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.