and ethnic identities. The didactic goals of the school are thus cognitive as well as social.
The ISSRPL is a unique initiative. It combines a global perspective on religious thought with social scientific research on tolerance, civil society and a pluralistic approach to pedagogic practice. Its goal is to transform both the theoretical models and concrete practices through which religious orientations and secular models of politics and society engage one another. Its guiding principle is that in order to build relations of tolerance and understanding between groups and to shape a civil society, the perceived barrier between secular, modern and more traditional religious values must be broken down. Rather, political orientations and social practices must be developed that will draw on both religious traditions and the insights of secular modernity in new and creative ways.
In the modern world, most ideas of tolerance and pluralism rest on liberal and secular ideas of self and society. These ideas can be briefly summarized as: a) the establishment of a secular public sphere, b) the privatization of religion, c) a politics of rights rather than a politics of the good, d) a secular idea of the individual as a self-regulating moral agent. However in most of the world these ideas simply do not hold. In most parts of the world the public sphere is not secularized, religion remains a public and not a private matter, politics are articulated along visions of a truth community and the self is seen as constituted by collective definitions and desiderata rather than by purely individual pursuits and interests. This is true not only in Southeast Asia and the Indian sub-continent, but also in the Balkans, the Middle East, Ireland, North Africa, Turkey and even in parts of that most secular of enclaves, Western Europe. In Lodi, in North Italy in October of 2000, for example, local Catholic inhabitants poured pig urine on a site that was to be consecrated for the building of a Mosque. Religious identities continue to matter.
Given the continued, if not renewed, salience of religious identities world-wide, as well as their potential to form a focus of conflict and to provide a dangerous legitimation for existing conflicts, it is crucial to take religion seriously. This means seeing the potential of religion to provide resources for tolerance and mutual acceptance and not solely for conflict and oppression. The ISSRPL is devoted to furthering these goals within an educational milieu. It provides the educational context for the intensive training of fellows in those areas where religious thought and secular Enlightenment concepts of self and society overlap as well as where they conflict. Training includes not solely the cognitive or intellectual component of text study, but also provides an experiential or social component—creating relationships and building group interactions predicated on the dual sources of religious and more secular civil society traditions. In so doing it "models" the broader social goals of the project and develop allegiances and networks of individuals committed to the enterprise.
The ISSRPL meets every year in a different country. In line with its commitment to substantive interaction across traditions and a mutual engagement of different perspectives, the changing physical location is of paramount importance given the educational strategy and philosophical purpose of ISSRPL.
The ISSRPL mission is to educate a new cadre of religious and civic leaders who, while maintaining their religious identities and affiliations will provide much needed leadership in bridging the worlds of religious and secular communities. Along these lines we have selected as locales for the Summer School those countries where religious and secular worlds, commitments and desiderata, are often in conflict, or alternatively, where different religious civilizations face one another across a divide of hatred and intolerance and violence.
The participants, faculty and fellows are international. Faculty is drawn from the leading scholars and activists in the fields of law, social science, religious studies, philosophy and public policy from different countries. Fellows are equally diverse, coming from around the world and having different religious and cultural backgrounds. A typical school of around 25 fellows may include participants from….
Criteria for participation include: a) knowledge of English, b) assessment that fellows can participate productively in the school, c) interest in the two loci of religious and civil society traditions, d) expectations that fellows will apply what they learned in their ongoing career and life work. Assessments are based on written essays supplemented where possible with interviews.
Fellows take three courses. Each course meets for two academic hours a day. The courses are as follows:
Course 1: Religion and Civil Society—This course deals with the overarching theoretical issues of religion and civil society. It brings together different sources, traditions and intellectual perspectives to explore areas of overlap, conflict and potential engagement between religious traditions and more secular, modern worldviews. It is taught every year.
Course 2: Religion and Public Life—This course changes every year with the theme of that year’s school.
Course 3: Practicum—This presents an arena in which to explore different ways of bringing the theoretical issues discussed in the other courses into practical application. The different faculty of this course reflected on their own professional experience and present models by which the insights of the Summer School could be realized in different institutional spheres. The fellows often take an active part in the organization of this course.
Fellows are expected to do the bulk of the reading before the start of the summer school. Reading material is made available to students via the web. During the course of the summer school, lecturers assign no more than 20 pages a day of reading per course.
Each work day consists of approximately 6 hours of school and 2 hours of reading, usually followed by trips or processing sessions or perhaps a movie or other event. The program is intensive and demands a degree of commitment from both faculty and fellows.
The ISSRPL provides an experiment in reframing issues of religion and the public realm. This experiment is predicated on the demand that all arguments be presented as part of an “open” discourse, accessible to all participants. No purely “private” language is permitted. While all participants, speak perforce from within a particular religious and ethnic tradition and language, during the two weeks of the School no retreat into particularistic languages are countenanced. The particular must make itself be heard and accepted within a multitude of particular voices and expressions. It must be capable of a universal meaning.
The challenge of speaking a particular idiom that must nevertheless achieve universal resonance is facilitated through the following procedures:
- Bringing together an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous group of participants
- Placing them in a “liminal” space for a fortnight
- Crafting an intense degree of interaction
- Combining cognitive (academic) and emotional aspects
- Combining formal and informal elements of interaction
Four major outcomes of the ISSRPL are envisioned:
- Transformation of awareness and perception of the participants. While not attenuating in any way their commitment to their own religious traditions, the school hopes to open the participants to other religious traditions and view them not solely as a threat.
- Enhance understanding of what has generally been viewed as a tension between modern secular and more traditional understandings of self and society.
- To build in the participants an understanding of this tension as a "creative" one, rather than an unbridgeable obstacle to understanding. Hence, too, to inculcate in the participants an understanding that to shape a truly civil society, devoted to tolerance and the plurality of the human experience we need to draw on religious traditions as well as modern secular thought and practice.
- Finally, the recruitment of the participants into an ongoing effort and engagement around these themes that will build on the experience of the summer school to establish ongoing relationships, networks of interaction and contact during the year around the continued sharing of material and publications, as well as social and political experience.