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Part seminar, part artsfest, part rolling carnival and interreligious international engagement, Richard Kearney’s Guestbook Project also happens to exemplify Boston College’s efforts to bring serious and broad attention—and funding—to innovative humanities programs
On the evening of Friday, March 13, in St. Mary’s Chapel, the vocal trio known as A.M.E.N.—comprising Nóirín Ní Riain, the famous singer of Irish spiritual song, and her two adult sons, Mícheal and Eoin—offered a concert titled “Songs of Sacred Welcome.” The performance was one element of a weekend academic conference called “Interreligious Hospitality in the Five Wisdom Traditions,” which was itself a component of a year-long Boston College effort titled “The Guestbook Project,” which its founder, Selig Professor of Philosophy Richard Kearney, describes as “an artistic and multimedia experiment in hospitality.”
According to the printed program, the concert would include “Irish songs of hospitality” sung by the trio before they together presented “a hospitality ritual drawing on sounds and songs” from the selected traditions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The music was beautiful. Riain’s soprano lent the Irish songs that ethereal quality that, unfortunately, Americans can’t help but associate with the background music in New Age bookstores. But heard live, sung by a master, in a small stone space with enviable acoustics, the music slipped loose from those connotations.
The evening’s “hospitality ritual” began when the American poet Fanny Howe and Boston College philosophy graduate student Shafiq Walji ’09—both of whom are among more than 100 scholars, artists, and students involved in the Guestbook Project—were invited onstage to sign their names in a guestbook and then to open a “guest box” proffered by the weekend’s Irish visitors. The box, made from ancient bog oak, contained a tiny sack of earth from a 5,000-year-old Neolithic site at Ireland’s Lough Gur; a candle “originally lit from a Lenten candle in Glenstal Abbey,” a Benedictine monastery on the southwest coast of Ireland; and a vial of water from the River Shannon—”steeped in the mythological lore of the [river’s] goddess Sionna,” said the program. Riain and her sons then chanted in Hindi and Hebrew and sang a 13th-century verse by the Persian poet Rumi and a fifth-century melody from Ireland. For the required Buddhist chant, they punted, playing a Tibetan recording.
The largest interdisciplinary humanities effort mounted by Boston College in anyone’s memory, the Guestbook Project kicked off in January 2009 with a semester-long seminar, “Hosting the Stranger,” that was open to students and faculty from Boston College and other universities. Organized by Kearney and MIT’s Gloriana Davenport, the eight sessions (viewable on the project’s website—www.bc.edu/schools/cas/guestbook/) offered analyses of “host and stranger” through the considerations—most led by faculty from Boston-area universities—of philosophy, history, religion, literature, technology, the arts, and developmental psychology.
Along with the concert and the academic conference, the spring 2009 semester brought a panel discussion featuring Boston College faculty and MIT linguist and leftist Noam Chomsky on “Hosting the Stranger: Hospitality and Hostility in World Politics”; an illustrated lecture by the provocative Irish artist Dorothy Cross entitled “Strangers of the Deep”; a second academic conference entitled “Phenomenologies of the Stranger” featuring philosophers from Syracuse, LeMoyne, SUNY, Vanderbilt, Boston College, and the New School; and a three-day “Poetries of the Stranger” festival with readings and presentations by nine major-league poets, including Mark Strand, John Ashbery, and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, that was streamed live around the world.
This summer, the Guestbook Project—in the form of videos and publications generated at Boston College during the past year, along with the literal guestbook and “guest box”—will leave Boston College and the United States to embark on what Kearney envisions as a five-year journey around the world, an intellectual and artistic “host and stranger” caravan.
