What Can Interfaith Dialogue Really Do? Part 1 of 3

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

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23 thoughts on “What Can Interfaith Dialogue Really Do? Part 1 of 3

  1. Playing devil’s advocate here, maybe the chefs are either purposefully or unaware making a sandwich that only those on their same wavelength would find attractive, and some outsiders would find distasteful or threatening. In response, you can categorize, marginalize and demonize the ones who shun your sandwich, or you can listen non-judgementally to that demographic too. Otherwise, as the author mentioned, all you have is an interreligious, “bless me,” club. I hope it is a misunderstanding, but it appears the author has labeled those who would have reasons to disagree with or not participate in what they are doing as, “extremists,” and “fundamentalists.”

    There is a local interfaith group in my community that holds a yearly event where they perform some type of community service, inviting all the members of local congregations of various sorts to take part. Last year, the many participants descended upon dozens of homes of low-income families and individuals (many seniors and persons with disabilities) to do minor home repairs and general sprucing up, like painting. Since the group doesn’t hold any interfaith prayers or discussion, there are no barriers to anyone participating. I would like to see something like this become a monthly, rather than a yearly, event, recognizing the difficulty of logisitics and organization. I think working together puts people together in a more natural, rather than artificial environment, where they can get to know each other as people, rather than categorizing into, “us,” “sort of like us,” and, “them.”

    Due to health issues, I couldn’t personally participate in activities like painting, cleaning or landscaping. But I could contribute by penning them an article or press release, or maybe I could make sandwiches 🙂

  2. Hello, Chaya! I think we are saying exactly the same thing. As I wrote, I realized my lunch companion was thinking too starkly about labeling interfaith activists versus extremeists. The whole point of my article is that it isn’t a helpful binary. And yes, as you also noted, I don’t disagree that the sabdwich is sometimes tailored only to the tastes of those who will eat it. Perhaps this comes out in Parts 2 or 3, but I don’t think that is inherently bad–it is only limited. It is best if the interfaith sandwich is supplemented with other dishes and varieties, in order to suit various tastes and objectives. For example, the variety of interfaith engagement that is flavored “humanitarian projects” is certainly important. And it has a clearly demarcated “result” for anyone skeptical of the efficacy of interfaith engagement. But the realms of interfaith engagement that are purely “relational” and not “productive” are also inherently worthwhile, if only to the participants.

  3. Jenn, thank you for responding, and I absolutely believe that relational engagement is productive, however, many find it inaccessable. In addition, to join new friends requires creating new enemies. There was a recent excellent article on this blog about scape goating, and sadly, via informal research, I have discovered that it is likely not possible for any group to bond without having, or perhaps engendering, a target of fear/hate. A more honest sort of interfaithfulness would be involving those they keep out of the process. I’ve learned a lot from online interfaith understanding groups, and the first thing I look for is how much of the effort is directed toward discounting their opponents. My non-professional, remote diagnosing is that this is not only a psychosocial phenomena, but a biological/neurological one, as the bonding hormone oxytocin that promotes trust, intimacy, loyalty and cooperation reveals its dark side in endengering social bias, and there appears to be a correlation in that the more closely bonded a group is, the more vorciforous their narrative of, “the other.” Note: When you used the term, “liberal,” I hope you were referring to its classical meaning; if you were using the political meaning, then you have sliced out approximately half the US population.

    1. Hello Chaya! Yes, there is a lot of interesting work done on hardwired cognitive tendencies to favor in-group members and remain suspicious of out-group members. Have you read much about Moral Foundations Theory? It describes five different moral priorities found amongst different populations, one of them being favoring of the in-group. This webinar I recently edited covers the theory and also spends some times discussing oxytocin:

      The hopeful thing (for those of us who have interfaith hopes) is that all humans are not doomed to the biological constraint of in-group aversion. Other populations have moral priorities of justice and freedom, which would be more likely to promote a consciously developed or temperamental ability to transcend social differences.

