Absolute Truth & Emotional Risk in Interfaith Dialogue

Muslim interfaith activist Aamir Hussain recently posted an excellent piece regarding the challenges of interfaith dialogue. Hussain describes the challenges of maintaining focus on conversation goals, accepting differences without compromising beliefs, and avoiding proselytizing. I appreciated his strong statement that “it is perfectly acceptable for dialogue participants to claim that they have the absolute truth.” His statement made me reflect on the emotional tenor of discussions that I participate in, online and in person, about faith and belief when “Truth” enters the dialogue.

Interfaith discussions (and even intra-faith discussions) can be emotionally challenging because the stakes are so high. When the discussion moves beyond a simple appreciation of the diversity of our religious practices (“look at the different ways we pray”) to a discussion of differences in theological concepts (“what is the meaning of life?”), the risks of being hurt, misunderstood, and offended increase. Is it really possible to extend respect when someone claims absolute truth regarding the meaning of human existence, the origin of the cosmos, the destiny of humanity? How DO we accept differences without compromising beliefs?

Within my faith framework of Christianity, tension in theological debates are sometimes resolved through pluralism: a belief that because God is Mystery, many paths to the Divine are possible. New discoveries in our scientific understanding of the cosmos point to the limits of human comprehension regarding the Ineffable. Reminders that faith is just that — belief, rather than fact — soothe our competing claims. “Perhaps,” we say, “no one really knows.”

Yet this pluralistic acceptance breaks down for me when I begin to argue for social action and change within my community based on my beliefs. It simply does not work to say that “no one really knows” when confronted with homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, police brutality, or human trafficking. Because my belief in our divine nature as created beings and in God as Source of Unconditional Love is the motivation behind my advocacy work, I do claim a kind of absolute truth regarding matters of human dignity, peace and justice.

My experience is that the vocal proclamation of absolute truth can be dangerous. Dialogue is a process of active listening with respect, assuming best intentions, and extending grace for miscommunication. Advocacy requires a level of passionate involvement that challenges the status quo, asking difficult and uncomfortable questions. It is possible (though often difficult) to ask challenging questions with respect, without a fixed focus on an outcome of conversion and action.

What helps me to maintain respect during emotionally risky conversations is a deep grounding in my own beliefs. The more I am rooted in my own experience as a created being and in God as Love, the more curious I can be about my dialogue partner’s point of view, their experience of the world, their beliefs and how they intersect or clash with my own. The closer I cling to my truth, the better able I am to hear — and honor — the truths of others.

Image Credits: Artist: Camille Pissarro (1830–1903). Image is in the public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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8 thoughts on “Absolute Truth & Emotional Risk in Interfaith Dialogue

  1. I really appreciate this article, and its call to deepen the foundation of your own faith, to allow more coexistence and dialogue between people of differing faiths. I feel empowered to claim absolute truth, and act on it to better our community. For many, finding a deep enough conviction of truth to act is a challenge. A colleague in my church wrote this article about the framework for how he discovers absolute truth http://goo.gl/0ZvvTQ God bless!

    1. Thanks for your comment Drew! 🙂 I appreciated your colleague’s article…thank you for sharing it.

      I was raised in a Southern Baptist tradition that placed a high value on personal revelation, so I identify with your colleague’s description of “drinking from the spring of truth,” and the importance of personal testimonies within the life of the community. I gained a different perspective during my seminary education at a Catholic university that placed (as you might expect) a high value on Tradition and church teaching. I wrestled a fair bit with the notion of truth as safeguarded by church and canon, and ultimately those conversations in class helped me to see the different ways that faith communities and followers understand and articulate spiritual authority. Thought-provoking indeed!

  2. The same method of resolving such tensions was advocated by Dana Trent in my podcast interview with she and her husband on her book “Saffron Cross” and their interfaith marriage. However, at the conclusion of the interview I introduced the possibility of the civil and diplomatic discussion of issues of truth and doctrinal in regards to religious difference by religious particularists or exclusivists. One need not adopt a pluralist stance. This is important for particularists and exclusivists to consider.

