Interfaith Dialogue – Why Bother?

This post was updated April 9, 2011.

For this term’s adult education forum, my church offers a series on Interfaith Dialogue which includes speakers from other faith traditions. But why bother? This was answered during the first session led by a parishioner and doctoral candidate in Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University. Her excellent talk follows.

Why Interfaith Dialogue?

Welcome to the first week in this season’s adult forum, and to our series on dialogue. From now up until Christmas, we are going to be looking at a number of the different issues involved in dialogue with other religions – that is, those religious faiths outside of the Christian tradition. I have entitled this talk simply “Why Interfaith Dialogue?” I’m going to explain why Erwin and I think that interfaith dialogue is and should be an imperative part of our Christian experience, and describe what we plan to do over the coming weeks. It’ll be a relatively short talk, so that there will be plenty of time for questions and discussion.

Perhaps a good starting point is to ask what interfaith dialogue is. I imagine that here in the room today we will find a lot of very different answers to this question. Some of you may think it is an entirely good thing, others may be not so sure. Perhaps some of you think that it is something that theologians do, that it exists only at an academic or ecclesiastical level – something that happens at Harvard, or at Lambeth, but not really in the lives of ordinary people. Perhaps some of you have a picture of interfaith dialogue as something really quite fluffy: groups of liberal Christians sitting down and breaking bread with liberal Jews and liberal Hindus, agreeing to love each other, live in peace, and ultimately, saying nothing at all but having a lovely time doing it. Perhaps others see interfaith dialogue as something that Christians do a lot of, without other traditions reciprocating.

To my mind, all of those images are in their own ways correct. Interfaith dialogue can be an intensively academic or theologically heavy enterprise, the stuff of conferences and ecclesiastical councils. On the other hand it can be done in a very fluffy way indeed. And it can often seem like Christians are over-represented in the endeavor.

I want to keep a very broad definition of what interfaith dialogue is and can be. I would contend that anyone who realized that it was Rosh HaShanah yesterday, or said “Shanah Tovah” or “Happy New Year” to a Jewish friend or colleague is participating in interfaith dialogue in a way as equally important as the Cardinals or bishops at ecclesiastical conferences. Interfaith dialogue is about trying to understand and empathize with the experiences of someone whose religious experience is different from our own. And that is what we do when we say Happy New Year to our Jewish friends, or Eid Mubarak to Muslim acquaintances who finished Ramadan, the month of fasting last week. In doing so, we validate their experiences as religious people. We can go on, and indeed we will, to talk about what that means for us theologically, as Christians. But our starting point, in any dialogue endeavor, be it religious or otherwise, always begins with the goal of understanding and appreciating the human experiences of the other, as special and important to them, even though they are different from our own.

Having covered the what, we can move on to the question of why – why do we think that you should listen to three months of talks about interfaith dialogue? Why does it seem to be such a hot topic, particularly in more liberal circles? Why, three years ago, did Georgetown University found a PhD program solely devoted to researching Religious Pluralism?

One way to answer this question begins with standing outside of the Christian tradition, wearing our secular hats, so to speak. Here we ask why interfaith dialogue is important on a world level. The answer, simply put, is that religion is alive. It’s volatile, it’s real, and it matters to people. For many years, from the 1960’s onwards, sociologists believed that the world was on an inexorable path towards secularization, the so-called “Secularization Thesis.” This presumed, in short, that the privatization of religious institutions, and religious values, was an inevitable characteristic of modernity. As the political, economic and industrial infrastructures of modernity spread around the globe, the place of religion in public life would be replaced by secular values and institutions. This thesis has been proven to be incorrect. Religion is today a vitally important and volatile force in public life, from the Christian right here in the U.S., and their ability to affect the political situation in possibly one of the most famous examples of a separation of church and state, to the kind of Islamic militancy that gave rise to the 9/11 attacks. People are still religious in very deep and powerful ways, and it behooves us to understand them, and their cultures and traditions, as we try to work towards the common goals of peace and security.