The first stop will be the aforementioned Glenstal Abbey—a monastery with which Nóirín Ní Riain is associated, and whose abbot was a participant in the March seminar. There it will tarry over the summer—the new hosts sponsoring academic and artistic programs in collaboration with new guests who will also be the next set of hosts: Hindus from an interreligious center in Bangalore, India. And then after the Hindus have added their programs to the project, it will travel to a Buddhist study center in Kathmandu, Nepal; then to an Israeli-Palestinian arts and theater institute in Acre, Israel; then to a Sufi interreligious center in Cairo, before returning to Glenstal Abbey.
At the heart of this sprawling, ambitious journey across religions, disciplines, art forms, years, and continents, says Kearney, lies an important exploration of the tension between hospitality and hostility, and the role of that tension in the formation of cultures and civilizations and in their ongoing relationships.
“All of these cultures and religions,” says Kearney, “have this wager, this adventure, this drama at the founding, of which way they will go”—to accept the stranger or reject him. “For example, Abraham received three strangers, and he can either kill them or welcome them as guests. He receives them as guests, even though that’s a very dangerous thing to do in the middle of the desert, with a wife, mistress, and kid to protect. In Christianity, Mary welcomes a stranger, and becomes pregnant with Jesus. And Mohammed is in a cave . . . and he surrenders to the stranger, and Islam is born.”
If Guestbook works as Kearney believes it might, form and content will blend: Questions about how one is a good host and guest will travel from an American university to an Irish monastery, then to other lands, and in each place new decisions will need to be made. While Kearney envisions publications and documentary films, no one really knows yet what will happen at each stop—or what the literal or figurative end products will be. Asked what he expects to happen when the five-year journey is done, Kearney responded by e-mail in the fervent style he tends to adopt when speaking of the project:
Maybe back to BC? Or it may well continue on an interactive site which can stream to multiple national and international locations? Maybe an archive-museum-exhibition? Maybe a guestbook-guestbox which travels between different places of hostility-hospitality (conflict resolution projects; truth and reconciliation meetings; peace studies and international justice centres; interreligious and intercultural festivals; schools, universities, libraries and town halls; arts and religion events or exhibits; genocide and war memorials . . . and more).
If the March 13 concert was uplifting and hopeful—if also somewhat sentimental—about the prospects for intercultural and interreligious hospitality, the academic talks that surrounded it were skeptical—illustrative of the promise and danger that ideas of hospitality present in the world that Kearney would like to penetrate.
Earlier in the day, in a classroom in Devlin Hall, two scholars of Judaism, Edward Kaplan of Brandeis University and Jacob Meskin of Boston’s Hebrew College, began the conference with a one-two punch: Kaplan gave a general overview of Jewish traditions of hospitality, focusing on the holidays of Passover and Sukkoth, and then Meskin—who said he was grateful that Kaplan had given a basic primer, so that now he could “play” with more complex philosophical matters—discussed the famously difficult French-Algerian Jewish scholar Jacques Derrida. The “founding worry” of Derrida, Meskin said, was “that all of the various types of home, and the processes through which we make them, must all end up creating a distinct, bounded community, one which inevitably includes some folks but excludes other folks.” It is a tension obvious not only in all religious ritual, but also, as Meskin said during the question period afterward, in administering an ethnically riven state like Israel, which has only had 60 years to figure out what hospitality might mean.
On the following morning, in another Devlin classroom, Boston College theologian Catherine Cornille—author of The Im-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue (2008)—talked about hospitality in the Christian tradition with the philosopher Mark Patrick Hederman, OSB, who is the abbot of Glenstal Abbey. Hederman began by harking back to the previous day’s proceedings, saying that Christian hospitality is largely an extension of Jewish hospitality. However, he added, to a good bit of knowing laughter, “Everything that was said yesterday about how little time the Jews have had to practice being in charge of countries and of large political institutes does not apply to Christians.” Counting forward from the time of Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, Christians have had nearly 1,700 years “of putting into practice . . . loving our enemies.” As an object lesson of Christians’ failure to practice hospitality well, Hederman pointed to his native Ireland, where, “in certain parts of that Christian country, [a child] of seven years of age will not stand beside another child of seven years of age because one is a Catholic and one is a Protestant.”
Speaking next, Cornille made Christian hospitality seem just as difficult as Hederman had, although for different reasons. Even when hospitality is practiced in good faith and with apparent success, it has its limitations, she argued. One might welcome others in order to discover the ways that they are similar to oneself, as when Jews and Muslims congratulate each other for their shared monotheism. “But a real religious hospitality would welcome them in their alterity,” their otherness, Cornille told the audience.
After a short break, we heard Dana Sajdi, a Boston College historian of Islam, and Brandeis professor and Muslim theologian Joseph Lumbard discuss hospitality within Islam, where, as with Cornille’s Christian hospitality, it has proved an elusive and tricky business. Sajdi presented a historical case study about how burial patterns symbolized who was considered a stranger and who an insider in 18th-century Damascus, Syria. Lumbard then began with the story of how once, in a Moroccan mosque, an old man, excited to meet a Western convert to Islam, offered him a ladle of water from a drinking bucket, which Lumbard felt he could not refuse; he drank the water and was sick for the next month with the giardia parasite. But, as Lumbard went on to discuss, the event was freighted with theological significance, for in Islam “hospitality is a two-way street. Not only is there hospitality that one must have toward the family, the friend, and the stranger, not only is this considered to be a moral imperative in much of the Islamic world, so too accepting hospitality from others, no matter how mean their circumstances, is considered to be a moral imperative. It is a way in which we manifest mercy toward one another, and in which we help to bring the mercy of God more fully into the world.”
Saturday afternoon, after lunch, Harvard professor Francis Clooney, SJ, and Swami Tyagananda, a chaplain at Harvard and MIT, discussed hospitality in the Hindu tradition. Clooney’s talk was an explication of the Taittiriya Upanishad, a Hindu text that teaches reverence for the guest (atithi, one who comes without prior announcement); in Clooney’s reading of this Upanishad, sharing food is one important way to participate in the guest’s reality. Swami Tyagananda also focused on worship as a mundane, everyday receptivity to the divine—like Clooney, he mentioned food—but drawing on the teachings of karmic yoga he enlarged the sense of the divine: “A doctor would worship the divine who comes in the form of a patient by giving medicine,” Tyagananda said. “Spiritualizing daily life is what karmic yoga does. And so it’s possible to see the divine being as coming as a guest into our lives.”
To anyone who sat through the previous panel discussions, this last comment was a reminder of Hederman’s ironic citation, earlier that day, of Hebrews 13:2, a call to hospitality as “enlightened self-interest”: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
These paradoxes of hospitality—that one does not always know whom one is hosting; that the guest can be seen as both mundane and sacred—were explained somewhat differently by the speakers on Buddhism, Andy Rotman of Smith College and John Makransky of Boston College. Makransky’s formulation of the paradox sounded, to me, at once despairing and remarkably hopeful. “Everyone,” he said, “is rendered a stranger—everyone—insofar as we mistake our thoughts of persons for the full reality of persons.”
The Guestbook Project has thus far brought together five religions, scholars and students from a dozen universities, as well as artists working in sculpture, words, and music. And for Boston College, it signals more still. It is the first major project of the Institute for Liberal Arts (ILA), a two-year-old organization that as yet has no office, administrative staff, website, or permanent director, but—aided by seed money from the University and abetted by an advisory board of six faculty—has begun the task of re-imagining and vitalizing the humanities at Boston College.
The idea that something like the ILA should exist, and sponsor projects like Guestbook, came not from a sense that students and faculty were less engaged in the humanities at this University than was typical at selective private research universities, but from a conviction that too often humanists were going at their work alone, and that this weakened the possibility of achieving innovation and freshness in the humanities.
