Managing Director’s Note: beginning in the Spring of 2013, all Contributing Scholars will answer the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions?
Dialogsenteret Emmaus sits near across the street from an urban park in Oslo’s hip Grünerløkka neighborhood. It was the first center dedicated to inter-religious dialogue in Oslo, a city deeply changed by immigration since the 1960’s. Because of Norway’s generous welfare programs and a civic religion that leans towards secular Lutheranism, many conflicts about immigration and the welfare state take the form of religious conflict. When Dialogsenteret Emmaus held its first meetings in 1991, there was no talking, only silence. But this silence was by design, a belief that before there could be any engagement with the “other,” people needed to have a common experience. In this case, that shared experience was silent meditation. Dialogsenteret Emmaus’s approach to inter-religious dialogue succeeded because it recognized that we all value shared experience as a sign of trustworthiness. Before there can be meaningful engagement, there needs to be a foundation for it to be built upon.
We are now living in communities that look drastically different than they did a few decades or even years ago. On my way to the farmers’ market in my adopted home of Minneapolis, I pass by predominantly Hispanic, Somali, and Native American neighborhoods. Every day we live side-by-side with people who budget pay checks the way we do, worry about their kids’ future the way we do, and put on their best clothes for a job interview the way we do. But we are often blind to our commonality because we cannot see past our different languages, clothing, and scriptures. And unless we can see those commonalities, our relationships will remain skeptical and our engagement will stay tangential.
In this new environment, we have two options. The first is to insulate ourselves from people who seem different than us. We could spend time with those who reinforce our beliefs, know our histories, and speak our language. To do this would be comfortable and ask little of us, but it also suggests that finding common ground is too arduous, too time consuming, and too difficult a task for us to embark on. The other option is to open up our communities to new ideas and define our story by new histories. It is only by opening ourselves and laying this groundwork for understanding one another’s worldviews that we can have communities founded not on skepticism, but on recognition of shared values.
You might be wondering who the “we” is I have been talking about so far. After all, in an essay on bridging divides between people, it seems strange to use a kind of us-and-them language. By “we,” I mean my religious community: Norwegian Lutherans, many of whom immigrated to America for a better life in the nineteenth century. Understanding our community’s heritage can help us build the common experience that makes empathizing and connecting with the “other” possible. We were once and are always sojourners in a strange land.