Potash Hill

To Live in Two Worlds: An interview with Amer Latif

Senior Hannah Noblewolf sat down with religion professor Amer Latif in November to talk about ritual, diversity of opinion, and manifesting peace through waving. If you are like Hannah, or most people, you could listen to Amer talk all day.

Hannah Noblewolf: So what class has been the most enjoyable for you to teach this semester?

Amer Latif: Ah, well you know the answer to that one (laughing) because you’re in it. It’s our class, To Live in Two Worlds: Ritual and the Power of Imagination. You know, it’s been an interest of mine that I’ve been thinking about for a while—a few years—and wanting to get to the place to teach it. With Nelli (Sargsyan, anthropology professor) being here now, it was great timing, so we’re team-teaching it. The goal is to have an overview of how ritual has been studied, but I want to really get at the importance of imagination in the performance of ritual. The second text has been the highlight so far.

HN: Yeah, it’s definitely the class favorite.

AL: Yeah, it’s remarkable. It’s called Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity, and it takes this idea of ritual as an act of imagination, and keeps developing it, right? The authors are able to connect what might have seemed completely different and un-relatable fields.

HN: It’s very interdisciplinary—what kind of students are taking it?

AL: They come from all over. Like, we have students who are studying linguistics, anthropology students, lots of first-year students who are just there for the interest in it. But, one of the things that is key in this text, and the question that I had wanted to explore, which I think I’ve gotten really good material on as a result of reading and as a result of our conversations, is how is it we are able to create forms that allow us to navigate a certain dissatisfaction, a lack of perfection in life. So the title of the course is “To Live In Two Worlds,” one is the world of our experience, where things are broken. We look around and things are always, constantly needing attention, falling out of harmony, and we’re trying to keep things together. And then there’s a world that we create in ritual settings where the rules are clear, things come together and a certain order is created. And usually we leave those places of ritual feeling renewed, right?

HN: Yes.

AL: We are renewed whether the ritual is “secular” or the ritual is something associated with some kind of organized religion. And what this book does, which is really important for me, is to actually take away those binaries we have been straddling, in the West, of the religious versus the secular. To really look at the human level, the human being and how it is that there are certain needs that we have, certain realities that we are confronted with, and certain capacities that we have, across cultures, with which to deal with what we are confronting. This book really brings it down to that basic level that allows, for my taste, for us to go beyond disciplinary boundaries, boundaries that are of our own creation like religion versus the sciences—we did not know this binary until a few hundred years ago. The vast majority of the human race has never known that kind of a separation. The authors of Ritual and Its Consequences take up the old religious debate between ritual and sincerity as it developed within Judaism and turn these into two possible orientations towards the world and the self. The ritual orientation or mode views the correct performance of actions as the key element of being religious, whereas the sincere mode emphasizes the intention and feeling behind the performance of ritual. Too much emphasis on ritual can lead to ritualism while too much emphasis on sincerity can lead to puritanism. The book is pointing out, ultimately, that there is no purely ritual and no purely sincere space. There’s always an interaction between the two, no matter what domain we think we are in because it’s a human reality. It’s two aspects of the way in which we relate to the world. But in all of human history, the modern era is characterized by an exclusive and really unprecedented emphasis on sincerity.

HN: M-hmmm.

AL: For the consequences of sincerity, the authors give the example of some of the Puritan divines—the Puritans who founded this country—if you look at their writings, they are trying to get at this sense of, this core of the self. They are trying to constantly analyze their selves, you know? And the authors are pointing out that there is no end to it, because the deeper you dig, the more you will find, and there’s never an ending point. That’s one way of understanding why the self-analytical writings of these Puritan Divines are so voluminous. Whereas, the ritual mode is exemplified in an old Jewish adage about performing ritual, “It’s just like brushing your teeth, just do it! You just have to do it!” There has been this idea that we are doing it, we are in sync with it, our mind, our heart, our everything is in sync. So there are certain problems that arise from an overemphasis on either of these two poles. And the sincere one leads us to Puritanism, which is a form that tries to separate things and is constantly trying to keep itself clean, and has problems with ambiguity, contradiction. Whereas the purpose of ritual, in some ways, and this is what the authors are arguing, is that ritual allows us to create space in which we can hold ambiguity and contradiction. It allows for a capacity to be able to hold ambiguity, and ambiguity is that which characterizes life. So the sincere mode is very uncomfortable with that, it wants things to be clear, clean, simple. It wants the answer. So that’s the big question that they’re dealing with. As you can hear from me, it’s really, really exciting and the authors bring in all kinds of material. They bring in studies of play because what they’re saying is that ritual, like play, creates “as-if” worlds. A subjunctive world, where together, you create the rules and enter into it. Within the chaos, or within the uncertainty, you clarify certain things, enter into it, and then you move out. It allows us the capacity to cross boundaries and, in doing so, ritual is a way in which we learn how to empathize, which is all about crossing perceived boundaries of self and other. So they associate ritual with playfulness, with empathy, and argue that the way forward for us as a culture, because we have lost certain of these capacities, is the creation of rituals.

