Full disclosure: it was not my intention to find inspiration for this piece via Ben Affleck.
That said, when the actor delivered an impassioned argument (including some explicit language) refuting Bill Maher and Sam Harris’ collective views of Islam on last week’s Real Time, I admit: I was transfixed. It made me think about such a plethora of issues; I sought out numerous commentaries on the debate, looking to better contextualize my own impressions and articulations in response, and amidst the vast array of clips and editorials, I came across Chris Hayes’ examination of the exchange, from which he drew the conclusion:
“Turns out, as a general rule, that asking people to explain what they believe, and why, is a whole lot more enlightening than speculating about their beliefs as if they’re not in the room.”
And that, right there—that crystallized what, for me, kept leaping out about this entire Real Time debacle: this idea of coming to the table, of sharing good fruits, in an Alvesian sense—of a truly genuine dialogue.
Because in academia, we try very hard at attain interfaith understanding; and we sometimes succeed, and it is fruitful. But in our classrooms, in our university-sanctioned settings—the Ivory Tower and its affiliates—we operate within a context that is oftentimes unrepresentative of the world we’re trying to engage.
The theory, at crucial points, sometimes diverges from the practice.
And where we try to genuinely represent the diverse perspectives we engage, we are, in too many cases, still making assumptions about what others know, what others think, what “they” do, what “they” mean.
We talk a lot about people not only as if they aren’t in the room; oftentimes, we talk a lot about people who aren’t in the room at all.
This, in turn, tends to create a barrier to implementing interfaith dialogue, as religious scholars engage and envision it, within a larger global society to the benefit of all. And this dialogue must be implementable: it must be relevant and applicable; and practical and suited to the wider world, because if interfaith understanding cannot move meaningfully beyond scholar-facilitated dialogues, then it is, ultimately, insufficient.
Our seminaries, our retreats, our divinity schools and peace-building programs: these are worthy, ineffably significant pursuits: but they are the world as we hope it can be. Rarely are they the world as it is.
It is our task to close the gap.
Thus, we need to focus on translating what we do so that it works beyond our walls: between neighbors, between co-workers, on our trains and planes and the interstitial spaces where life happens in transient snippets. So if we’re a Ben Affleck faced with a Bill Maher (or the other way around)—or better still, if we’re a Ben Affleck speaking to a practicing Muslim who can speak for themselves—if we’re anyone with anyone, and religion comes to call: how do we model interfaith dialogue where those words don’t necessarily hold the weight we so often like to give them?
In my experience, it’s a matter of emphasis: particularly when engaging beyond the classroom, we need to underscore dialogue, first, and come to interfaith as a component of the interpersonal; as an expansion of what it means to engage another person with attention and presence and the soulful kind of listening that connects disparate entities, that transcends differences as a matter of course.
The classroom, oftentimes, is primed for both threads to intertwine simultaneously. Elsewhere, however: it is our responsibility to prepare the loom and start the weave.
Here’s a story: I was on the Piccadilly Line helping a woman find her way from Heathrow into London. We became quick travel-friends: bonding over the fact that we’d both flown in from Cleveland, and talking of our lives: her family, my research. ’You study theology and science?’ she said; ’How apt that I should meet you here, halfway across the world: I’m a Christian Scientist!’
I paused: I study theology and science, yes. The extent of my knowledge about Christian Science, though, extends to the existence of a Reading Room near the library in my hometown.
Yet when I asked her to tell me about her faith, she didn’t speak in doctrine, or of tenets. She spoke of how she lived. How her tradition influenced her actions, set the tone for her relationships. There was a certain peace about her, an openness and joyfulness that exuded from her throughout every twist and turn of her story. It was riveting. It was telling. It was revelatory.
My viable knowledge of Christian Science remains limited: but where it stands to grow, in the future, it will be contextualized by this woman on the Tube, colored, shaped and encoded in my memory with the affect of this encounter. It will be molded via dialogue on the streets, in the field—or on the tracks toward King’s Cross.
Interpersonal first, then; which in turn cultivates interfaith.
Such examples are imperfect, anecdotal; random, and perhaps innocuous: but often, that is precisely what life is made of. And such encounters, I believe, are indicative of how interfaith dialogue expands beyond academia. In the field, where the world happens—in the small encounters where there are only moments spared to make a point—we cannot rely upon theory alone, or even primarily; we have to prioritize practice.
Likewise: we cannot expect the ground rules of academia—the tacit understanding that lip service, at least, will be paid to tolerance—to follow us beyond these havens, into the streets. We cannot expect it—but we can strive to embody it; we can work to model it, even if we’re the only ones.
Especially if we’re the only ones.
Because in reality—at this crucial intersection with the voices of our culture screaming to be heard over one another to the point where listening isn’t always even an option, because there’s just no way to hear: in reality, this is not about us and them. This is about I and thou, or rather: me and you. We both have a story to share that is entirely our own, that cannot be assumed without conversation: that will, without fail, enlighten the dark corners of the understandings we think we hold.
The building of the bridges we so desperately need, then: the building is done within that telling.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.