Today’s question comes from Beverly. She wrote: “I have a question for you, Craig: What are the benefits of interfaith dialogue, and what is the best way to structure such a dialogue to reap those benefits? What kinds of topics work best, and who all can contribute effectively (meaning, can Christians have a useful dialogue with practitioners of something very different, such as Shintō? Wicca? Atheism?)?
What a rich series of questions to explore! I will touch on a few thoughts that come to mind in each area and then invite you into the conversation as well.
For me, the benefits of interfaith dialogue are at least twofold. First, the dialogue provides a different lens through which to see the world. It often gives me the opportunity to explore things I had never thought about before.
Second, interfaith dialogue often gives me a better understanding of my own faith. I have found over the years that as I have grown more comfortable and established in my own faith tradition, there are things that I begin to take for granted. Assumptions that I make without even realizing it! When I am in dialogue with those from another faith tradition, it forces me to be more aware of the assumptions I’ve made and provides me with the opportunity to either re-affirm my existing belief or – in some cases – even leave my current belief behind. These are just two of the benefits I’ve discovered.
The best way I’ve found to structure interfaith dialogues in order to achieve those benefits is to create plenty of time in the conversations to establish relationships and even build friendships. So often when folks gather for interfaith dialogue, they rush right into large topics. They start talking, for instance, about the sacred books of their faith, or the rites and rituals that are observed. I would slow things down considerably. I would begin by providing structure that allow participants to get to know each other as human beings. This means talking about things like, “How many siblings do you have?” or “What movie/piece of art touched your heart and changed your life forever?” or “Tell me about one of the happiest moments in your life”. Once a relationship has been established between individuals, THEN they are free to address the larger topics in an atmosphere where participants feel safe.
There are lots of topics that could be explored within the context of interfaith dialogues. The tendency is to start with more academic interests (i.e. let’s talk about the history of your faith tradition or the spiritual practices you employ). I would start, however, with topics that are more universal in nature. After time has been devoted to establishing relationships, I would begin by talking about topics such as “How has your faith shaped your views on death?”, or “Tell me what affect the sacred writings of your tradition has on the way you lead your life each day”, or “How does your tradition shape your understanding of family?” Once folks have started by sharing aspects of their faith as they relate to universal themes, then they are in a better place to talk about other elements of their tradition that might be more unique.
Finally, I believe that any one can participate in interfaith dialogue as long as they are open to hearing and honoring the perspectives of another. While individuals from any tradition can participate in interfaith dialogue, not every person is emotionally and spiritually mature enough to participate. As long as an individual can listen and truly honor the spiritual perspective of another, the individual is a GREAT candidate for interfaith dialogue.
These are just a few thoughts off the top of my head. How about you? What is your perspective on these matters pertaining to interfaith dialogue?