  3. “Truth” is a very difficult concept for me to understand because of my intellectual socialization in the post-modern academy. Truth claims nearly always seem to me to be relative to the subject who is making them. A statement about readily observable conditions might be more or less accurate to the conditions it describes, but there aren’t very many interesting statements to be made that fall into this category (eg “That rock is red.”). Most interesting statements — about people, about values, about God, about life — tend to be not really susceptible to this kind of easy verification, and so I tend to view them as having more to do with the person who made them and their social and intellectual environment than anything else. I can try them on for myself and see if they suit me, or I can imagine whether they might be useful for some purpose or another, but I rarely consider whether they are “true” or not because I don’t think many things can be true or untrue. Even the concern for social justice you expressed, which I share as a long-time grass-roots organizer, I tend to view as a question of alleviating suffering — or sometimes of furthering certain values that I and those I’m working with hold — rather than an attempt to make society conform to some notion of what is “truly” good, since so many people earnestly disagree about what is good.
    On one hand, this makes it relatively to engage in dialogue across difference, even when confronted with someone who claims to possess absolute truth. Whatever I hear from someone is just their version of events, and I don’t get particularly concerned if it contradicts mine, since I expect such difference. On the other hand, I realize it could make me a frustrating conversation partner for some — there’s not a lot to work with when your interlocutor doesn’t ever push back.
    Given that I have this perspective, I don’t need to convince anyone that it is the right way, but I can offer it as an option that has certain advantages in the types of situations you’re describing. It’s not the only way, but it’s the one I and a lot of us who got our education in certain late-20th early-21st century Western academy contexts are stuck with.

    1. Good point, Josh! Thanks for commenting. I notice that post-modern educational framework (bias?) in myself when dialoguing across generational/age differences. I automatically begin from a place of each-person-has-their-own-truth and assume that my dialogue partner won’t be setting out to convert me. I think the post-modern framework can facilitate dialogue because it sets us up to hear rather than persuade, to consider what we might believe/see/experience if we (as the cliche goes) walked in the other person’s shoes.

      On the other hand, I think the post-modern view limits us somewhat. We often distinguish between “fact” (that rock is red) and “belief.” I think that distinction is based on our cultural view of scientific knowledge, which we elevate as beyond negotiation (the rock is red whether I believe it is or not). (In my Christian context, I see this bias show up in social-scientific and historical critical method approaches to interpreting the Bible.) Referencing something as “historical fact” is a quick shortcut to claiming a kind of absolute truth, in my experience, and truncating the conversation.

      I also think the post-modern approach breaks down in practice, especially when we try to organize…we DO have common values and beliefs, otherwise we wouldn’t come together. We may not all agree about how to solve the problem, but usually we can mobilize in resistance to the problem (the suffering that you mention). Thanks again for your thoughtful response!

  4. Well said, Elizabeth! Thank you so much for taking up such a fraught topic–and with such eloquence, too! This is a common issue I run into a lot with my personal faith: how to affirm everyone’s truth while still clinging to my own without imposing a given value on either. I’ve found that the idea of “meeting people where they’re at”–social location, past experience, state of mind, etc.–helps me in that regard, but it can still be difficult to rationalize sometimes. At the very least, it makes me question the usefulness of identity categories to begin with–but, then again, if we were to eradicate them, how would we even communicate with one another?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Dorie! I think identity categories CAN be useful places of negotiation and give us a vocabulary for sharing and understanding difference. One key strategy, in my mind, is to approach identity as negotiable, rather than fixed. My social locations do shape my experience, sometimes in stereotypical ways, and sometimes not. But I run into those stereotypes (whether I match them or not) because of the way our culture uses identity in social (and institutional) settings. So identity is useful because it lets me talk about what you might expect of me (and vice versa) and how I actually want to show up and be seen.

  5. Dear Elizabeth,

    I am very impressed with your article and with the ongoing conversation. I think that you are raising a very important issue, which is a basic and human one, even before we get to the issue of religion. How do I deal with the different? How do I deal with the fact that my opinion isn’t shared by others? How do I deal with seeing that “not all the kids want to play the game that I suggest”? This starts in childhood and develops to deeper realms as we mature, especially if we are people who have a vision.

    When it comes to religion, as you said it often becomes more difficult. It is even more so when one of the sides has ideas of redemption and perhaps believes that your faith and acts prevent the Massiah from coming (or returning).

    In one issue I’d like to raise a slightly different point of view. When you say “no one knows”, there is a hidden assumption that there exists some absolute truth, which is not known. I think that the very big challenge is out of strong faith and religious conviction to say “everyone may know”. And here I perhaps connect with Josh’s post-modern idea, which has existed in Judaism since the 13th century. In some of Maimonides’ writings the Torah is suggested as one of the possible ways to know God, and in saying that Maimonides acknowledges that there are other possibilities. But furthermore, the Jewish mysticism – the Kabbalah – suggests a very interesting idea. It says that God is Einsof – Hebrew for Infinite. In this context, if we understand that God is infinite, it can’t be defined. Because once you define something you put boundaries to it and make it smaller. I think that when we speak of an absolute truth something similar happens. I’m very curious, truly out of respect and appreciation to what you’ve written, to hear your opinion about whether speaking of an absolute truth might create some kind of a definition which would rule out God’s infinity.

    Thank you again for this interesting conversation!

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