I have to admit that sometimes I get weary of those Christians who, upon learning I am actively involved in different forms of interfaith dialogue, judge me as not being Christian enough. The assumption goes that if you can “get along” and dialogue with those who believe and practice other religious faiths, you must have compromised, even given up, all that is important to your faith – especially those distinct aspects that are not acceptable in another faith. Anyone who actually does interfaith dialogue, on the ground, knows this is not the case, in fact, the opposite is usually true.
To be “good” at Interfaith dialogue you need to first know the beliefs of your religious tradition, more precisely than your average practitioner, “the faithful.” You not only need to know the beliefs of your religious tradition but why it holds those specific beliefs. You also need to know how those of other denominations of your religious tradition might believe differently, and why; the nuances of where/why your part of the same tradition might not agree with them doctrinally or where you vary in practice.
Once you have a very thorough and nuanced understanding of your own faith, you need to be able to explain it to people who inhabit completely different conceptual worldviews. Often there are cultural differences piled on top of the conceptual differences that also need to be navigated. Even differences about how to talk, when and who to talk to, are part of the dialogue practitioner’s tool kit.
If your dialogue partners have not already clued you in, you will also need to learn what the other’s religious books and leaders have taught them about your faith tradition. If they have been misinformed you need to find a way to help them learn how your group sees itself, and find a way to invite their curiosity to see you beyond their narrative. If your dialogue partner has had a bad experience with missionaries from your religion, or has been trained in apologetics and polemics against your religion, you will probably need to become familiar with those stories that inform them prior to their engagement with you, as well as the history of how those polemics came about. Consequently, you can rarely engage in dialogue without also needing to learn about the history of other religions. Typically you need to know how your own religion interacted with the other group’s religion – and even be aware of the geographically different histories of the interactions of your religion with the other’s.
Then there is the communication skill-set that is a necessity for successful dialogue. That is, learning to talk about emotionally burdened topics in a non-reactive way. Learning to listen in a non-anxious way, to be a patient listener, engaging any polemics and apologetics thrown at you in a way that eventually invites the speaker towards a more curious posture about you and your religion. You need to learn empathy and how “to listen to understand, not listen to reply” just as much as you need to learn how to articulate very complicated ideas in nuanced ways. This means you don’t get to be reductionist, go for the lowest common denominator, as many typically assume the process of dialogue requires. Rather, it means you have to unpack, explain, and dig deeply into a doctrine, concept or practice in order to help the other enter into your religions thought-world empathically enough to be able to see it as though they are in your shoes.
Dialogue that seeks to harmonize or seek a lowest common denominator will not last very long, and frankly, will bore the people involved. It can’t foster genuine understanding because it avoided all that is substantive – both in agreement and disagreement. It can’t transform relationships because genuine encounter never truly takes place. Successful communication presumes that you have something to communicate about – again, it requires you to know your own religion and its history, quite thoroughly. Giving up my faiths distinctiveness to be in dialogue? Au contraire ! If it’s really interfaith dialogue I am engaged in, I don’t have the luxury of being a reductionist.