Joshua Stanton, More Than Coursework: Graduate Students Who Lead and Serve
Joshua Stanton Founding Co-Editor, Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue; Co-Founder, State of Formation; Founding Co-Editor, O.N. Torah(weekly Torah commentary) BA in History, Economics, and Spanish from Amherst College; MA in Hebrew Literature (as of May 3, 2012) from Hebrew Union College—The Jewish Institute of Religion
College peer culture can have both positive and negative influences on students’ personal, social, and academic life. What do you see as interfaith programs and initiatives that might moderate the negative influences of peer culture?
As someone fortunate to have had a wonderful undergraduate experience, I tend to view peer influences in a positive light. That said, I did find myself at times overwhelmed by the sheer number of influences I had at a given time. I was in constant conversation, debate, and discussion with students in multiple classes and extracurricular activities at any given time. I found it challenging to sort through all of the learning and needed time in which to contemplate and reflect upon all that I was taking in. Because of this, I found interfaith community service projects to be particularly meaningful. Volunteering—notably in ways that entailed a physical rather than mental exertion—gave me time to think. The interfaith environment ensured that I was thinking about the outside world even in moments of introspection. Even when engaged in parallel volunteer efforts, I gained a greater intuitive trust for those with whom I was volunteering. The result was often meaningful conversation to follow about the intersections (and areas of difference) that existed between my tradition and those of the other volunteers.
The interfaith, spirituality, and New Atheist movements are gaining momentum on college campuses today. How do you see your activism addressing students’ religious and spiritual needs, including both theistic and non-theistic perspectives?
I see myself attempting to realize one of the classical teachings of Tractate Kiddushin in the Babylonian Talmud (a central source of Jewish law): study to guide action. Without study, notably about the challenging issues that exist between our religious and ethical communities, our actions may not be productive or lead to greater justice. Without action, it is uncertain what study alone will do—apart from enriching our own thoughts. Study-guided action is a potent force for good in the world and engages our spiritual cores in a way that little else does.
Your bio is extraordinary—not all young people have the time and energy to do what you do! What advice do you give to young people who want to make changes in the world but don’t think they have the time to do it? And when do you study!!!
I recommend that young people, including myself, pursue meaning wherever they find it in their lives. Our experiences teach us a great deal about where our passions lie. I think that everyone—especially young people looking for their callings—should invest in the activities that fulfill them and give them energy, since the “work” that goes into those activities doesn’t usually feel like work. Tapping into that inner passion for particularly meaningful activities, in my view, is the best way to find one’s vocation or calling. I also suggest that everyone make time for study, whether a sacred text or a particularly insightful book. Study can be a source of inspiration and help ensure thoughtful actions—and spark innovation in our work.
Why is it important to get young people involved in the interfaith cooperation movement, do you think?
According to Professor Diana Eck of Harvard University, the United States is the most religiously diverse country in the world. It is up to young people, who have grown up amid such diversity and are able to navigate it with relative ease, to create a singular moment in human history, one in which religious difference can lead collaboration rather than conflict.
Do you think that persons who are much better at thinking, writing, and research—and who primarily devote their time to publishing, writing, and speaking instead of organizing events and groups—can be regarded as social activists? Or does one type of work help to inform and enrich the other? Should students prepare to do both as future activists?
I sense that communication through multiple mediums (notably the written word) is increasingly important for activists of all kinds. The difference between a gathering and a movement is often the ability of a gathering’s leaders to express a compelling narrative about the gathering—and encourage others to join in. Likewise, I believe that organizing events can inspire those more inclined towards communication to seek out a subject about which to communicate. Activism provides the “what,” while communication provides the “how.” Activism and communication, in my mind, are mutually reinforcing endeavors.
Explain how you would respond to some religious educational leaders who might that say that they do not have enough time to teach young people about their own religion and that interfaith cooperation cannot be a priority for them in terms of their efforts.
I would suggest that a key component of religious education in America is preparing young people to practice and live out their traditions in the world’s most religiously diverse society. This inherently means communicating with and gaining a better understanding of individuals of other traditions. Learning how to find language to express one’s beliefs in a diverse setting takes time and practice—and it is up to religious educational leaders to help young people cultivate that authentic religious voice of their own. I’m uncertain that the process of finding an authentic voice can be separated either from one’s own tradition or the societal context in which that tradition will be lived out.
You won the Bridge-Builders Leadership Award from the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). How were you nominated for this award and what has been your most rewarding and challenging work with IFYC?
I am not entirely sure how I was nominated for the award, but I was quite honored and, frankly surprised, to receive it. Since I began working with it five years ago, the IFYC has done an incredible amount to support my work and learning. I am truly indebted to its staff and leaders for mentoring me and encouraging me to follow the sense of calling I have to at once be a leader rooted in my own tradition and one dedicated to better relations with other traditions. The only challenge I have experienced in working with the IFYC is its consistently high standards. At times I am unsure I can live up to them but certainly do aspire to.
You are editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. In its description on the website, one of the objectives of the Journal is to “contribute to a more tolerant, pluralistic society.” Can you explain in more detail what sort of society this means and how do you see educational initiatives and programs in colleges and universities playing a role in this goal?
