Distinguished philosopher and theologian Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an internationally recognized authority on Islamic science and spirituality, came to Brandeis in late November to receive the second Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize. The prize recognized Professor Nasr’s lifetime of contributions as a scholar to improving racial, ethnic, and religious relations.
His talk, “Re-Evaluating The Meaning of the Other in Our Lives,” challenged students, faculty, and all Brandeis community members to rethink the nature of our deepest relationships in an era when identities are fractured, and when technology has redefined what it means to be human.
Professor Nasr spoke of religion as a source of hope and power, since for the vast majority of people, it is a principal marker of identity. But he also spoke about the need for nations and peoples to redefine their sense of self, and their relations with other nations and peoples.
It is a truism that the major challenges humanity faces today are global in nature, but Nasr’s formulation urges us not merely to attack those problems tactically, but to participate actively as citizens in remaking our nations’ connections and conflicts with others. Most importantly, Nasr counseled, nations need to redefine national self-interest in terms of the collective self-interest of humanity and the world.
His formulation calls to mind the lives and achievements of two Center board members and staunch supporters we lost this fall, Theodore C. Sorensen
and Stephen J. Solarz ’62. Ted Sorensen, writing for John F. Kennedy, urged Americans to see themselves as foot soldiers, alongside people of many nations, in a “twilight struggle….against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” As a U.S. Congressman, Steve Solarz sought partners for justice and democracy in Turkey, India, the Philippines, and elsewhere, long before it was fashionable for Americans to build global ties beyond Western Europe.
(See page 7 for more about these men.)
Seyyed Nasr has a long history with the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life. In 1995, as we prepared the initial conception for the Center, he participated in a campus conference in which he warned us of the dangers of defining values and ethics in strictly western terms, and urged us to make cross-cultural understanding an important pillar of our work.
Thanks to the prodding and wisdom of Ted Sorensen, Steve Solarz, and others, I like to think that we have heeded Professor Nasr’s advice to us, and continued to work in the spirit of his Gittler Prize talk. In our work with international judges, we participate in the process of changing the conception of law and justice from a set of systems rooted in sovereignty towards a complex global network of international justice. By engaging men and women in the process of building peace with the creative arts, we are building new models of relationships across traditional divides.
As Professor Nasr reminds us, we must rethink how we act – and rethink who we are.