Letting our Differences Breathe

After publishing new works, many scholars and cultural commentators will tour the country eager to educate a larger and more diverse audience about their research and philosophy, and they often find that audiences almost exclusively consist of people who already agree with them. This experience is not unique to lecturers. We are all more likely to attract those who agree with us, and attend events held by folks we agree with already. This is unfortunate. Why aren’t we more attracted to learning or discovering something from someone with opposing viewpoints or ideologies? Why would we be less willing to take away something meaningful from such an encounter?

One response to our intellectual homogenization is the practice of emphasizing commonalities. Fear, embarrassment, ignorance, discomfort, or any number of other factors drive us to seek out and celebrate those aspects of our identities and practices that are shared. We do this when attempting to learn new ideas and concepts, languages, skills, and even when we meet someone for the first time. We struggle to find common ground with a friend’s new partner or a stranger at a coffee shop, and feel a rush of relief when we realize we have even just one shared interest. This search for commonality is wired into human psychology. We are most protective of and interested in those who are like us, part of our kin circle or community. It’s natural that we gravitate towards those we feel we can easily relate to – we want to spend our time and energy with people who have the same goals and ideals that we do.

Growth comes from pushing those natural boundaries, and multi-belief or multi-religious settings offer us a phenomenal opportunity to embrace our differences that we don’t always take. The first several times I encountered multi-religious communities or collaborative projects I was turned off by the format of finding commonalities among the many religious traditions. I kept hearing things like, “we all worship the same god” or “all religions have the same basic teachings” or “it all comes down to peace”. These might elicit warm fuzzies in some, and may even be true for certain collaborations, but I find this approach lacking depth, and – frankly – dishonest.

There is so much that goes into a religious identity, as in personal identity in general. We are so much more than our commonalities; I believe we are our differences, and furthermore I believe that’s a good thing.

Multi-religious dialogue is often used in cooperation with conflict resolution and mediation. We attempt to bring people into multi-religious dialogue as a way of uncovering a pathway to peace, to greater understanding, and to healthy relationships replacing a strained or even violent history of opposition. What kind of peace can we hope to build, though, if we ask that all parties leave such large portions of their identities at the door?

Recently, I heard, “Anyone who chooses to only live with their own has either nothing to teach or nothing to learn.” I began my adventures in multi-religious work because I wanted to learn, to improve my own religious literacy, and to be able to educate others about the diverse religious practices of the world and its people. I want to learn about other beliefs and traditions on their own terms. In my experience, metaphors for religious diversity such as “many paths up the same mountain” do not always allow for different religious traditions to authentically stand within their own history. Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World discusses eight major world religions and attempts to identify for each a central question, a mountain they are climbing. It’s not surprising to hear that all religions see the relationship between the individual and the supernatural, or the community, or history, or suffering in their own way. When we work together, why do we try to downplay those differences?

There are obvious benefits to working within a shared framework, and I do not intend to say that celebrating shared wisdom is always a shallow or dishonest thing. Every world religion seems to have some version of the Golden Rule, and that means something for our shared human experience. Finding something in common is a natural starting point, but it only works if that’s what it is – a beginning, not a goal. As soon as we emphasize finding the sameness or whittle down each other’s beliefs and practices and goals to something that can be palatable to all, we begin to lose one another and the opportunity to learn from one another.

This goes beyond multi-religious work and community building. Just as we are more likely to attend lectures given by thinkers who agree with us and skip those who we disagree with, we are also more likely to seek out collaborative partners that we recognize. Perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not, we often leave out those who might push or challenge the boundaries of identifiable sameness that keeps us comfortable. We have seen this with movements seeking equal rights for women, racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, homosexuals and trans-people, and those who are in a different economic class than ourselves. These aren’t past mistakes that we learned from – the dangers of only sticking to our own and not challenging ourselves to embrace our differences continue to play out on a daily basis in the United States and around the world. I don’t blame someone for not wanting to attend a rally for someone she fundamentally disagree with, but if she only goes where her ideas won’t be challenged, they also can’t be expanded.

I often write about breaking down boundaries between groups and opening ourselves up. At first glance this argument may seem like a departure, but it’s a continuation of the same idea. We are all human. We are all equal. What more do we need before we can work together? I don’t want to bring people together because we’re really all the same — I want to bring people together precisely because we are different and we have so much to learn from one another. By letting our differences breathe, we can better understand one another, and we may learn a great deal more from one another than we can by working only with commonalities.

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2 thoughts on “Letting our Differences Breathe

  1. Interfaith dialogue is like taking a pill for headache and some syrup for cough when the cause is an infection which needs an appropriate antibiotic that will cure headache, cough and fever everything. what I mean is dialogue to accept each other is useful, but only partially. All prophets have taught some simple basic Truths and they are same in all religions. Differences are only in outer beliefs and practices which the prophets have not taught but have developed later; they are superstitions. If we explain this basic truth to all, convincing that we are only explaining what their prophet has taught, not anything outer to that, it will be accepted and that will cure the disease from the roots.

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