Interfaith Dialogue

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?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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5 Responses to Interfaith Dialogue

  1. Stevie says:

    In my family, (my adult kids and me) we all follow different spiritual paths, as varied as Catholic/Reform Jewish., With a family like this, you have to have unwritten rules. When we meet, it is, in a way, as you have described, except that we don’t have to establish the other common grounds, or meet for the first time for discussion.
    I don’t think any kind of meeting would be successful unless everyone were there with an open mind. You’d have to come with no desire to prove your way of worship right over another’s , or have a skillful coordinator (like you, Craig) who could establish that. In our family we have asked each other some pretty hard questions, but there has never been an argument that I know of.
    Last night I sat at synagogue with my daughter’s family, and I must admit I don’t understand some of it. But I believe God loves us all, and who am I to questions someone else’s path.

  2. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    Thank you, Craig. This will be very helpful to me as I work to establish interfaith ties between my atheist group and people of other faiths. I think the atheist-believer gap is a particularly hard one to bridge, in part because there are so many folks on both sides who seem determined to burn those bridges down. But I think we all have a lot to learn from each other, as I have learned from you, and that engaging in a loving way with people who believe differently is a skill we could all stand to spend more time developing.

  3. capete67 says:

    Thanks for the responses Stevie & Beverly. In picking up on what Stevie said, I would add that if a group is going to be in conversation/relationship with one another over time, it would be great to establish a set of guidelines to guide future conversations and regularly revisit those guidelines. Also, I forgot to say how important it is for participants to be encouraged to speak about what it is that they believe/affirm and NOT about that which they don’t believe/affirm. I’ve found in some interfaith dialogue groups some participants are so focused on lashing out against traditions that have caused them pain that they spend most of their time attacking other traditions rather than affirming/claiming their own.

    • Beverly Marshall Saling says:

      Yes, that is the biggest hurdle I face with my fellow atheists, many of whom had “bad breakups” with their childhood faith traditions (or with family members who follow those traditions). But being able to experience a more positive interaction with people from those traditions might go a long way toward healing the pain of those past experiences.

    • Stevie says:

      Yes, Craig! That is so important! Some people are either too wounded or too fear-based educated to have easy dialogue. But if they can get past that, they would benefit more than anybody!

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