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Laney Opens Conference with Appeal to Universities: Address Larger Questions of Life and Purpose

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James T. Laney

By Mary Lotfus
10/25/07

With a decisive call for universities to be places of not only instruction but inspiration, preparing students for a life of purpose beyond self-profit, Emory President Emeritus James T. Laney opened the Center for the Study of Law and Religion’s (CSLR) 25th anniversary conference with a heartfelt keynote speech on Oct. 24 at the Emory Conference Center.

The ascendance of science, intellect, and the free market, Laney said, has led to spectacular achievements and successes, but “larger questions of life and purpose have somehow been muted.”

“Where will those questions be asked? What models of character will be held up as worthy?” he said. “Where is the ‘education of the heart’ to take place if not on campus?”

To be sure, Laney said, there are clusters of students engaged in great causes for social betterment, with faculty mentors who encourage and support these good works. And Emory itself, he said, is an exception to the rule, striving to educate students in matters of public service and contribute to the greater good.

“The law and religion program, in particular, has gone a long way toward addressing these issues,” he said, congratulating CSLR Director John Witte, Founding Director Frank Alexander, and others who have nurtured a place for spirited interdisciplinary conversation between the two fields.

Attendees at the Oct. 24 to 26 conference, “From Silver to Gold: The Next 25 Years of Law and Religion” were able to eavesdrop on this continuing dialogue.

"All of us [who were there at the beginning] are simply astounded at the range of its influence at the University, the nation, and the world,” he said. “Looking back now it’s hard to appreciate how truly groundbreaking this step was. And it has encouraged other, similar ventures.” Thirty such interdisciplinary law and religion programs have since emerged around the country since Emory’s program was established in 1982, Laney said.

The CSLR celebrated its silver anniversary not by resting on its laurels, however, but with a look forward, as a host of legal and religious scholars are gathering over two days at Emory University School of Law to predict what the next few decades will hold as the fields clash, converge, and converse. Two dozen speakers will address topics from religious strife to human rights, family strength to basic equality, global civic religion to Jewish, Islamic, and Christian legal studies.

“It is the dialectical interaction that gives these two disciplines and these two dimensions of life their vitality and their strength,” said Witte in his welcoming address. “Without law, religion slowly slides into shallow spiritualism. Without religion, law gradually crumbles into empty formalism.”

The Center’s goals for the next 25 years include finding healthier ways for law and religion to come together, as well as providing resources for religious communities to understand more deeply their own traditions and to more ably engage with each other in a pluralistic world.

As part of the celebration, even the program’s own story has been told, in the form of a commemorative book capturing its history, evolution, early allies and advisors, accomplishments and aims. When Law and Religion Meet: The Point of Convergence was written by CSLR Public Relations Director April L. Bogle and Ginger Pyron, an Atlanta-based writer and creative consultant.

Envisioning the disciplines as two old dignitaries who have benefited from mutual dialogue, they conclude: “Law and religion have realized that they may never see eye to eye. That they actually have a lot in common. That, in fact, there’s hope for productive negotiation. And that their conversation must go on.”

The telling of the Center’s history gives much credit to Laney, the “visionary,” who saw that cross-disciplinary approaches often yielded climates of intellectual ferment, or what he calls “a yeasty mix” that allows questions of value to emerge naturally.

An ordained United Methodist minister and former dean of the Candler School of Theology, Laney served as Emory’s president from 1977 to 1993. He went on to be named ambassador to South Korea, helping to avert the nuclear crisis with North Korea in 1994.

The university, Laney is quoted as saying in The Point of Convergence, has a moral calling to work toward the larger good: “That role includes unmasking the hidden assumptions and accepted wisdom from the past, to help us better understand what’s going on in the present. From there, our responsibility is to educate the public and thus to inform decision making.”

Witte, Alexander, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law Harold J. Berman, former Provost Rebecca S. Chopp, former law school Dean Howard “Woody” Hunter, and current President James W. Wagner, among many others, have worked hard to make this vision a reality at the CSLR and at Emory, Laney said.

We have much to learn from the stories of others, he reminded the audience. Holding up models of character as worthy of emulation, Laney said, is one of the most important ways to inspire students, be these mentors found in their professors, historic figures, or works of literature that contain “a portrayal of life, before it is compartmentalized.”

Recovering the role of humanities, including religion, is essential to balance the “flattened” ethos that has pervaded modern life, he said. “We don’t have to fan or feed self-interest. It’s there. We do have to nourish the larger sense of vocation.”

Increasing the richness and value of our lives has little to do with wealth and power, Laney concluded. “We know how to master the world, but we have to ask, to what end? We have a call, a summons to participate. Can we awaken that dimension of our soul?”

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