How can we navigate the ups and downs of life? What goes into our decisions? How do understanding and judgement differ? And what is the role of philosophy in helping us to understand the world?
These were among the big questions students wrestled with during the first session of the Ansari Institute’s new online class, Everyday Religion in a World of Many Faiths. The class, which is free and open to the public, started Sept. 3 and will meet on Thursday evenings for 10 weeks, through Nov. 5.
Sessions are held via Zoom Webinar, allowing students from around the world to connect with Professor Adnan Aslan, who leads participants in wide-ranging discussions that challenge them to tackle a variety of important topics relating to religion.
Aslan, a faculty associate at Indiana University South Bend, previously served as the dean of faculty of humanities and social science in Süleyman Şah University in Istanbul, Turkey for five years. His primary scholarly interests include religious pluralism, inter-religious dialogue, Islam and modernity, perennial philosophy, interfaith relations, and the problem of evil.
In each class, Aslan offers remarks to help frame the discussion and invites classmates to participate. Together, people from a variety of backgrounds draw on their personal experience and build on each other’s insights to explore issues from multiple perspectives.
Navigating the ups and downs of life
The first session on Sept. 3 served as introduction to both 1) the course and 2) a philosophy for a religious life. Aslan began by describing one’s life journey as “the way.” The way is defined by religion, by tradition, or by ideology, and philosophy serves as justification for being on the way. The way is not always smooth, Aslan noted, and people navigate various ups and downs throughout their lives—something Buddhism addresses in its Four Noble Truths, which deal extensively with suffering.
Aslan also pointed participants to E.F. Schumacher, whose work A Guide for the Perplexed (which plays off a similar title by the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides), critiques modern education. Modern education offers a map, Schumacher argued, but many essential things in life do not exist on this map. Aslan underscored this critique, adding that the most important problem of modern education is that it prepares us for success, not failure—even though failure and suffering are part of life.
Decisions, control, and happiness
Discussion then turned to decisions. Our lives, Aslan argued, are fundamentally shaped by things we cannot choose, including our families of origin, our native language, and our gender, race, and socioeconomic status at birth. Happiness, he argued, lies in cultivating contentment with things beyond our control and dedicating ourselves to making improvements. For instance, a person might accept that they were born into a certain socioeconomic status, but also work to improve their economic prospects.
Here, students discussed a thought experiment: If we had the opportunity to change things that are now beyond our control, would the world be a better place? One argued that we might make decisions with narrow perspectives and for selfish reasons, leading to bad outcomes. Another said that God does things for a reason, and sometimes to test us. And a third student noted that overcoming adversity can reveal the best elements of our humanity.
Understanding and judgement
Participants also explored understanding and judgement. Understanding, Aslan said, is related to empathy and tolerance, while judgement, on its own, can be related to prejudice. It is crucial to understand a new perspective before criticizing it, he said, adding that this approach would be important in the class. He invited classmates to work to understand each other’s positions, and to learn from people from different cultures.
Quoting the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Aslan noted that, “to judge a thing that has substance and solid worth is quite easy, to comprehend it is much harder, and to blend judgement and comprehension in a definitive description is the hardest thing of all.”
The importance of philosophy
The first class closed with an exploration of philosophy. Aslan began by asking students which people live the longest and have the most influence? He then cited British historian Arnold Toynbee, whose work Civilization on Trial argued that the most influential people are the prophets of major religions, followed by saints, and then artists. Aslan added a fourth group: philosophers. Their ideas, he said, shape how we think about important topics. As an example, he cited Aristotle, whose thought has influenced Jewish, Christian, and Islamic culture.
Going further, Aslan said, philosophy can unite all things, in a way that science cannot. Each scientific discipline focuses on a specific and limited subject area, but philosophy can unite and explain all elements of being thanks to its holistic approach. In this way, philosophy can be seen as higher than science. For religious believers, he noted, theology occupies an even higher level, as it explains the relationship between God and the universe. Finally, for believers, mysticism—a personal connection with God—occupies the highest level. It brings God into a person’s own experience, and offers personal, spiritual, and moral benefits.
How to join the class
A limited number of spaces are still available for this virtual class, which is free and open to the public. The next session will be 6:30 p.m. ET (US) on Thursday, Sept. 10.