The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue engages thought leaders in discussion about the challenging issues that exist between religious communities—those related to violence, gender norms, competing historical narratives, theology, and praxis to name but a few. Without a place in which to study these topics at greater depth, it would be difficult to garner lessons from inter-religious interactions and apply them in our work within non-profit, advocacy, and governmental organizations. It’s our belief that careful, rigorous thought can support and sustain effective action for the common good.
For those student activists who would like to write for a publication such as The Huffington Post, what advice would you give them?
I would suggest that they begin by writing in a journal or diary to see what exactly it is that most inspires them to write. Is it an issue of social justice? Religion? The confluence of the two? Politics? Once a student knows what s/he is most passionate about, gathering an audience for one’s blog—and ultimately writing for a more public forum—is likely to be smoother. In fact, I wish I had done this myself! I might have learned a bit sooner about ways in which to be a more effective writer.
There is a certain paradox about inclusive worldviews: for example, some campus leaders and students might say that pluralism is only one interpretation of religion or worldview, and being inclusive is actually having an exclusive worldview in that pluralism by its very definition excludes non-pluralistic views. How would you address a group of students and campus leaders who might bring up this paradox?
I am not a moral relativist and firmly believe that religious inclusivity would make our society a better place in which to live. Being critical of those who are exclusive is not something I find paradoxical, except perhaps semantically. Rather, it is an internally consistent orientation in which we advocate a particular policy (religious inclusivity) based on the principle that peace (or the absence of conflict) is an inherent social good.
How does your own faith contribute to your work, research, and commitment to interfaith?
As a future rabbi, I find that my tradition calls me to engage positively with others and focuses a great deal on the actions we take. More personally, though, I sense that Rabbinic Judaism calls me to seek out something to which I can dedicate my life. In the rabbinic commentary to Exodus, known as the Mechilta, a rabbinic debate ensues about why we call the Temple in Jerusalem “The House of David” when it was actually King Solomon who constructed it. The argument is resolved that it can be called the House of David (and Solomon) because David dedicated his life to its establishment. It is with these biblical role models in mind that I pursue interfaith work as something to which I can dedicate my life. It would be incredibly fulfilling to add my name to the cause that already bears the names of so many mentors, colleagues, and friends.
What has been your greatest challenge as founder, writer, activist, speaker, public intellectual?
In such a fast-paced environment, I continually struggle to get distance on the day-to-day work and instead focus on where the interfaith movement is headed and where my passion lies therein. I often go for a run, pray, study, or spend time with loved ones in order to gain perspective on the interfaith movement and refocus my efforts.
What is the downside? And how do you best cope with problems that arise?
I believe that the greatest downside of my work is the relative lack of time just to relax and have fun with family and friends. I address this by actively blocking out time on my calendar to spend with loved ones and unplugging from work entirely on Shabbat.
What are some of your responsibilities to Religious Freedom USA, which you co-direct?
At present, we’re working to convene a national gathering of religious leaders and activists in order to more systematically and effectively respond to incidents of Islamophobia — notably those which are present in the media today. I have worked alongside RFUSA co-Founder, Frank Fredericks, to mobilize large-scale rallies and events, online campaigns, and strategic plans for addressing outbursts of prejudice against individual religious communities in the United States. It’s our belief that when one religious community is singled out, none are truly safe.
You were a finalist for the 2012 Coexist Prize. How were you nominated for the prize?
Dr. Eboo Patel, Founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, nominated me for the Coexist Prize. I was honored to receive his nomination and blessed to be selected as one of six global finalists for the prize.
What role do you play in your work with State of Formation?
Two years ago, it occurred to me that we were lacking a national forum in which future religious and ethical leaders (notably seminarians) could discuss issues of belief formation with individuals of other traditions and backgrounds. Since then, I’ve had the joy of collaborating with a number of colleagues and friends to create and expand the State of Formation forum, notably with the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue’s collaborative partners, Hebrew College, Andover Newton Theological School, and the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Right now we have over 100 emerging leaders contributing and have published nearly 800 articles since the website launched a year and a half ago. We are also beginning to convene in-person dialogue gatherings in cities across the country that have large seminary populations in order to enhance the dialogue experience and ensure that conversations can continue online—but add depth and new areas of focus in-person. We hope to have launched perhaps ten of these citywide dialogue groups by the start of the coming academic year.
How would you respond to the following quotation from Alan Wolfe’s September 11, 2011, article “Evildoers and Us” in the Chronicle of Higher Education?
Those who plan and carry out political evil no doubt have malevolence in their hearts or malfunctions in their brains. But it is not their insides that ought to concern us; it is their acts. Whether they are twisted by hatred and envy, exemplars of depraved human nature, stunted in their development because they were abused as children, psychotic or sociopathic, unwilling to allow a savior into their lives, suffering from delusions of grandeur, obsessive-compulsive in their personality disorders, the product of poor genetic heritage, or seriously dependent on their meds to get through the day is a matter of scant interest to us. . . . We need not reform them, stigmatize them, or show them the path to salvation. We need to stop them, and in order to do that we have to focus on the political causes that attract them and their followers. Acts are easier to change than people. I would respectfully disagree with this quote from Dr. Wolfe’s article. While the manifestations of “evil” in actions are often devastating symptoms, I am uncertain that stopping these symptoms will treat the underlying conditions that often foster or exacerbate “evil.” Further, I am uncertain that the use of the term “evil” is helpful and find that its overuse in recent years has led to confusion about the significance of the word itself.