What is the role of interfaith dialogue here? Religious people, I contend, have a superior vantage point when it comes to political questions of religion and peace. Much of the Western political tradition is predicated on the idea that in the eyes of the state, we operate as individuals. But the reality within faith traditions, is that religious people see themselves as part of theological communities first, and as individuals, second. As Christians, we understand ourselves to be part of the risen body of Christ, of His holy Catholic and Apostolic church. This is not just about being part of All Souls, or even the Episcopal communion, but about being a member of a community that believes itself to be redeemed. In the Jewish faith, Jews see themselves as being a part of Am Yisrael – the people of Israel. In the Muslim tradition, this bigger, theological community is called the ummah, in Sikhism it is called the Khalsa. Nearly all of the major world religions have this in common – seeing themselves as part of a greater theological community.

We could talk about a lot of other things that religious people have in common too. We understand what it is like to believe in a theological tradition and a religious history, what it is like to have a different conception of time – in our liturgical year – what it is like to wrestle with our faith, with our scriptures and with our tradition, as we strive to be not only part of our church, but part of the world. So, we can answer the question of why interfaith dialogue is important on the world stage by saying that our religious traditions are ripe with resources for understanding each other. We have things in common, and we are committed, in different ways, to similar kinds of things. A deeply religious Muslim is much more likely to see his values represented in a deeply religious Christian, than a secular politician, this has been proved time and again.

From this, we can move on to our second perspective for framing the question of “Why Interfaith Dialogue?” This question, simply put, asks why, as Christians, should we be committed to this? Why would we present talks on this subject within our church? Why should it be a part of our Christian life together to try and understand people of other religions? I’m sure we would all agree that just understanding other Christians is sometimes enough of a challenge as it is. There are three reasons that I think that interfaith dialogue should be a part of our Christian religious experience. These are the three themes that we have structured this season’s adult forum around.

The first reason that I believe that we, as Christians, should be invested in interfaith dialogue is simply that it is good to be well informed about the beliefs, cultures and traditions of our neighbors. And in the globalized world in which we live, our neighbors are not only constituted by the people who live on our street, or in our particular neighborhoods in D.C., Virginia or Maryland. It can really include the entire world. I would imagine that a lot of people here today have visited a country where the dominant religious tradition was not Episcopalian, or even Christian. How much more do we get from our own tourist experiences when we understand a little bit about that tradition? How much more of an insight do we get into the diversity of the world in which we live? It is Christ-like, I want to say, to show our neighbors that we want to make efforts to understand their lives and their traditions, because it shows that we value them as people. This isn’t always an ideal that the world, in broad terms, lives up to. European history bears witness to the ugly scars of anti-Semitism, to the stories and rumors that Western Christendom chose to pedal about Jews, and the ways in which those suspicions were acted upon, particularly in the Germany of the Nazi era. Anti-Semitic ideas were common then, they were taken for granted, very few people were prepared to stand up and challenge them publicly. We can be proud of those Christians who did, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer for example, who stood up and demanded that the Jewish community of Europe be understood on their own terms, and not in terms of the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazi party. Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price for his courage.

Today, we find particular misconceptions about the Islamic tradition being spread by the media and on the internet. We don’t have to look very hard to find stories that speak of the many misconceptions about Muslims which have fuelled violence against Muslim communities since the 9/11 attacks. Daily, we can find examples of the ignorant ridicule of the Muslim faith in newspapers and internet magazines. Women in Hijab have endured abuse and even violence on the streets of America and Western Europe, simply on the basis of their clothing. And no one event speaks more loudly to the need for better education about other religions, than the fact that 2 Sikh Gudwara’s were attacked and burned shortly after 9/11, on the mistaken belief that they were Muslim Mosques. As Christians, we spread Christ’s love for humanity when we choose not to believe everything that we read in the media, when we choose to educate ourselves by understanding others in the terms in which they describe themselves. This does not mean we have to agree or even like the ideologies and doctrines of other religious traditions. But it does mean giving them the opportunity to describe themselves in their own terms and being prepared to take these as the terms in which we understand who they are and what they believe.

