After the most recent Purim morning service at my synagogue, I ate lunch with the rabbi. He told me he thinks interreligious dialogue is an in-group hobby, that interfaith groups become cliques. He felt these groups “preach to the choir,” and that people interested in dialogue are already liberal, educated, and concerned about religion. Interfaith, he said, becomes its own religion. But dialogue doesn’t succeed in attracting people from outside this milieu. The rabbi said that people do interfaith dialogue in order to mitigate their anxiety, because they have the need to do something about this scary world—so they forge social groups around common values, minimizing or aestheticizing or intellectualizing real differences, saying their differences are an innocuous matter of culture or identity. Dialogue is comforting for the participants and it gives them the feeling of doing something. But often these groups, especially the ones based on theological discourse or socializing, aren’t thinking outside their own circle or looking for concrete actions. The rabbi said, “if anything concrete happened it wouldn’t be because of dialogue. Because what needs to happen is to confront fundamentalists and extremists who, because of their fundamentalism and extremism, refuse to speak to anyone else anyway, refuse to change their minds, because the commitment to extremism entails being closed to dialogue and to other ways of thinking.”
So, the rabbi said, interfaith groups—in the very act of getting people to talk to each other about problems, in talking about how to solve them, in thinking that their conversation is solving the problem—ignore the fact that the people involved aren’t actually the problem. The rabbi summarized his point: “It is a little self-aggrandizing of dialoguers to think they are making the change.”
I pointed out to the rabbi that some interreligious groups in Rome, like the Tavola Interreligiosa, and also like the Parent’s Circle in Israel, go into schools to teach kids about different religions and alternative histories, trying to plant seeds of interest, awareness and tolerance. The rabbi conceded that groups going to schools are helpful because they might germinate openness, awareness, and curiosity at a developmental stage. School programs might wake some students up into more engaged citizenry. Depending on family environments and ethos, this early formation may cultivate citizens who will vote for politicians who govern in a way that doesn’t foment ethnic marginalization or enclaves that foster extremism. School-based cultural education can indeed plant seeds for a cosmopolitan society.
But, countered the rabbi, parents who enroll their kids in schools that have these kind of programs are probably raising children who would be open anyway. These children are not being raised in an environment where this is not allowed, in an environment of closedness. Moreover, with or without such school-based prompting, many students will still grow up to be passive and parochial—but not dangerously closed or violent. They will comprise the silent, moderate majority, undemonstrative citizens furthering the status quo or voting for the most imminent sources of gratification.
Outside of the school programs, the rabbi repeated, dialogue is not actually changing people. It just becomes a social clique, a religion of its own, a “love is all” banality. When he thinks about interfaith dialogue in terms of the kind of pragmatic progress it makes in reducing religious violence, for changing the minds of people who would have done violence in the first place, he is doubtful of its potential.
For days I thought hard about this conversation. It made me restless. I do not disagree with the rabbi, and yet I still find dialogue to be essentially worthwhile. Is this just my own stubborn hope? My blind liberal optimism? Is there merely a values difference between us?—whereby for him, progress is king, and for me, relational dialogue is self-justifying? For me, personal relationships supply a ground of being that ease my passage through the complexities of a precarious existence. They do not require—and actually cannot produce, not without rigorous methodological complexities—quantitative demonstrations of value or progress. A personal paradigmatic shift of openness to difference is a highly subjective, narrative state—not easily subjected to measures or generalizable indicators.
I realized the rabbi was exhibiting stark black-and-white thinking about the function of dialogue. It is not useful to think of the spectrum of interreligious openness in terms of liberal people getting together and preaching to the choir, versus religious extremists planning a terrorist attack. There is a whole range of involvement, and the majority of people fall somewhere in the middle: capable of being open and educated but never having received the opportunity, people with complicated priorities, some disinterested, some of whom develop into engaged citizens and others who grow up to be uninvolved, some nonparticipating citizens who blame others for their own difficulties. There is also a huge spectrum of types of dialogue—from theological discourse, to humanitarian collaborations, to political peace processes, to art, to friendship, to education and literacy-building.
To speak so imprecisely of the inefficacy of dialogue is like saying television doesn’t work. Work for what? Which program? What is the viewer’s taste and objective? With whom are they watching it? The general judgement quickly becomes absurd.
Critics of interfaith dialogue often apply a single litmus of concrete change: a reduction of violence in the world. But that is like criticizing a sandwich for not feeding an entire school. The sandwich may be greatly enjoyed by the person who eats it, and it is not the fault of the sandwich that the whole school is still hungry. It is the fault of the system that did not provide a sandwich for each person, or the fault of a group of parents in the school who decided that sandwiches are bad and should never be eaten. You can’t altogether discount the enjoyment and nutrition garnered by the one person who ate that sandwich—or even for the few people with whom the sandwich was shared. The loaves and fishes of Jesus were multiplied to a great degree, but they did not reach the multitudes beyond the Galilean shores. Still, the loaves and fishes were undeniably fulfilling, even sustaining, for those who feasted.
Image by Sri Chinmoy.org (http://www.srichinmoy.org/interfaith) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons