Friday, October 25, 2013

What a Sufi Muslim, a Star Trek episode, Guinea worm eradication and the Apostle Paul have in common.

In a recent blog post, I recalled my encounter with Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Sufi Muslim who was, at that time, the Imam of the “Ground Zero Mosque.” What made the encounter so powerful for me was a combination of story and experience. Hearing Rauf tell his story and also experiencing the presence of God as Rauf (and other Muslims) worshiped, contributed greatly to a paradigm shift I have undergone in my views about other faiths. Rauf effectively built a bridge of affinity which helped me further in seeing Islam not as a religion to fear or despise but as a faith worthy of respect (even if I myself do not choose to follow it) and a potential ally in mending the world.

This idea of the power of story combined with experience brings to mind to an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, entitled Darmok. In that episode, the crew of the starship Enterprise make contact with an advanced race called the Tamarians, about whom little is known. The Tamarian space ship and the Enterprise rendezvous in orbit above a planet called El-Adrel and attempt to communicate, in hopes of establishing diplomatic relations. What makes this challenging is that both sides are wary of the other and are completely unable to understand the communication style of the other, even though they can speak the same language. The Tamarian form of communication is comprised entirely of metaphoric references to their history and myths. Where a human might say “Let’s work together to solve this problem,” a Tamarian would say “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” Since humans have no knowledge of Tamarian history and mythology, they are at a loss to decipher the references. Who is Darmok? Who is Jalad? What did they do at Tanagra?

The Tamarian captain, Dathon, frustrated at the communication conundrum, decides to take bold action. He has himself and Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise “beamed” down to the planet below. Further, he has the signals of the Enterprise jammed so that they cannot contact or rescue their captain. On the planet, Dathon approaches Picard and tosses a dagger to him, saying “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra!” Picard thinks the Tamarian is challenging him to a duel and refuses to pick up the dagger.

It turns out that there is a dangerous creature nearby on the planet, which is aware of the presence of the two captains and is approaching in order to attack them. It can only be defeated if Picard and Dathon fight it as a team, using their daggers. Picard eventually realizes that what the Tamarian captain is doing is instigating a shared experience which will give them a new story in common. The finale of the episode is when, after battling the creature, the humans are able to say to the Tamarians "Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel," thus establishing a foothold for further dialogue.

The Tamarian captain (or, rather, the screenwriter who invented the Tamarian captain) utilized a methodology which I have seen expanded upon in a bestselling book entitled Influencer: The Power to Change Anything by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. Influencer is concerned with strategies for influencing behavior in order to bring about change in social structures (be they families or villages or workplaces or nations or multi-national corporations). One of the most profound sections of the book is an anecdote about efforts to eradicate the Guinea worm, a pernicious parasite that has caused misery to millions. The only way to stop the scourge of the Guinea worm is by changing people’s behavior. The authors explain:

“The Guinea worm is one of the largest human parasites (it can grow to three feet long), and it has caused incalculable pain and suffering in millions of people. When West Asian and sub-Saharan villagers drink stagnant and unfiltered water, they take in the larvae of the Guinea worms, which then burrow into abdominal tissues and slowly grow into enormous worms.

Eventually the worms begin to excrete an acid-like substance that helps carve a path out of the host human’s body. Once the worm approaches the skin’s surface, the acid causes painful blisters. To ease the horrific pain, victims rush to the local water source and plunge their worm-infected limbs into the pond for cooling relief. This gives the worm what it wanted—access to water in which to lay hundreds of thousands of eggs, thus continuing the tragic cycle.

Sufferers cannot work their crops for many weeks. … Crops cannot be cultivated. The harvest is lost. Starvation ensues. … Often, secondary infections caused by the worms can kill. Consequently, for over 3,500 years the Guinea worm has been a major barrier to economic and social progress in dozens of nations.”

What a team of researchers discovered was that the cycle of Guinea worm infection in humans could be stopped in its tracks by getting people to change just two behaviors for the span of as little as one year: straining their water before drinking it and preventing infected people from going into the watering holes. The challenge was how to get 120 million people, many in remote villages, to change these two behaviors. Health workers were deployed to disseminate information to the villagers, but their efforts to bring about the necessary behavioral changes failed. It was only when they implemented a strategy incorporating story and experience that they began to see results.

