If we want to promote better understanding and cooperation between people of different faith traditions, we might start by studying babies watching people eat.
Katherine Kinzler, an associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University did just that. She gathered colleagues who watched babies watching videos of people eating the same food, people who spoke the same language, and people who didn’t. People who seemed to be friends, and people who didn’t. The observers were able to determine the babies’ interest by noting how long their gazes remained fixed. Babies in this experiment seemed to intuit that people who belong together, by virtue of sharing a language or being friends, will naturally prefer the same food. If the babies saw that people who did not seem to belong together nevertheless showed a preference for the same food, this went against their expectations, and they gazed at more length upon what was going on (because it was so interesting!). Check out the details in today’s New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/21/opinion/sunday/babies-watching-people-eat.html.
When I first got involved in interfaith work I noted that the best way to make friends from another faith tradition is to eat together. Eating is a very primal way of showing hospitality, and hospitality builds affection and trust. Working together on community service projects, and studying each other’s religious beliefs and customs can come next, but eating together is the very best first step.
Kinzler’s psychology experiment suggests that human beings use the sharing of food to denote the contours of belonging. Babies of less than a year seem to intuit that people who belong together will have similar food preferences. As an interfaith educator I wonder whether learning to like a food that is prefered by another’s community and not one’s own will tend to shake up conventional contours of belonging. Having the courage to try a food which is not preferred by one’s own tribe might be an effective way to walk for a spell in another’s mocassins. This way would not depend upon language.
After 9-11, to establish a safe haven of good will, the church I pastored convened people of various traditions for interfaith pot-luck suppers. Neighbors representing a host of religions and nations shared dishes we were very fond of, dishes that marked the distinctiveness of our upbringing. I wonder whether the smallest guests at those feasts took notice that people who had different accents and skin tones and garb were heartily enjoying the same food? I do hope that their assumed contours of belonging were shaken up on those happy occasions. In our first gatherings there was little interaith dialogue, really, just eating together. Language differences were of little consequence. We came together through our stomachs and then our hearts.
There is a phrase in my faith tradition’s eating ritual which says, “People will come from east and west, north and south, to sit down at table together in the kingdom of God.” Did we not have a foretaste of that?