This morning’s Daily Northwestern writes about the development of an initiative I founded last year called AskBigQuestions. The article focuses in particular on ABQ’s growth from being exclusively sponsored by Hillel to becoming an independent entity with sponsoring organizations from a variety of religious and scholarly communities.

This piece (see page 67), which I wrote last spring, tells a bit of the history of AskBigQuestions. What has changed since that time is that we have figured out one of the central conundrums of the initiative, namely: How does it relate to Hillel’s mission of inspiring students to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life? The Big Questions of ABQ are questions common to all human beings, regardless of one’s background. That’s precisely what makes it attractive to so many students. Yet it’s also what makes it difficult to explain to Jewish organizations and funders, who have often asked: “Why should we support something that brings together Jewish and non-Jewish students for discussions about topics that aren’t necessarily Jewish?” In other words, ABQ doesn’t promote Jewish particularism, it promotes humanism, and that’s not  necessarily part of Hillel’s agenda.

In moving ABQ outside of Hillel, while retaining a key sponsoring role for Hillel within a larger multivocal conversation, we’ve solved a key piece of this problem. The critics are right on this score: getting students in touch with life’s Big Questions is not solely Hillel’s challenge; rather, it is a challenge for the entire university community, of which Hillel is but one member.

Yet the key point remains: Hillel needs to be a leader in this effort, because we still believe in the fundamental value proposition that it is good for all students to ask these questions–including Jewish students. Our hope is that as all students engage the Big Questions of life, they will engage in the journey of self-discovery and engagement that leads to exploration of where they come from and development of their identity. My hope would be that through AskBigQuestions, Catholic students will explore their Catholic roots; Muslim students will explore their own beliefs and traditions; secular humanist students will look to the great philosophers; Jews will uncover Jewish ideas and texts; and all of these students will encounter one another. An image to represent this might be something like this:

This diagram represents what I think is the greatest aspect of AskBigQuestions:These questions are the common animating questions of the world’s great religious and scholarly traditions, and therefore they provide a common meeting point of conversation–or, what some of us would call the commons. By creating an environment in which we can explore, and not argue about, our multiple identities–secular, religious, ethnic, cultural–ABQ at once creates a universal humanistic common ground, and encourages particularistic expression. What we do with ABQ is redraw the line of religious and secular in a way that rejects the binary posited by so many in both religious and secular spheres, and instead includes them both in a common conversation about the meaning of human experience.

We don’t have to choose between being religious or secular, particularist or universalist. In today’s world, we have to be both: we have to go deeper in discovering our own identities at the same time as we go deeper in discovering what links us with one another.

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