Gelb Forum Looks at Community, Faith, and Action

On Sunday, I sat in on the inaugural Gelb Forum, sponsored by the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion, the University Religious Conference at UCLA, and the family of Mae and Morris Gelb. The gathering was co-sponsored by the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

Before the public part of the forum, some of the participants held a roundtable discussion in a conference room at Royce Hall. The participants (myself excepted) represented an astonishingly accomplished group of community leaders and senior members of faith-based organizations who are also activists, organizers, and academics with roots in the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions. The topics we discussed (before an audience of about 40 invited guests) were religion, scholarship, and activism. The jumping off point was Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America, a new book by Professor Jeff Stout of Princeton University.

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The discussion soon moved on to consider additional topics: the motives and methods of the Occupy phenomenon, the so-called Arab Spring, the limits of activism within the context of a religious tradition, the necessary humility of leadership at the grassroots, the risks of prophetic speech and action, and the role (if any) of the university in matters of faith and activism.

The conversation was formidably learned, profound in its moral and ethical depth, and especially challenging for me. (My experience and what I know are laughably narrow.) But the moderator had to put me on the spot for something to add, which turned out to be a very short version of what I've sometimes written for these pages. (For example, in Reasonable Qualifications, Los Angeles Abstract, and Falling in Love.)

I was about to apply even more well worn metaphors of city life to the concerns that had been raised about the capacity of faith and tradition to adequately question and democratically reform power relationships in a fragmented society. But the talk took another direction.

And I felt something was left out of our conversation. The men and women around the table seemed to have misremembered the place of cities in forming what I would call a "moral imagination" - that sympathetic interior life which is able to contain everything embraced by a sectarian tradition but which still permits belief in the habits that make everyday conviviality possible.

We were meeting in Royce Hall, providentially it seemed to me, and that might have reminded us of Royce's life-long intellectual project: the description of a conscious and affective process whereby sojourners in a place might cease being strangers and become common citizens through a knowing loyalty to each other. That kind of loyalty, Royce thought, might serve to make a "beloved community" from the meanest of raw materials.

I'm sure the panel members know this far better than I, and more richly. They know that cities are not mere conveyors of public services or only the citadels of elites seeking the blunt exercise of their power.

Cities have a moral purpose. And the moral purpose of a great city is to shelter a maximal diversity of public settings in which its citizens might acquire the ability to sympathize with the condition of their fellows and then act on bettering those conditions by communal and political means.

I could have added that cities potentially solve one of the problems of faith and action by offering a subsidiary and sharable loyalty parallel to the primary and exclusive loyalty one might have to the claims of a religion and its traditions.

That's what I would have said, and then something about the tragic dimension of this hope, because all cities are destined to fall and therefore to be cherished while you can.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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