HN: Are you doing any research right now that you’re particularly excited about?

AL: Yes, I am. It’s an ongoing project. I gave a talk this fall at Landmark College called “Only God Is Good”—which is a quotation from the gospels: “Islam Through the Words of Jesus.” So I take a story which is present in three Gospels: Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and use that as a way to talk about Islamic teachings and show the clear and profound connections between Islamic and Christian teachings. And I’m finding that people are, perhaps because of the past year and the rise in the hateful rhetoric that’s around them, people are really responsive and grateful. So I’m working on a book on the subject. There are a few other projects that I have going on as well, but this one has taken a new level of importance.

HN: You like writing?

AL: Yeah, I really appreciate being at Marlboro. The idea of clear writing is something that I’ve found really, really helpful. And it was one of the reasons why I came to Marlboro. Clear writing for me means being able to speak in a language that is decipherable and free of jargon so people can understand what we mean.

HN: There’s a huge issue with accessibility in language, especially in academia.

AL: Yes, that can be a problem. But I consider myself lucky in this respect because I speak regularly in the community and find myself in places where the audience is mixed, like at Landmark College there were lots of community members, friends and neighbors. And this Sunday I was invited at a church to talk about connections between Islam and Christianity. What I have found most helpful is to tell stories and, even in the book about Islam and Christianity, what I’m really doing is  finding a story from the gospels  in order to help  folks move from something that they’re familiar with to something that seems different, and is the Other. That’s very meaningful for me and I feel grateful to be able to do something concrete, so that’s pretty exciting.

HN: And very timely too. What things about Marlboro made you want to teach here?

AL: First of all it’s the small size. And you know I lived in Vermont in between undergraduate and graduate school, so I knew the area and I wanted to end up here. My wife is from Vermont. Specifically, what I loved about Marlboro was the small size, the Clear Writing Requirement, and the Plan. You know, as a former science student who became interested in religion and philosophy, I think the distinctions between fields are important, at one level, but in many ways arbitrary. So a person has to bring all of this together so that you can see beyond distinctions. Marlboro possesses this quality just by its intentional small size. You know I’m in the science building, and some people are surprised by that but I’m at home here, you know?

HN: Also nicer offices.

AL: Well, I’ve given up the opportunity to move offices, so I’ve been here 13 years and I feel quite comfortable and happy here. I like the light in the Science building. Going back to what made me want to come here, the Clear Writing Requirement—and the Plan as well but clear writing really is crucial—it is an institutionalized test of comprehension. If you can’t say it in clear words, simple words, then you don’t really know it in the way that you think you do. I think it is one of the most important civic value as well. I feel that in pushing clear writing, we’re really doing a service for the world and for our society to help people to speak clearly, to think clearly, to use writing as a way to understand things and then communicate that in a way that allows you to connect with your neighbor. So that’s really Marlboro’s emphasis, on those two things.

HN: Clear Writing and Plan?

AL: Yes, I knew looking at Plans of Concentration that Marlboro was the kind of teaching place where, even though there’s no requirement to publish, I would continue to grow and learn throughout my time here. And I just feel that every year I’m becoming a better learner. I’m learning newer things and being able to share them with students. Every year I find myself more excited about Marlboro and what I’m able to do in the classroom. Like the structure of our class together: there’s this academic overview, then there’s this book Ritual and Its Consequences and we’re ending with a novel, Ceremony, which brings us back into the space of imagination  and  allows us to think of others. So that’s an ideal course for me—that combines the theoretical with the literary—and where else would you do that? Also, over the last few years I’ve started utilizing rituals in class. The primary one is starting with silence—or at least a way in which we mark the beginning and end of class, and clarify for ourselves the importance, the value, and the gift of having the space to be able to explore ideas together.  

HN: It’s really nice to have that in academic, but also community settings. Because I’ve had other experience with that kind of mindfulness but having it in a community setting, but also it's a 10 a.m. class, we’re all tired, we’re all just running up the hill, so having that minute to center ourselves is really special. It’s validating that you care enough about our ability to absorb what’s going on that you’ll give us that minute and we can center ourselves.

AL: And one of the things I find, especially in our class this semester, and it inevitably happens in other classes too, I feel like we’ve created a space where we can really push each other. And I feel very comfortable being able to push students to a degree that I don’t think I would have had the skills to do a few years ago.