The second reason that we as Christians should be prepared to engage in inter-faith dialogue is to better express, and to give better expression to our beliefs to others. Perhaps some of you have seen Richard Attenborough’s film of the life of the Mahatma Ghandi, with Ben Kingsley in the title role. There is a particular scene that I enjoy in that film. A Christian priest, a missionary from the UK who has chosen to follow Ghandi on his journeys is sat on the roof of a train, essentially bumming a free ride. Resplendent in shining black shirt and dog collar, he cuts a strange figure amongst the poor Indians who make up his fellow travelers. “You are a Christian?” one asks him. He answers yes. “I knew a Christian once,” the man continues. “He drank blood. Blood of Christ.”

Let’s imagine that this scene took place in real life, indeed, it could have done. What are some of the ways in which we could interpret this little exchange? On the one hand, we could assume that the Indian man in question was extremely ignorant, that he simply did not understand his Christian friend’s beliefs. Or we could perhaps imagine that the finer points of the doctrine of transubstantiation had simply been lost in the translation to Hindi, or whichever language it was that he was speaking.

I want to argue for a third option though. That is, that we participate in interfaith dialogue in order to better express what it is that we believe. That when we see misconceptions of Christianity like this, we first point the finger at ourselves, and ask what has failed in our communication of the sacrament of communion if someone is able to think that it in any way resembles some kind of cannibalistic act?

An even better example of where we – that is, the church through time and place – have failed in our communication of our Christian beliefs is in historical writings from the Muslim and Jewish communities on the personhood and deity of Christ, and of the place of the Holy Spirit. Anyone who has studied the history of Christian/Muslim and Christian/Jewish relations, whether in the first century or the twenty-first, will tell you that the Trinity is time and again the deal breaker. Muslims and Jews can understand that we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, that we believe his death and resurrection to form a new covenant, that we believe he is the fulfillment of the law… but that he is God, and that the Holy Spirit is too? That’s just a deal breaker. Time and again, particularly in historical texts, we see Muslim and Jewish scholars asking why we just can’t give up on the whole Trinity business. If we really believe fundamentally that God is one (parantheses, three) – why can’t we just dispense with it? To them, it just looks like polytheism, a belief in multiple Gods.

Of course, we know that we can’t just dispense with the Trinity. We can’t necessarily explain the finer points of Trinitarian theology, but we all know, I think, that it is an intrinsic part of the Christian theological experience. So again, we are faced with a choice. We can assume that our Muslim and Jewish authors have chosen ignorance, that they have chosen not to understand who we believe that God is, or are not able to. Or, we can choose to ask ourselves the question, what is it about our articulation about who we experience God to be, that has not translated? How have we given anyone the room to think that our beliefs are polytheistic? How can we better translate our experiences of God? Can we use the theological categories of the Jew or the Muslim, to make our communication better? Can we move away from the very confusing Greek or Latin formulations of the Church fathers, without resorting to trite metaphors? These are big questions of course, but ultimately, they form the foundations of our faith. Interfaith dialogue, can be one way in which we can seek to grapple with them.

The third reason that we as Christians should participate in interfaith dialogue is closely related to this. It is so that we better understand who we are, and what our beliefs as Christians are. It is easy not to think very deeply sometimes about what we believe, particularly if we grew up in a Christian community. We get stuck in our routines, we go to church on Sundays, and perhaps in the week too, and we build a community there that we enjoy and get a lot out of. We try to do good and give to charity and generally things go on very well, but then, sometimes, there are those little moments that give you pause for thought. What is it that I actually believe? When a young child asks you to explain what God is. When we think about our deaths, and those of others, about heaven, and what it might be. When we see icons of the many Gods of other traditions, Hinduism for example, and we think, my idea of God is not like that. But what is it? Interfaith dialogue provides us with the opportunities to discursively live out these little pauses for thought in a very real way. There is no better way to really work out what we believe than trying to explain it to another. When I am teaching, I always tell students that the best way to really make sure they understand the topic they are writing a paper about is to try and teach it to someone else. The same is true for our faith lives, I think. In the act of articulating who we are, and what our community stands for, we are given an opportunity for a deep engagement of our own tradition.

