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Students encouraged to partake in religious dialogue

Published: Monday, February 28, 2011

Updated: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 10:03

Mark George

Mark George is an associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

In a town that has been historically recognized as the Mecca of evangelical Christian organizations, finding a safe place to discuss other religions can be a difficult task. On Tuesday night, UCCS hosted an inaugural event through the Center for Religious Diversity and Public Life. The event saw great turnout, and seats were filled ten minutes before the event started, forcing many viewers to sit in the stair wells, on extra chairs and on the stage itself. The center's director, Jeff Scholes, believes the center will provide "a religious platform" that will encourage students and members of the community to exercise their right to freedom of speech – even if it's controversial.

Scholes, who is also an instructor of religion at UCCS, hopes events like this will encourage people to "bring private issues into the public square." The evening's event included keynote speaker, Mark George, and six experts in the religions of Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Shamanism and Hinduism.

Mark George, an associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Iliff School of Theology in Denver was chosen to speak because of his expertise in social space. He began his address by noting that most students who take religion courses are less interested in religion and more fascinated about spirituality. This, he explained, is because spirituality does not have "religious trappings."

George hopes to continue to erase this trepidation and help students become more aware of their own understandings of sacred time and space. He then urged the audience to either visualize or write down thoughts on what it means for something to be sacred.

Even though there is a plethora of definitions in the dictionary, these terms are still not easily defined. This is due in part to the highly debatable nature of sacred time and space.

As explained by George, two men, Mircea Eliade and his successor, Jonathan Smith, were both scholars at the University of Chicago interested in the idea of sacred space and time. Eliade believed religion manifested itself in space and time, and sacred space occurred when the sacred had broken into the world, e.g. act of creation. Rituals, he furthered, allowed for reconnection to this original event.

Alternately, Smith believed the sacred is not the eruption of the divine but it is something a group constructs. Humans are meaning makers, and religion plays a major part in that process. Smith sought to prove it as a socially dynamic process and one that allowed individual cultures and sects of people to decide which spaces would be sacred to them. This idea serves to explain why a room where someone dies changes after they are gone and becomes sacred. This is because the moment when one passes from life to death is universally deemed sacred.

With these two ideas in mind, George urged the audience to reconsider previous concepts of sacred time and space. "Remember, it's okay to be an observer and a guest and learn what makes each of the spaces sacred," he said. It's also important, he furthered, to pay attention to what you see, hear, how things are arranged and what you do with your body in that space.

Six individuals were then introduced as the presenters of their religions ,and after brief introductions, the audience split into groups to explore classrooms in the University Center designated to each space. Each expert shared their sacred practices and offered viewers a chance to both ask questions and take part in the religious ceremonies if they felt comfortable. Although each religion believed different places and activities to be sacred, patterns were still visible among them and served to remind the audience that having an open mind and being willing to both accept and respect each other's beliefs is the most important thing we can do.

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