HN: And it still feels like a very respectful space, even when we are challenging each other.

AL: Yes. Yes.

HN: Which is really hard to do.

AL: Yeah. By starting in silence, by making an intention to practice qualities of patience, courage, and compassion, I feel that we set up a shared space together. The vigorous conversations and disagreements are then held within a container that is larger than those disagreements because we have already started by acknowledging and acting upon shared values. We can hold the differences. So I thought that was very helpful, especially once the election happened. And even prior to the election, when there was a difficult conversation, like with what happened in Town Meeting with the Inclusion and Diversity statement. We had a full class devoted to discussing and processing the perspectives and feelings that came up in that Town Meeting using the tools and the concepts that we’ve been working on.

HN: And the trust that we had built.

AL: Yes, and then after the election it was really great. To acknowledge peoples’ vulnerability, fragility, the rawness some people were feeling, and to do something about that but also to really push and say “this is the demand of reason now.” To say that if you’re feeling fear, how to work with that and to recognize that part of it is true—it is true for you that you are feeling afraid—but also to know how much less you need to be worried about things as well. Don’t let fear take over. That was a real highlight for me, how we were able to acknowledge the many dimensions of ourselves. And that is a goal for me in teaching and as a human being. Feelings are real, we should not deny them. But reason is real too, and you should not do away with what its demands are. Again, it’s like the movement between ritual and sincerity; we have these faculties and they have to work together. If the fear that we’re feeling is so overwhelming or overpowering that our minds stop working, it’s a problem. At that point we need to use reason to work back from it. But if in our mind we say, wishfully thinking, “oh, don’t worry about it,” reason has to come in to say “but look, there’s some stuff you do need to be careful about”.

HN: They need to work together. You can’t be entirely intellect and reason or entirely emotion. But a lot of teachers might say, you know, check your emotions at the door.

AL: That’s it. That’s part of the reason that I thought Marlboro would be a place where I could do this. For me it’s about the whole person. But that wasn’t the path for me in science, where I had to check my emotions at the door and I saw what it did to me. And I realized its shortcomings. So since that day it has been recovering that for myself.

HN: You’re a recovering scientist.

AL: (Laughs) I think there are plenty of scientists who are totally whole. It was a certain kind of scientism that I bought into. It was an ideological, almost colonial, oppressive, tyrannical understanding that science has all the answers. “This is hard science and this is what is real.” So, to see where it led me and then to work back from that and find out that there are multiple levels of reality, and just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not real, but at the same time it demands our attention and is a huge part of our being. Neither ought to displace the other.

HN: You mentioned you’ve been here for 13 years. What are your hopes for the future of the school and the future of the community?

AL: My hope is that we are able to maintain this style of education at Marlboro, which I know that everybody here is committed to, the trustees are committed to. There is something important and extremely crucial about our size. Qualities are lost when you get to certain thresholds. There’s a certain place where quantity changes quality. So that’s something I would want to maintain. And something that I hope that we can develop more of: well, I think that with this election there has really been—in the last few years I’ve become more aware of it, and perhaps it’s because I’ve grown myself as a person, as a thinker—a certain dissatisfaction with some of the rhetoric that the left is using. While I sympathize with all those causes, I feel like as a school we ought to be able to offer more diversity of ideas, you know?

HN: And different opinions?

AL: Yeah, so I hope we can develop and work hard at being a community that is able to take differences seriously at all levels, and I think differences of ideas are very important. I do not want us to turn into an ideological place. I feel like part of the work for an educational institution is not just following what society is doing but setting an example for society. So Marlboro, by its small size and tightknit sense of community and the close relationships between staff and faculty and students—for me there is no distinction, we are all here working on the same things—we can offer models of how it is that we can open a space, keep open a space, where everyone feels they have a say and the debate can take place without people being shut down. I think we’re a very left-leaning place; I don’t want us to become stuck in that. I want us to be open because I think we need to model that for the country. So we need to produce students who are able, and we ourselves as teachers need to be able, to hold those differences within themselves.

HN: With a larger college, you would have more diversity and people with more diverse opinions, perhaps.

AL: Yeah but at the same time, you would lose that ability to have that close sense of community. So, how do we do that? That’s one of the questions. Like in class, if everyone is of the same opinion the professors play that role, in some ways. I find myself taking on that role a bit more. Even if I don’t agree with something I’ll still bring it out and ask students to respond to a contrary position. I’m not simply there to reinforce opinions, but to challenge peoples’ understandings. But we need to do that as a community. It is healthier. It’s easier to assume that everybody thinks the same as we do.

HN: And you can almost do that here.

