I. In one sense the school is premised on the fundamental insight that Knowledge is collective, not individual. What we know, we know collectively, as part of a group. Our categories, ways of understanding, moral judgments, boundaries of what is permissible and prohibited, basic frames of meanings, fears and desires – all these are in a strong sense, social. We hold them together with others and not simply as individual beliefs.
II. As knowledge is collective, an important part of what it is we know is bound up with who it is that we trust. Almost always we are called upon to grant moral credit to some source in matters which are, by their nature, almost always morally ambiguous. We may not dispute any particular “fact” or “set of facts” (the building of a mosque in lower Manhattan, the knifing of a gay marcher in a gay pride parade in Jerusalem, the murder of a Jew in Paris, the establishment of hidden cameras in the Muslim neighborhoods of Birmingham U.K.) but the frame of the act, the set of relevant external bits of information and histories needed to explain them will frequently be decided on the bases of our group belonging and the moral credit that we, as members of one or another group, grant to the act of inclusion or exclusion of information as relevant or irrelevant to this particular case.
III. These communities, within which moral credit is granted (and so the very structuring of our knowledge developed), tend to be what many call, communities of belonging. This is no less true of secular communities, which have their own beliefs, codes and myths. By the nature of the case, communities of belonging are not universal, but are bounded (just as families are bounded), they have their own histories and their own trajectories, their own languages and jokes, their own obligations, taken-for-granted worlds, their own flavours and smells -- their own understandings of home. They may be more or less open, more or less ascribed, their boundaries may be more or less permeable, but they do have boundaries and always define some “us” as against some “other”.
IV. This takes us to the second premise of the school: i.e. that these communities are real, live, active entities, within which human actors are born, thrive, live, die and makes sense (or don’t) of their worlds and the worlds of others. We cannot live without these communities and, despite all dangers that arise from them, there is no possibility of human life or achievement outside of them.
V. Consequently, and unlike almost all similar programs in inter-religious and inter-ethnic dialogue, the summer school does not stress what we have in common with the other, but accepts and attempts to build on our differences. For our differences are precisely the markers of these different communities of belonging that define who we are and provide the settings in which we live our lives and where we feel most secure.
VI. The goal of the school then is to see just how far we can build trust and hence a common store of knowledge across different communities. Can we, as a group -- a group, made up of individuals who are all members of different communities of belonging -- nevertheless construct some minimum (a "good enough") framework of trust, in some very small arenas of knowledge that will allow us to construct a shared frame of reference that can be drawn upon when events that may divide our different communities threaten the ability of our fellows to live their differences together?
VII. To what extent can we grant moral credit to the other, to s/he who is not a member of our own group and so share with her some common frame of understandings and knowledge despite being members in very different communities, tied to different myths, obliged by different commandments and loyal to different particularities?
VIII. When framed this way, the unique nature of the school becomes evident. Almost all similar initiatives stress what we have in common; the removal of boundaries and the “oneness” of all participants. We reject that approach as offering, at best, an immediate transcendence of difference, but providing no resources for resilience when differences again divide and we may require mediation among them to secure civil peace.
IX. Hence, the school sets out to construct a set of experiences that is on the one hand shared, but one which leaves room for all particularities: dietary restrictions of members of different religious communities; time to fulfill obligations for prayer and so on.
X. We share experience – eating, trips, lectures, exhaustion, yoga, facilitation, etc. -- while all the time carrying our particularities into the public (i.e. the shared) realm. The hope is that by sharing experience we can find the way to build trust even as we remain loyal to our own particular communities of trust, belonging and knowledge.
XI. Shared experience and what we call “embodied knowledge” are central to our programme and attempt to construct new communities of understanding across different communities of belonging (or at least to point at that possibility). Shared experience provides the necessary bases for constructing (what are by definition, new) frames of knowledge across our different communities of belonging.
To be sure we will often “fall back” into our collective defaults, but it is enough if even only a few times over the course of the programme, alternative plausible frames of meaning can be brought into view). Embodied knowledge carries this process forward as it is the only way we can wrest our existing prejudices viz a vis the other from the taken-for-granted worlds of our communal belonging. When experience of the Jewish other or of the Moslem other, or the Sikh other, in all their varieties and differences and subtle particularities, begins to compete with my taken-for-granted understanding; when I see what I can share with him/her and what I cannot and when my worst enemy turns out not to be the devil incarnate, some bogey-man with horns -- but simply a member of an ethno-national group perhaps involved in a horrific struggle over land, with another ethno-national group, to which I may feel particular ties of attachment (though I live thousands of miles away) then I have begun the process of what we call turning knowledge of into knowledge for.
XII. Here then we approach the more pragmatic aspects of the school’s philosophy: shared practice (rather than simply shared ideas or meanings); focusing on knowledge as a knowledge for rather than a knowledge of (that can, in fact, never be achieved). Conditional knowledge -- which is always knowledge framed towards specific purposes can, we hope to learn, be shared across communities; even as our categorical propositions, our “assertive” knowledge (to follow the locution of John Henry Newman) remains firmly rooted within our different communities of belonging).
XIII. Two prongs then are developed through shared experience and embodied knowledge: the first, to widen somewhat the circle of trust, those to who we may grant moral credit, to those who may not be members of our moral community of belonging -- but with whom we have travelled part of a weary road. The second, the very reframing of that knowledge necessary to work and share a world with the other, from knowledge of, to knowledge for – from those propositions which we categorically assert, to those which embody conditional knowledge relevant to some shared purpose. Both, hopefully, bringing us to a point where experience precedes judgment rather than, what usually happens, the other way around.
XIV. From these then, the only two rules of the school: 1. the need for all fellows to attend every event, 2. the need, in our interactions, to act “as if” you did not believe your particular ethnic, religious, racial or other group has the historical monopoly on suffering. The first rule is the sin qua non of shared experience (if you are not there, there is no shared experience); the second allows the space for the other to be present, to be heard. Note, we don’t even expect fellows to divest themselves of the idea that their group has in fact born the greatest degree of suffering or moral victimhood. Just the formal, behavioral concomitant of the belief. We hold to this, something like Abraham Joshua Heschel held regarding prayer. The very act opens up possibilities that could not otherwise exist (a truism relevant for most peformatives; such as marriage, civil courtesies, etc.)