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Reverend Dr. Nathan C. Walker is a minister and educator focusing on religion and the First Amendment and the president of 1791 Delegates and board chair of the Public Religion Research Institute. He founded a website, religionandpubliclife.org, and continues to develop the Moral Imagination Community, an 18-year-long ongoing practice to build empathy in our society.
Walker lives with his husband, Vikram Paralkar, in Pennsylvania, where he continues to lead the Moral Imagination Community and learn more about the way we treat people who are different than ourselves. Walker agreed to meet virtually with the Sierra Nevada Ally to give us a breakdown of the project and a sneak peek of the research that comes next.
What is the Moral Imagination Community, and why does it matter?
I’m concerned with how the most vulnerable among us are treated. A lot of our politics focus on a suspect minority of the day, and the identities of those individuals might change, but the patterns remain the same. When we see those patterns, we see misinformation breed all kinds of fear and perpetuate stereotypes.
I think that’s dangerous. I think it’s an erosion of not just our democracy, but our society. And it happens at the societal level, but also at the dinner table. Families are being torn apart by the politics of the day. I’m trying to challenge this sort of winner-takes-all strategy, that we’re constantly using our imaginations to somehow eliminate our opponent’s position, or, if not, our opponent altogether. And I don’t want to contribute to a society where we earn points by demeaning others.
The Moral Imagination Community is a training ground for people of all religions and none, for people of all different ages to immerse themselves in a moral dilemma picture, all the points of view, and develop an ethical empathy for those whom they might have been taught to disagree with.
In these moral dilemmas, our challenge is to train us all on how to seek understanding, and understanding does not imply agreement. I can understand somebody with whom I disagree. I can see their perspective. I can walk in their shoes. Moral imagination is the skill, the practice, of situating ourselves in another’s point of view and seeking that deep understanding. I think if we train more of us to do this on an everyday basis, just as an ethical practice, I think that we’re going to challenge this culture of contempt.
Can you walk me through some of the origins of this idea, where it came from and where you are in the process of working through this project?
The moral imagination concept is not my own. It’s a theory used by many different ethicists and scholars across the humanities, and each discipline uses it in a different way. There are many definitions of moral imagination, and I have defined it as being the ability to picture yourself in a moral dilemma and see everyone’s point of view.
I started working on this as an everyday practice when I was serving a congregation in Philadelphia, where I now live. As a minister who was trying to help the community thrive, I started to introduce the moral imagination to help our community be a place where meaning-makers gathered.
During the pandemic, I built a social learning community called religionandpubliclife.org, where we invite people to come for the classes and stay for the community. And in the curricula, we are embedding the moral imagination as a pedagogy that moves across the different courses. We introduce these moral dilemmas and have adult learners of all different ages explore these case studies and specifically we’re looking at how religion operates in public life.
Right now, we are in a two-part process. One, we’re developing the case studies, where we take researchers and develop this scene where there are multiple characters based on a real-life situation, like a school board meeting, a hospital setting, a community shooting, to being in line at the shopping center, from benign to extreme circumstances. We’re trying to articulate this drama. Just like you would when you’re going to a play or watching a movie, you invite the observer to picture themselves as part of the drama. See each point of view through those characters.
We will roll them out, and we’re going to be doing human subject research on the efficacy of the curriculum. Does one develop more empathy as a result of doing these exercises? If so, how many do you have to do to see a result? What are the results, and for whom does it work and for whom does it not?
How would you measure empathy in someone?
In one way, empathy is subjective. When do I weep when I hear of another’s tragedy? When do I notice that I’ve stopped weeping? That’s a subjective experience. When do we become desensitized to school shootings or the dignity of migrants, the religious, the non-religious, women, or gays? It’s endless. Who do we not empathize with? These types of questions are subjective, and in a way, we’re asking people to self-report their journey on where they are in their own life.
Then, there are some objective measures we can look at. They’re more based on character and civic virtues. When do people start to defend the rights of others than themselves? You can measure the tipping point in every rights movement in human history when people start to do just that. When you see that shift, you begin to measure, in that circumstance, on that topic, we are beginning to see a cultural shift in having more of a deeper moral imagination for that group that used to be the suspect minority of the day.
What do you think the most difficult part of conducting this research project has been?
The challenge that I keep coming up with is trying to find the scene for the case study that, on a pedagogical level, can tap into many of these goals. Choosing the right scenario that’s going to capture the imagination of many different people at the same time, elevate their character virtues and have them be a part of an authentic moral dilemma, not just an easy dualistic, good, bad kind of situation, but a truly morally complex circumstance. Finding those case studies is the greatest challenge and has been the most interesting part of the curriculum development side of things.
What is the biggest contribution this project will create, either in the research realm or just to the world at large?
I hope it can support educators across the humanities to use these in their classrooms at the high school or college level and in adult education situations around the country. My greatest hope is that whoever is using this practice feels transformed by it and begins to shed the scripts that led them to help feed our divisions and in turn find a new way of being not only with themselves but with those they were previously taught to disagree with.
Anything else that we should know about you or this project?
The most important thing to know is that I’ve been practicing the moral imagination for 18 years, and I’m constantly failing. I find myself in a circumstance where I lived out my values, I practiced this moral imagination, and then I just blew it in this other circumstance. What I’ve learned in the last 18 years is that I’m beginning to see this more like training for the Olympics. It’s a real challenge, and it takes a lot of moral muscle to keep this up. If I’m not precise, I’m gonna fall off those rings in the gymnastics studio. I’m not going to land the gymnastics move every time. We have to get back up and try again and again and again. That’s why I like the word practice as compared to something more determinative. Practice suggests that it’s active, and it’s ongoing, and that’s exactly what the moral imagination is.
Why do you think it’s such a challenge?
I can swim more efficiently. I can be more artful and athletic in how I swim, but I can’t control the water around me. I can’t control if it’s polluted. I can’t control if I’m in a storm, or if I’m in temperate peaceful waters.
In that way, the practice of the moral imagination is in part recognizing what is and what is not in our control.
Reverend Dr. Nathan C. Walker is a First Amendment and human rights educator. As president of 1791 Delegates—a public charity named after the year the Bill of Rights was ratified—he manages The Foundation for Religious Literacy and founded ReligionAndPublicLife.org.
Dr. Walker teaches First Amendment law and human rights at Rutgers University and serves as the co-principal investigator with Dr. W. Y. Alice Chan of the Moral Imagination Community. In service to the field, he works as the associate editor of the peer-reviewed academic journal, Religion & Education, and on the boards of Abolitionist Sanctuary, Public Religion Research Institute, and Utah 3Rs Project. He serves as a member of the American Academy of Religion’s Committee on the Public Understanding of Religion and served on the writing team of the Religious Studies Companion Document for the C3 Framework for the National Council for Social Studies.
Nate has published five books and various policy reports. He has served as a resident fellow in law and religion at Harvard University and received his Doctorate of Education degree in First Amendment law from Columbia University, where he received his Master of Arts and Master of Education degrees.
Reverend Nate is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and received his Masters of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary. He spent 15 years serving congregations in New York and Boston, and the last seven as the senior minister of the historic First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. Since 2014, he has been serving as the affiliated community minister for religion and public life at the Church of the Larger Fellowship.
Jesse Stone was born and raised in northern Nevada. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of Nevada, Reno and has written for Nevada Today and Our Town Reno in the past. In his spare time, you can find Jesse cooped up inside either reading whatever book he most recently rescued from a dusty shelf or playing video games.
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