How to do interfaith dialogue

In the wake of a recent controversy at Patheos, I thought it might be worth revisiting the concept of best practice for interfaith dialogue.

Step 1. Learn everything you can about the other religion or belief system – its history, different movements within it, how it differs from one culture to another.

Don’t look at the most fundamentalist manifestation of the religion and assume that all its adherents are like that; equally, don’t look at the most liberal manifestation and assume that all its adherents are like that. Most religions contain a spectrum of views, from liberal to conservative. Don’t lump all the adherents of a religion together and assume they are all exactly the same.

For example, there are many different types of Islam. The extremists are mostly Wahhabis or Wahhabi-influenced. The Wahhabists are the Islamic equivalent of the Westboro Baptist church.  So saying that all Muslims are like the Wahhabis is like saying all Christians are like the Westboro Baptist Church – patently false and a disservice to all the liberal ones who don’t espouse the hate-filled rhetoric of the Wahhabis or the Westboro group. The Shi’ites and the Sunnis are generally much more moderate than the Wahhabis, who are an extremist sect within the Sunnis. And the Sufis are the mystical ones who were historically persecuted by the other more legalistic Muslims. They cannot all be lumped together. What is more, how Islam is practiced (and what Sharia is like) differs from one Islamic country to another, and from one sect of Islam to another.

Try not to look at the religion through the lens of your own tradition. For example, it may be the case that in your tradition (e.g. atheism, Protestantism) belief, or lack of it, is the most important thing. However, in Paganism and Judaism, practice is the most important thing. A Jewish person will not ask if someone is a believer, they will ask if they are an observant Jew (that is, observing the mitzvot).

Don’t assume that there are exact parallels between something in your tradition and something in the other tradition. Christianity has a saviour; other religions don’t. Some religions have prayer; others have meditation and/or visualisation. Some religions include the practice of magic; others don’t. Pagans have rituals; Christians have services.

Step 2: approach the other religion with respect. Do not belittle its theology or practices or adherents, just because they are different from yours. Don’t assume that people must be crazy to believe in the tenets of the other tradition. And don’t assume that all adherents of any given religion (including your own) all believe the same thing, or follow the same set of practices. (This is the “seventh commandment” of Leonard Swidler’s Decalogue for Dialogue – that religious traditions must come as equals to dialogue.)

The Guidelines for Interfaith Dialogue offered by the Religion Communicators Council offer the following prerequisites for dialogue:

Interfaith dialogue is possible only when two convictions pre-exist in the participants:

  1. No participant is seeking to proselytize any other participant.

  2. The participants are persuaded of the inherent validity and integrity of all the faith groups involved in the dialogue and are persuaded that no group possesses total and absolute knowledge regarding the nature and works of God and human involvement with the Divine.

Step 3: Religions are complicated. Don’t assume that whatever it says in the scriptures of the other religion is the “correct” version of it. Most religions and belief systems have scriptures (yes, even atheism, though opinions may vary as to whether its Holy Writ is The God Delusion or some other book). On top of the scriptures of a particular religion, there are layered, like a palimpsest, hundreds or even thousands of years of practice, rituals, scriptural exegesis (interpretation), commentary, law, breakaway sects, liberalising impulses, conservative impulses, schools of thought, regional variations, misinterpretations, heresies, and general fuzziness, muddle, and fudge.

In addition to the Tanakh (Torah, Nevi’im, Kethuvim – the Hebrew Bible), there is also the Talmud and the Mishnah, both very important in understanding Jewish interpretation of the Torah.

Step 4. Compare like with like: Don’t compare the ideals of your religion with the practices of someone else’s – compare ideals with ideals, and practices with practices.  (This is the “fourth commandment” of Leonard Swidler’s Decalogue for Dialogue.)

Step 5. Follow the ground rules for dialogue and respectful listening that would prevail in any group situation. It is possible to disagree without denigrating the other person’s views.

I don’t think it is necessary to seek agreement, though it is a good idea to start the process of dialogue by establishing areas of common ground in order to establish trust. Religions are very different ways of approaching the numinous, and cannot be reduced to a single paradigm.  Your mountain is not my mountain, and that’s just fine.

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