AL: It’s easy to do it here. That makes a safe and easy place, but I think that that’s part of our challenge for the future. My hope is that we are a place that doesn’t become ideological. Not that we are, by definition, but just because a certain number of people think the same way. It can happen, but part of our work is to keep challenging ourselves, to keep waking ourselves up. So that’s currently a hope, but that’s a hope for the whole country (laughs). And I see our classes as being a part of that. It comes down to me, that I have to be open enough.

I’ve found myself, since the election, actually crossing boundaries more than I usually do. Just thinking and making a conscious effort to say “hi” to people. Especially in public places. I had a really neat interaction with a hunter, at a gas station. I was gassing up and I saw this guy coming out of the gas station, he had a little tag in his hand, and he was walking towards his truck, behind which there was a trailer. And I looked carefully trailer, and saw that there was something on the trailer—it was a deer. So I just walked over, you know, and said “hi” and asked him a few questions about it, and I don’t think I would have done it a week ago. That was, for me, a significant thing to reach out and acknowledge the fact that this guy had just hunted this deer. And I found out about him that he’d been going out for a whole week, he’d taken time off of work, and now that he’d hunted this deer he was all set for his meat. You know, I wished him well, and wished him that he enjoyed the meat, and he had a slight smile on his face which I thought was really great.

HN: Do you feel like since the election, or in general recently, people respond to you differently?

AL: I don’t know. Perhaps. At this church that I went to, at the end lots of people came up to say hello and one of the ladies, an older lady, she shook my hand and said something about the talk I’d given then came close to me, whispering in my ears, “If they start coming for you, you let me know.” And I feel like, I think it was more of a problem for me after 9/11 than it is now. I think I’m older, perhaps, also I think I’m very sheltered. I don’t really bear the brunt of it. I don’t really feel that, because I feel like Donald Trump has been such an equal opportunity vilifier.

HN: We’re all going to hell!

AL: But even there I feel like, you know, what President Obama is saying now is really the way to go. He’s saying how we should hold him to his better statements, rather than the terrible things he’s said. That we should hold him accountable to what he said when he was accepting the victory, you know. But this is what we learn from ritual, that ritual is work—it’s endless work.

HN: Endless work.

AL: Endless work, yeah.

HN: It’s not like reason—it doesn’t have an end.

AL: You have to keep doing it over and over. Some of this crossing of boundary, just being with folks with whom we disagree, and finding some kind of common ground—even if it’s a wave—I feel it’s really important. And a wave, as a ritual, is actually very, very significant. This was one of the things that people at the church found most significant. I was talking about Islam, and Jesus, and Mary, and the Quran, and what it was like growing up for me as a Muslim in Pakistan and what we were taught about Jesus and how much Muslims love Jesus. Muslims, compared to certain branches of Christianity, are actually more Christian than Christians.

HN: That’s funny

AL: It is! I mean, we believe in Jesus. The Quran has him speaking from his cradle and one of the most poignant parts of the Qur’anic description is when the Holy Spirit is brought into Mary’s womb. How scared she is to see Gabriel appearing, and what happens at the time of delivery, how ashamed she is. Anyway, so there’s beautiful and arresting imagery in the Qur’an, and the tradition about Jesus and Mary. You know, he is an Islamic prophet, a beloved one. So I shared a lot of this stuff, but in the end this church was a community that’s a whole range of folks, from very conservative to very progressive, NPR-listening folks. And the pastor there told me that, and I tried to speak to this aspect of finding common ground. And it was based in some of the stories in the gospels— but I’m talking about even just at the level of the wave—to explain Islam, because Islam means making peace. It’s usually translated as submission but what have you done by submitting? You’ve made peace. So really there’s two beings encountering each other and one bows its head and hence peace is made, so two wills become one. So it’s making peace, rather than warring with God, you’ve made peace with God and hence become a Muslim. And one of the things I really, I loved about Vermont and I don’t think I would be able to articulate it quite this way when I came here in ’94, but, just the waving.

HN: Yeah, everybody does it.

AL: Right? I love it. And I think we realize the significance of the wave if we just bring the other hand up as well. I mean, it’s hands up. I mean you no harm. This wave really is the minor, the condensed version, of making peace. When you’re waving at someone you’ve made peace with them, you’ve said that I’m not holding anything. I’m not hiding anything. Hands up, I come in peace. Even a nod might work. So this phenomenon of peace manifesting like this, this wave, I proposed that as a practice. Choose to focus on this, no matter what the differences. It’s really a very significant, deep, deep gesture. So that seemed to have resonated very deeply with folks.

HN: Something they could all relate to.

AL: Exactly. I think it’s common ground.