Beyond ‘Us and Them’: Taking Interfaith Dialogue Outside The Ivory Tower

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.

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2 thoughts on “Beyond ‘Us and Them’: Taking Interfaith Dialogue Outside The Ivory Tower

  1. Hi Katelynn, thanks for such an honest and thought provoking post. Since I’m a Muslim, of course Ben Affleck is now my new hero! But before your post I had not considered the practical applications of his infamous conversation with Maher in an interfaith context. I completely agree that talking about interfaith dialogue from an academic perspective is very different than how we actually do so in the nitty-gritty of everyday life.

    One of my friends was confronted at a grocery store parking lot a couple of weeks ago by a woman who told her that her religion was killing “our boys” in the Middle East. Needless to say, my friend was upset, but she managed to diffuse the situation. Afterwards, we had a session discussing how best to respond to people who obviously feel pain or anger at the situation with ISIS. My friend had not considered the fact that perhaps this woman had lost a son in the war, or knew someone who had. I think it’s so important to be empathetic even in the face of intolerance, otherwise we are just screaming at each other, not conducting dialogue.

    1. Hi Saadia—wonderful to hear from you, and thank you so much for your kind engagement with this post. As a non-Muslim, but someone who spent the whole of undergrad studying Islam and Islamic history (and making many Muslim friends along the way), I found myself thrilled with Mr. Affleck, as well!

      I’m so glad that you shared the story about your friend and her encounter in the parking lot: a longer version of this post included reflections on a conversation I found myself having when I was returning clothing, of all things, and mentioned in passing as my refund was processed that I studied theology. The woman taking care of my return talked at length about religious freedom and her ability to reinterpret Catholicism in a way different from her mother, but somehow women in Islam came up, and her opinion of wearing hijab as “oppressive” and a thing that someone needed to “save” Muslim women from was expressed quite strongly. Not wanting to come across as “preachy”, and not wanting to speak outside of my own personal experience, I was lucky enough to have the kind of built-in opportunity to weave two threads of conversation together in hopes of facilitating dialogue, or at least perspective: she’d spoken about her kids, earlier in our conversation, and I’d mentioned that I was actually on my way to meet a friend for coffee and see her gorgeous baby boy—which, of course, led to a bit off oooing and ahhing over the prospect of my time with this adorable little guy. She was receptive, enthusiastic, and sympathetic when I mentioned the new mother—of course, she couldn’t have known that the new mother I was going to meet is also a Muslim woman, who wears hijab. So, when I said I had to get going so that I wasn’t late to my meeting, I mentioned briefly that on top of seeing my dear friend and her lovely baby, I was also being treated to a care package of the BEST homemade warak dawali, because my friend knows I love her mom’s grape leaves, and coming up on Ramadan they’re in plentiful supply around their house, so they conspired to get some together for me. It was a simple comment, but I could see on the woman’s face as the different aspects of this friend I was meeting—a vague composite in her mind, at best; a stranger, but also a fellow mother, a woman, a person who she’d at least cursorily processed before the aspect of Islam was introduced to that narrative. As the woman in the store was open about the fact that she did not know any Muslim women personally, it seemed as if this simple parallel that I hadn’t even set out to draw was, at the least, an example I could offer that provided food for thought. Or else, I hope that her contemplative hum in response before I bid her goodbye was indicative of that much.

      All that is to say that I definitely agree with you: I think that’s precisely what we need, just as you and your friend reflected—the kind of empathetic perspective that helps us all to better think outside our own contexts. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with the opinions of others as they offer them (which I’ve found is a point that dialogue outside of the academy—and sometimes even inside it—get caught up on), but I think it will help us to engage the people who hold those opinions with greater compassion, and to do interfaith work within that kind of environment more fruitfully.

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