For me, this deep engagement of our own Christian tradition has to be the real foundation of an interfaith dialogue. That fluffy conversation that we talked about earlier – where everyone agrees and has a nice time doing it, I’m not convinced that it’s really interfaith dialogue at all. If we don’t have a foundation for our faith, a ground from which ultimately, we are not prepared to move, then we don’t really participate in interfaith dialogue at all, we are just one-open minded person talking to another about their cultures and traditions. And that is not at all a bad thing. But is it really interfaith dialogue? Am I a Christian when I am having a conversation with my Muslim friends, or am I just Laura? Of course the answer is that I should be a Christian in every conversation that I have, that my faith should provide a foundation that I stand on when I look at the world, a starting point from which we understand other people’s conceptions of God while being invested in my own.

Indeed, to the question, “Why Interfaith Dialogue?” the Episcopal Church’s most recent statement on interfaith dialogue reads,“ Because we affirm the foundational Gospel proclamation that “Jesus is Lord”, and therefore the Summary of God’s Law: “love the Lord your God with all your hearts, with all your souls, and with all your minds, and to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31; BCP, Catechism, page 851). For this reason we reach out in love and genuine openness to know and to understand those of other religions. Therefore, we commend to all our members: dialogue for building relationships, the sharing of information, religious education, and celebration with people of other religions as part of Christian life. We believe that such dialogue may be a contribution toward helping people of different religions grow in mutual understanding and making common cause in peacemaking, social justice, and religious liberty.”

The Anglican and Episcopalian tradition provides us with unique resources in this interfaith reflection, in terms of our three-legged stool of scripture, tradition and reason. As Episcopalians, we understand the Holy Scriptures to be inspired by the Holy Spirit of God and at the same time the work of human authors, editors, and compilers. Within our communion there are, of course, varying interpretations of the Scriptures. I would like to suggest that they reveal to us both the invitation and the direction to engage with people of other religions. As the General Convention affirmed: “In Genesis 1:26 we meet the loving God who created all people and all nations, and the awesome majesty of creation bids us humbly acknowledge that the fullness of God’s intention is beyond the scope of our limited understanding; God’s gracious love is not confined to the Christian community alone. Because of our faith in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, we expect to meet God in our neighbor, whom God commands us to love as we love ourselves (Mark 12:29-31).

Tradition is also an important aspect of our theological understanding. As Anglicans we have always understood ourselves to be in continuity with the Catholic faith reaching back to the ancient, patristic church; we therefore hold the church’s tradition in high regard. Historically The Episcopal Church encountered religious pluralism and engaged in interreligious relations in the context of the foreign mission field. However, in many cases this work went hand in hand with American expansionism in a combination of mission and empire. The General Convention concluded that “Today we recognize the need to be aware of the socio-religious implications of mission, but in turn, these examples from our history may help to shape future interreligious relationships….We believe that interreligious work will carry forth God’s intention for God’s creation. It will provide us the opportunity to reflect the love of God we know through our redemption through the Incarnation of Christ; and it will provide us with the opportunity to build faithful communities that live out the majesty of God’s will for the earth with more depth and in more forms than we currently experience within the limitations of our own rich religious community.”

This is what we ultimately hope that you will all get from the next three months of the adult forum is a deeper rooted-ness in your own Christian faith, by understanding and relating to the faith of others. In the context of talking about the faith of another, a big space becomes open for us to step into, to work out where it is that we differ, and where it is as Christians that our boundaries lie. It’s so often hard to find this kind of space when all we do is look inwards, at ourselves. Interfaith dialogue, simply put, allows us to see past the ends of our noses.
So, we’ve structured our program this fall around these three arguments for Christian engagement in interfaith dialogue 1. To gain better knowledge of other traditions. 2. To discover ways to better communicate what it is that we believe, and 3. To give us an opportunity to think more carefully about what we believe in the context of others. We will welcome speakers from D.C’s faith communities, who will tell us about their own traditions that we might become better informed. We will welcome theologians to tell us about some of the theological parameters of interfaith questions, and we will try and provide you with opportunities to think about how we relate religiously, to the religious other. The religious other that as Christians, we believe was also created by God, Hindu and Sikh, and loved by God, Muslim and Jew.

The presenter has a B.A. in Theology and an M.St. in Hebrew and Jewish Studies from Oxford University and an MA in Religion and Social Science from McMaster University in Ontario. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University.

She has since converted to Judaism.
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