Baha'i Chair at Hebrew University hosts conference on modern religions
JERUSALEM — Some 54 scholars of religion -- Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Mormon and Baha'i-- gathered in December at the Hebrew University to discuss the impact of modernism on their traditions. The conference, co-sponsored by the Chair in Baha'i Studies at the Hebrew University's Faculty of Humanities and Landegg Academy, has advanced Baha'i studies as an independent field of academic study and enriched the dialogue on the core values common to the monotheistic faiths.
The First International Conference on Modern Religions and Religious Movements in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the Babi and Baha'i Faiths, was held from 17 to 21 December 2000 and focused on common approaches within Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha'i Faith toward the philosophical, social and psychological challenges of modernity.
"Religious studies often deal with the origins or history of religions. For example we study the origins of Islam or medieval Judaism," said Yair Zakovitch, Dean of the Hebrew University's Faculty of Humanities. "But the study of religion in modern times is so relevant, so important to the lives of people. It was very significant that these scholars, despite the delicate political situation, were able to gather in Jerusalem to discuss their commonalities and appreciate their differences. People are generally suspicious, and the walls of suspicion collapsed."
The President of the Hebrew University, Menachem Magidor, described to the conference participants his vision of making the Hebrew University into a preeminent center for the study of religion, with research centers devoted to each of the monotheistic faiths. "The Chair in Baha'i Studies is the first link in this chain," he said.
Moshe Sharon, the holder of the Chair in Baha'i Studies and co-convenor of the conference, said that the field of Baha'i studies is emerging as an independent area of academic inquiry and that this was the first conference convened by a major international university for the study of the Baha'i Faith and its relationship to its sister faiths.
"Through this conference," said Dr. Sharon, "the Hebrew University has declared its interest in Baha'i studies and its recognition of the importance of this field alongside Jewish, Christian and Islamic studies."
The other co-convenor of the conference was Hossain Danesh, the Rector of Landegg Academy, a Baha'i-sponsored institution of higher education in Switzerland.
"The conference focused on fundamental issues that are common to religions, held in a city and at a time when religious conflict in political terms was considerable," Dr. Danesh said.
In his keynote address Dr. Danesh reviewed the common elements of the monotheistic religions that have made them cornerstones of civilizations, as well as some of the teachings and principles of the Baha'i Faith that address challenges unique to the modern age. He presented President Magidor with a volume of fine pen and ink drawings of Baha'i holy places in the Old City of Acre by the Persian architect and draftsman Hushang Seyhoun.
Other presentations and panel discussions were grouped around themes such as "Religion in Modern Times: Philosophical, Social and Psychological Reflections," "Mysticism and Messianism," "Eschatology and Ethics," "Tradition, Renewal and Reform," and "Religion and the Realm of Science." Most of the panelists spoke on aspects of Judaism or the Baha'i Faith, but there were also contributions on Sufism, the Wahhabi movement, modern Islam, and Mormonism.
The participants came mainly from the United States and Israel, but also from Canada, Denmark, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. Prof. Degui Cai from China's Shandong University gave a presentation on the fundamental principles of the Baha'i Faith and their relevance to Chinese society.
The final panel discussion, on "Contemporary Meeting of Ultimate Differences," featured presentations about African Christians in Israel and about the Baha'i Faith, Christianity and indigenous religions in the Pacific islands. The panel closed with a presentation by Dr. Amnon Netzer of the Hebrew University on "The Jews and the Baha'i Faith." A Jew of Iranian background, Prof. Netzer spoke about the conditions that led as many as ten percent of Iran's Jews to convert to the Baha'i Faith.
"The courteous talk, in which Dr. Netzer showed great respect for those who converted, created an atmosphere of interfaith reconciliation for the audience, which included several Israeli Jews with Baha'i relatives," said Robert Stockman, Coordinator of the Institute for Baha'i Studies in Wilmette, Illinois.
Another significant element of the conference was the participation of many young scholars alongside well-known and outstanding professors and scholars in the field of religious studies.
"The juxtaposition of youth and experience was very insightful and promising for the future of religious studies. It demonstrated that there are fine minds coming up, and this augurs well for the emergence of new insights into the role of religion in the development of civilization," said Dr. Danesh.
The conference also featured a number of cultural activities. The opening day closed with a program of classical music by the King David String Ensemble, one of the foremost chamber music groups in Israel. Among the selections they performed was a piece well known to Baha'is, "Dastam Bigir Abdu'l-Baha," which the composer had arranged especially for the occasion.
Kiu Haghighi, a Persian Baha'i and master of the santour, closed the conference with a virtuoso performance of an original piece he composed for the event.
On the final day of the conference, 21 December, the participants made a special trip to the Baha'i World Center in Haifa and Acre. They visited the Shrine of the Bab and toured the nearly completed garden terraces stretching above and below the Shrine on the slopes of Mount Carmel. After a luncheon at the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, they visited the Shrine of Baha'u'llah and the Baha'i holy places in Acre.
A compilation of articles based on the proceedings of the conference will be published during the coming year, and many of the papers will be made available through the Landegg Academy Web site, www.landegg.org.
The Hebrew University and Landegg Academy have agreed to sponsor annual conferences of this nature, with the venue alternating between Jerusalem and the Landegg campus in Wienacht, Switzerland. The overarching theme of this series of conferences will be "Religion and Science." The next conference is planned for late January 2002 at Landegg.
The Chair in Baha'i Studies at the Hebrew University was established in 1999 as the first academic chair in the world devoted to the study of the Baha'i Faith. Other academic centers and programs, most notably the Baha'i Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland's Center for International Development and Conflict Management, have been established to study Baha'i perspectives on and contributions to other academic disciplines.
"The systematic study of Baha'i religion, history and literature was introduced into the Hebrew University in the 1990s," wrote Prof. Sharon in the published proceedings of the dedication ceremonies for the Baha'i Chair, held at Mount Scopus and at the Baha'i World Center in Haifa in June 1999.
"The magnitude of the material involved, and the vast scope of research which has already been done in the field persuaded the University of the necessity of creating a proper framework for research and teaching designed to accommodate the future development of the field within the academic vision of the University of forming a cluster of research centers dedicated to the study of the major religions of the world."