Some six years ago, historian (and now interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences) David Quigley and English professor Carlo Rotella had an idea. “We have a shared interest in the American city,” Quigley explains, “and we put together a proposal for a center for the study of the American city, to think of ways to link up with journalists, artists, and various writers thinking about the city in history and today,” especially those who lived in, and thought about, the Boston area. Nice idea, said senior academic administrators, but not now. A year later, in 2004, Boston College began a new strategic planning process, “and everyone”—including faculty from every humanities department, says Rotella—”was trying to argue for their own particular piece of turf. Over time, there seemed to be some kind of consensus to avoid funding individual programs, but we would fund the humanities” through a new academic organization that would award innovative and—because faculty culture and reward systems are grounded in departments—risky interdisciplinary work. Rotella describes it as a “hardware/software model,” in which “the hardware is the existence of the institute, funding, a physical space; software would be interdisciplinary projects you could plug into the institute. And so was born the Institute for Liberal Arts, a center that could fund interdisciplinary research and curricular projects as they came along.” Italian film and music under Mussolini? That would bring together historians, film studies scholars, musicologists, and professors of Italian. Virtue and vice in ancient Greece? Ethicists, classicists, archaeologists. As it happened, there came along the Guestbook Project, for philosophers, poets, theologians, artists.
At Boston College, “the ILA has been tasked with rethinking humanities scholarship at all levels,” says Dean Quigley, as well as “[making] a claim for the humanities at a university where an ever-increasing proportion of the funding is drifting toward the sciences.” (Quigley concedes that the liberal arts in the institute’s title include the sciences, and says that the ILA will at some point welcome interdisciplinary science proposals.) And there is one ILA goal so obvious to him that Quigley forgets to mention it: bringing public attention and regard to the humanities. This was a central aim of Quigley and Rotella’s city project—which remains under consideration by the ILA board—and it’s integral to Guestbook. But it’s not easy, says James Chandler, who has written about the role of humanities centers and who directs one at the University of Chicago. Alluding to the different spirits that animate universities and the public square, he notes, “It’s a little tricky to think a place dedicated to research would also be a face of humanities to the world. So it’s a challenge we take on, to take the research that we hope is in some sense cutting-edge and find a way to make that intelligible.”
But first Boston College has to make the ILA intelligible to itself. Quigley was appointed the ILA’s founding director in February 2008; he was supposed to have the organization “fully functioning” by the fall of 2009, he says. But in September 2008, he was tapped as interim A&S dean, and now, in effect, he runs both the ILA and Boston College’s largest and most demanding academic unit. The ILA will be built, Quigley promises, saying that an office, a director, and an administrative staff—as well as a website—will be in place by September. Quigley has also assured faculty that current funding, and the will of the University to endow the center through gifts to the $1.5 billion Light the World Campaign, are strong.
This is not to say that the ILA will ever command the kind of funding that flows to the professions and sciences, where research has the kind of practical consequences that draw government and corporate support and alumni applause. Questions regarding investments in historians as against scientists, are old and not going anywhere, and they’ve grown somewhat fiercer in our practical and technological—and now hard—times. Carlo Rotella, the English professor who helped conceive the ILA, notes: “The humanities are fundamentally different from the sciences, in that what you spend money on is people. I don’t need a cyclotron. I need a pencil and a phone. So you need to find ways to spend money on people.”
Spending money on people—poets, theologians, Gaelic singers, undergraduate students, video artists—is what the Guestbook Project does. Budgeted at $100,000 so far, Guestbook will cost the University about 10 percent of what it costs to set up a laboratory for one new assistant professor in the natural sciences. And when the Institute for Liberal Arts has its offices, its director, and its website this fall, more projects will be funded. Some will turn out to be superb ideas; others will not. Many science experiments fail, too—or at least point away from one presumption and toward another to try next time. The humanities, Rotella implies, needs the same kind of support, the same scope to succeed and fail. At least that’s the plan.
Mark Oppenheimer is the author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture (2003) and Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America (2005).