Earlier this month, three State of Formation Contributing Scholars were invited to attend and present at the North American Interfaith Network annual conference. Responding to the conference’s opening plenary lecture, Ellie Anders, Wendy Webber, and Esther Boyd collaborated on this piece in an attempt to bring some of the conference’s discussion of honest communication and the risk of offending others to the rest of the State of Formation community.
Esther Boyd: The opening plenary lecture given by Reverend Dan Buttry offered an excellent framework for the rest of the weekend – specifically when he described “First Date Interfaith Dialogue”, using as an example the first time he went out with his wife Sharon. He had been too timid and self-conscious to tell her that he did not like popcorn, rather than risk offending her, he ate an entire bowl, leading her to believe for the next several years that he loved the stuff. His story of awkward young love is a great metaphor for dialogue. When we engage in interbelief conversation, we often act timid. We are afraid to offend those around us and afraid to express a vulnerability that might leave us offended, even if it might have long term ramifications later. We were challenged to move beyond that self-consciousness and fear of offending someone for the sake of honest and fruitful communication. I thought it was a great metaphor, and a useful analogy for entering dialogue spaces for the first time.
Wendy Webber: I find the first date metaphor to be incredibly useful and plan to adopt it as a kind of shorthand in the future. The call to move past “first date” conversations in interbelief work illustrates the new interbelief landscape. In the past, simply getting members of different traditions together in one room was something to be celebrated. It still is in many contexts. And in those contexts should still be embraced. But in contexts where interbelief is already embraced by the participants, it is spinning wheels to simply celebrate our coming together. Those of us who have already forged belief-crossing relationships are ready to put those relationships to work. We are ready to ask the hard questions that only intimate friends (or to follow the metaphor more closely, partners) can ask, because the relationship is a solid foundation for a rocky conversation. I hope it is clear that I don’t mean that these old and dear friendships are literal. They are an understanding that we interbelief activists can share as strangers because we all agree on the importance of the cause.
EB: I continued to think about the first date metaphor later in the conference, especially when one of the speakers said that we don’t need to build more bridges – we need to use the ones we have. If we are going to actually be effective peacemakers, educators, world-changers, it can’t be enough to smile at each other in the same room. We have to roll up our sleeves and wade into some of the muck together, and that requires a level of honesty and communication that can be tough to cultivate when people are nervous about offending one another or saying the wrong thing.
Ellie Anders: The first date metaphor played out for me standing in the Dunkin’ Donuts line Monday morning, talking about this past Ramadan. I explained to Noorin, another attendee, that this year I participated in a way completely new for me. I decided to fast along with my Muslim friends and when we went to break the fast, I was given a yogurt drink. Normally, I love yogurt, but this was unsweetened and watered down. I did not enjoy it at all. In spite of strong objections by my taste buds, I continued to drink. Noorin chided me as I recounted the evening: “Move past first date mentality.” She was right, I completely missed out on the opportunity to talk about why the drink was significant. Or to learn that it really had no significance at all, and I wouldn’t be insulting anyone by passing for water.
WW: The first date metaphor was also tested for me at the conference. I was excited that so many people at the conference did take the call to move past first date conversations. One woman asked me why “secular” is often put before “humanist.” If there can be religious humanists, she asked, how is there a cohesive humanist community? But, it wasn’t just about belief issues. One person asked me how I, a white woman, reacted to a black speaker forcefully discussing white privilege. Neither conversation was easy. They weren’t easy because they weren’t superficial, which allowed both to lead to deeper and more concrete relationships.
I did not always successfully move past “first date” dialogue. When I found myself sitting next to a Scientologist at a meal I had a hundred questions I wanted to ask, but refrained from fear of insulting him with my lack of knowledge. (I don’t know if his questions and comments were kept superficial from a similar motivation.) As a result our conversation remained superficial and I failed to learn much about him and failed to share much of me.
EA: Often people want to engage with the “other” but they are afraid of being offensive. My answer to that objection is always yes, yes you will probably offend someone. And when you do, or I do, we talk about why it was offensive, and we confront our own stereotypes. Then hopefully we learn to have those difficult conversations and come out on the other side with a much deeper relationship having faced a challenge together and overcome it. We must give ourselves permission to be offended, be offensive, and build relationships based on those dialogues.
WW: Part of our early conversations with “others” should acknowledge that this will happen and discuss what we are going to do when it happens. The first date metaphor provides some language to do this.
