On Sunday, as part of Interfaith Week, about 60 Protestant and Catholic students from many different fellowship groups gathered together to share a meal and conversation. The brainchild of ASUC Senator Noah Stern, the Bears Breaking Bread program was designed to create a forum for conversation between groups that have historically misunderstood each other. A worthy goal, to be sure, but will it actually bring real unity to Christians and other groups at Cal?
First, let us praise Mr. Stern and the other ASUC senators who put the event together and acknowledge the work they have done. The evening began with an icebreaker, then students were seated at assigned tables, where we enjoyed some informal conversation, followed by a guided discussion led by group leaders at each table. The questions chosen by the event organizers were thoughtful, and the ensuing conversations came admirably close to breaking through the congenital superficiality of such forced dialogue. By the end of the evening, I am sure that most attendees felt some affinity for their new acquaintances, even those from across the supposed Catholic-Protestant divide. It would be fair to say that the dinner accomplished about as much as such an evening ever might.
Unfortunately, the reality is that such an event is limited in its ability to foster understanding. A primary problem is that the dinner brought together a self-selected group of individuals, mostly those already interested in promoting unity and dialogue. It did not elicit attendance from, for instance, the fellowship/church most responsible for the deplorable fact that Catholics are not already part of Unity in Christ, Berkeley. (An oversight, by the way, that is significant enough to question the meaning the meaning of the word “unity” in context.) Of course such a self-chosen group will get along well with each other, and we did.
A second limitation of the event was the intentional avoidance of any truly divisive subjects, and the needless repetition of platitudes reminding us that “each person’s beliefs are truth for [him/her].” The problem with such a creed, aside from the fact that it is self-defeating, is that it prevents the very conversations that might lead to true understanding. If we are not able to wrestle with each other in loving argument, seeking to see what the other sees without being overly wary that we will offend, we will never understand each other. If we back down every time two views seem to contradict each other, we will never truly dwell together in unity, and we will not come any closer to real truth. Rather, we will only tolerate each other from a distance. Certainly such tolerance is better than hostility, but it lacks the true respect that would come from honest disagreement. (Of course, this latter limitation is largely mooted by the first.)
Although small, Bears Breaking Bread is nevertheless a step forward, at least inviting students into further conversation. Perhaps those who did attend will be inspired to press for true unity and tough dialogue on our campus, extending the discussion beyond those who attended the event and reaching out even to those who would not. Maybe they will ask the goading questions that are needed to break down the barriers that separate even those who proclaim the name of Christ. Indeed, let us continue to talk.