Interfaith Fellows Hold Dinner and Discussion on Religion and Activism

Jules Bourbeau ’25

Managing Editor

On Thursday Mar. 7 the Trinity College Interfaith Fellows organized a dinner and discussion with Assistant Professor of International Studies Natassja Gunasena titled “Religion & Spirituality as Enduring Features of Radical Social Movements.” The event is part of the ongoing Women’s History Month series organized by the Woman and Gender Resource Action Center (WGRAC) and was sponsored by the Trinity College Chapel. Dr. Gunasena, who was accompanied by Chaplain Marcus Halley, began the conversation by reading from Thích Nhất Hạnh’s book Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, recounting how the Vietnamese monk’s dedication to peace above strict political affiliation earned him scorn from both North and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Dr. Gunasena, Chaplain Halley, and some of the audience members also suggested Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman as further examples of faith-inspired activists from history. 

Acknowledging that religion and progressivism are often considered mutually exclusive, Dr. Gunasena compared the supposed dichotomy to that between religion and science. She pointed out that some of the greatest advancements in astronomical, mathematic, and medical knowledge were developed in the medieval Islamic world, not just alongside the Muslim faith, but as an expression of it, with the aim of cataloging and celebrating the natural world as created by God.

Even though nearly every seat in the Dangremond Family Commons was filled, a large fraction of this impressively-sized audience contributed to the conversation. Indeed, student participation equalled if not rivaled the amount of time Dr. Gunasena spent speaking, making the event a truly open discussion. Far from being a blanket endorsement of religion’s involvement in social movements, though, the panel also took the time to discuss the ways in which it has caused harm. In fact, Dr. Gunasena’s comment that “Religious trauma is real!” earned the greatest reaction of the evening, indicating the deep investment that often comes with such topics.

Several students expressed concern over issues regarding the applicability of religious values once they stray outside of the realm of personal inspiration. In response to a question about whether it is appropriate to endorse a religious text without accepting its problematic elements, Chaplain Halley asserted that books like the Bible are ongoing dialogues that, far from being dogmatic constants, are shaped by their readers. Similarly, Dr. Gunasena advocated for the importance of finding one’s own place in or outside of religion. “Don’t let yourself be pushed out by someone else,” she said, referring to the tendency of gatekeeping within institutionalized religions to deter people from spirituality altogether. 

After ninety minutes of impassioned conversation, the event came to a close. The Interfaith Fellows urged anyone interested in continuing these debates in an open-minded atmosphere to get involved in their future events. Additionally, students interested in hearing more from Dr. Gunasena can take her course War and the Asian Diaspora offered in the upcoming Fall 2024 semester.

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