EA: It can be helpful to agree to safe space rules before you begin, such as the “OUCH!, OOPS!, AHHA!” rule. When someone in the room hears something that is offensive they stop the conversations by saying “Ouch!” The person who was speaking immediately responds “Oops!” The conversation then turns so the two parties can honestly discuss the offense and model this process for the group. At the end we hope for the “Ahha!” moment. Sometime this will happen, sometimes it won’t, but it is always worth the time spent. Similar rules help set the tone for deepening relationships.
EB: There is great potential value in being offended. It’s important that we learn to move past offense and discomfort in ways that are open and affirming, and not close ourselves off or shut out others. We have to learn how to grow from intentional, often awkward recovery. I heard a few offensive statements during the conference, and when they were particularly problematic I addressed them. Those conversations weren’t comfortable, but I think (I hope) that we both came away having learned something we wouldn’t have if I kept my mouth shut.
WW: Esther, I was offended a few times, too. Part of what it made me consider is what my role is as a participant in interbelief work. Just as I need to recognize that I will offend, I need to recognize that I will be offended at some point–something that should be considered ahead of time so that one’s reaction is not coming from the emotion of being offended. The conversations you had with people about words or actions that offended you were better to have than keeping silent. But keeping quiet in reaction to an offensive statement can be as important as speaking up. The real trick is to know when to speak and when not to. There are many many issues that need to be addressed in these kinds of settings. “Yes, this specific issue hits home for me. But maybe it is best for me to let this one slide because there is a bigger issue that needs to be addressed by someone else. I can be heard next time.”
EB: Wendy – that is an excellent point. If we got up and hollered every time we were offended we wouldn’t get anywhere. Many times what offends us are matters of language and limitation and simplicity – not malevolence or ignorance. While we can often let the former slide, it can be necessary to address the latter.
WW: The challenge is to recognize the difference.
EA: Addressing those in public will often turn people away. Doing so in private tends to make people much less defensive and willing to engage in self reflection later.
EB: When we feel defensive we become reactive instead of reflective. There isn’t trust, and there can’t be vulnerability, which makes it so hard for us to share parts of ourselves with others in meaningful ways. This is especially important for me when working with students. Not to say that college students are any more clumsy than the rest of us (they are not), but for many of them, college interfaith communities are their first encounter not only with intentional dialogue across differences, but real community building with folks of different religious backgrounds, and it’s where they learn to be offended and move forward.
WW: Being on the defensive puts us in a fog. It’s sometimes hard to really hear what the other is saying because you are too busy formulating a response.
EB: Balancing honest communication with the risk of offense can be a challenge. We must be careful about our language. It helps to know when we need to table something for later, and when we are in situations where we can take a break if needed.
WW: And having the conversation about how we will handle offense up front is important. We are very used to doing this in large groups that have specifically come together for discussion. But we rarely do it in individual encounters and relationships. When we are relying on friendship it is easy to assume that friendship itself will be able to absorb the offense. But it is not always so easy. Having the conversation one-on-ones is a good, often overlooked, practice.
EA: Honesty is the best policy. If something is really that offensive and hurtful you should definitely tell them because if it was offensive to us, we can almost guarantee it is going to hurt someone else later. So the question for us is really how willing we are to be honest and vulnerable. Others will mirror our response and when we react with compassion, the offender often mirrors our emotional response.
WW: It sounds hokey, but a challenge we can give ourselves is to really put yourself in the other’s shoes. My students in my religious education class in Uganda were struggling with the idea that there are polytheists in the world. It was just too far from their experience to comprehend. We had discussed empathy the day before, so we did an exercise where we imagined we were polytheists who believed in reincarnation and discussed the consequences of such beliefs on how one would live their lives. After, the students were better able to accept the idea of polytheism and we were able to have a respectful discussion. Rather than trying to understand the other from our own perspective, try understanding them from their own.
Another challenge we can give ourselves is to recognize the things in your own tradition that are points of contention and come up with ways to discuss them in advance. I am currently trying to come up with responses to the “you are going to hell” line. This is a possible flashpoint that so often comes up because of my tradition. If I am prepared for it, if I am ready to discuss it, I can better control my offense. And if I can mitigate my anger than I can effect the tone of the conversation and hopefully avert escalation.
EB: That is a great point, and definitely worth further discussion.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.