Bears Breaking Bread: A Step Forward in Unity?

BY JOHN MONTAGUE

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.

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3 thoughts on “Bears Breaking Bread: A Step Forward in Unity?

  1. I’m just observing that the self-selection problem is an inherent limitation of such events. Much of the discord is perpetuated by those who would never have considered attending the dinner. Combating what is, in large part, ignorant prejudice (redundant, I know) requires: (1) carrying on an actual argument (but a respectful one) (2) that goes beyond the boundaries of the event. But as I say above, the event provides a helpful starting point for this task, should those who attended choose to undertake it.

  2. Having attended the event, I myself felt that many of the pressing questions that have historically and continue to divide Protestants and Catholics — not just questions of practice (in which we found much common ground) but of doctrine and theology — were avoided because, if brought to the dining table, they’d alter the pleasant atmosphere created by the overall event. After all, Bears Breaking Bread was a social event that would create bridges for understanding — meaning, some basis of relationships to continue the already begun conversations. While I agree with you that we should ask these pressing questions — and there is no certain order, for these questions may be either the starting or ending point of a single conversation — I think that one thing that hinders people from even trying to understand is the mindset of persuasion and defense of professed beliefs. While this is not a bad thing, for we must stand firm on tested ideas before resorting to synthesis of multiple perspectives, the unwillingness to accept even the possibility of synthesis — and who knows, disposal upon testing and trying — is the act of limiting God’s awesomeness to our finite understandings. We fail to learn from each other not because we don’t ask the right questions (I think we do, eventually, though to whom it may vary), but because we go into discussion wanting to prove ourselves right. In the four gospels, Jesus himself, knowing all answers, constantly answers challenging questions with more questions; his intent is not to simply teach but to invoke more questions, deeper curiosity.

    Once we establish mutual respect for each other as people of faith rather than objects to defy, discussion is possible, and synthesis is attainable. And it seems to me, that people who possess the willingness to be challenged and not merely to challenge are, indeed, the people who show up to events such as Bears Breaking Bread. So I agree with you in that it brought people who are already interested in this vision of unity (and if not unity, at least reconciliation). But even for these people, such tangible occasions of gathering and genuine discussion are rare, and I’m glad this event was able to provide such a venue.

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