The modus operandi they found to be successful was to have a highly respected figure (often a politician or military general or other celebrity) visit a village. The celebrity, along with the village headman (who had been convinced beforehand of the need for change) would give information to the gathered villagers (who had come to see the celebrity) about the Guinea worms. Then water would be taken from the local source and poured into a large glass container. A magnifying glass would be set up in front of the container and the villagers would peer into it, enabling them to see—for the first time—the larvae in the water. Next, the water in the container would be poured through a cloth strainer into another glass container. The magnifying glass would now be placed in front of the “clean” container and the villagers could see that there were no larvae. Finally, as the coup de grace, the celebrity and the village headman would both drink from the container of filtered water. Then the villagers would be invited to partake of the same water.

By giving the villagers a compelling story tied to a memorable experience, behaviors changed. As a result, the health workers have managed to nearly eliminate Guinea worm infections in Africa.

But how do Tamarians and Guinea worms relate to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and interfaith dialogue? I think the New Testament writer Luke has provided a great example in his account in the book of Acts (chapter 17), in which the Apostle Paul interacts with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers of Athens:

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Initially, the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who encountered Paul in the agora thought he is a spermalogos—a “seed-spitter” or “babbler”— in other words, someone who was throwing out words but didn’t really understand what he was saying. Paul was taken to the Areopagus (Mars Hill), where the city council met, ostensibly to determine if his preaching should be permitted or if he was proclaiming a religio illicita. Much hinged on how Paul would answer the questions put to him regarding the nature of the message he had been proclaiming. Paul responded in a way that was respectful, crafty and conducive to ongoing interfaith dialogue. He evoked one of the legends of their city and linked it to his own proclamation.

The legend involved the semi-mythical Cretan prophet, poet and philosopher Epimenides. In the 6th or 7th century BCE, so the story went, a terrible plague came to Athens, killing thousands. Sacrifices were made to various gods and goddesses, but the plague did not abate. It was discerned by an oracle that some offended deity remained unappeased. The city leaders sent to Crete for Epimenides to solve the conundrum. Upon arrival in Athens, Epimenides requested that sheep be brought to the Areopagus and then set loose to graze. Wherever a sheep lay down, he instructed, an altar was to be erected and the sheep was to be sacrificed upon it. His advice was followed and the plague subsided. The result of this event, according to Diogenes Laertius (who wrote of it in the 3rd century CE), was a scattering of altars throughout Athens which were unassigned to any particular deity.

Whether there is any truth to the legend, and whether or not Paul actually came upon such an altar is irrelevant. The Athenians knew the story and Paul tapped into it. Paul’s gospel message was about salvation by a God whom the Athenians did not know, and so he evoked a time from their halcyon past when salvation came to them from an unidentified god. Rather than critiquing their religious beliefs, Paul commended them for their pursuit of religious devotion within their own context. He then quoted Epimenides directly: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” (Yes, a beloved phrase which Christians often quote and sing was originally written about Zeus). Paul then also quoted the 3rd century BCE Stoic philosopher Aratus (also referring to Zeus): “For we too are his offspring.”

Having established a connection, Paul next attempted to push things in a new direction by speaking about the resurrection of Christ. At this point in Luke’s narrative of Acts, the Areopagus interview ends in dispute (Platonic-minded Athenian philosophers would have found the idea of a bodily resurrection to be unappealing). But Paul seems to have achieved his objective, as some on the council expressed an interest in hearing more of his message and a few became followers of Jesus. A door was opened; a dialogue established. Paul tapped into the power of story and experience in order to build a bridge between their worldview and his.

These examples seem to point a way forward in our pluralistic and often polarized world where fear and ignorance about “the others” results in tragedy and loss to us all. We can, like Paul, learn about “the others”—-be they Muslims or gays or undocumented immigrants or whomever. We can listen respectfully and attentively to their stories and, in so doing, realize our common humanity. And perhaps, if we comport ourselves appropriately, we can be invited to share our stories too and maybe together share an experience of the God in whom we all live and move and have our being.


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