  4. Dear Jenn and Chaya
    Great dialogue. I wonder sometimes if the name “interfaith” sounds a bit isolating. I love the sound of people of different belief systems working together in some community service. I feel that there are often too many “words” which portray beliefs and ideas in interfaith gatherings which, so rightly only end up preaching to the converted. I feel that an interfaith group could create activities which may include service as you described Chaya. There’s nothing quite like people working side by side in some kind of project which cuts through barriers and engenders feelings of togetherness. We’re always so serious. Why can’t we share some kind of joyfulness and organise or participate in events which lean more towards fun and laughter? This means that there is an opportunity that may also be of interest to those have no “religion”. If love is God and God is love, would this not be the epitomy of “God”?

    1. So, anyone have any ideas for more accurate, inclusive and friendly terminology? Community Bridge Builders? I also agree atheists and the non-religious have a part to play, as those who are outside the system are better able to critique and review the system. I think the most important thing would be that no special interest group, including political groups, be able to commandeer this for their benefit.

    2. I’ve found that the word “dialogue” is active in many realms–intercultural, interdisciplinary, interpersonal/therapeutic, civil society, community dispute management, conflict resolution, etc. Most of these realms engage similar mechanisms of deepening understanding and facilitating more personal appreciation of “the other.” Interfaith/religious dialogue concerns religion because religion has been identified as a useful bridge by which to connect or an important social category to attend to, and it is religious because those participating have something to say about religion. In my fieldwork I have not experienced a radical difference in methodology or objective–only in context–between interfaith dialogue and intercultural or inter-national dialogue (engaged for integration efforts with immigrants). It is the presence of the religious people and their declaration of religion as a centerpiece of their interbelonging–whether or not it is explicitly invoked or not, often the case with the humanitarian projects which prioritize the cooperative project over the religious discourse–that make it interreligious dialogue specifically.

      But if you want an interesting discussion about whether “interfaith” or “interreligious” is preferable for matters of inclusion of atheists and non-religion, I suggest reading Christopher Stedman’s “Faitheist.” He prefers “interfaith” on the premise that even atheists make faith claims of some kind even if the word is not to their liking.

  5. Hi everyone,
    I appreciate everyone’s comments. I work and struggle with this topic everyday. What I have found is that consciousness grows from fundamentalism to interfaith, then to interspiritual, then finally to truly spiritual (non egoic). I find this in all fields be it science, politics, economics or religion. It’s been an interesting journey working with UN NGO’s, religious, spiritual and values based organizations.

    1. Hi Ken! I have often arrived at this same conclusion. BUT I have to ask if we are accessing the paradox of pluralism, which is to say–“hey look! We all arrive at the same non-egoic space where we transcend differences!”–thus being so ultra-pluralistic that we are suddenly not actually all that inclusive of spiritualities that wouldn’t be described that way. Reading Harold Netland’s work on evangelical pluralism has taught me a lot about the limits of pluralism when it attempts to include exclusivists who refuse the notion of a common ultimate reality.

      Religious pluralism is paradoxical, in that if it truly dissolves all of its boundaries for inclusion, if it were truly plural and indiscriminately inclusive, it would collapse. But variants of religious pluralism allow for different spheres of inclusion, common ground, and common “others.” Sometimes interreligious cooperation is made possible through recognizing a common enemy, as when Abraham Heschel urges Christianity and Judaism to ally against the modern secular. Intellectual, abstract theological discourse is a type of pluralism that is distinctly exclusive, both in qualifications for participation, and in lasting impact. Participatory democratic religious pluralism–involving humanitarian projects or artistic collaborations–can be more inclusive class-wise and involve more people along the ideological spectrum, but it still must claim ethical absolutes and perhaps even limit free religious expression (e.g., prevention of proselytization). Thus there can be no actual religious pluralism.

      But the ideal structure of religious pluralism is still dynamically motivating in the same Platonic sense as is the absolute, universal religious boundary. Thus interfaith movements flourish around the world, engaging a range of methods and principles. They are all, fueled by the ideal of pluralism, transgressing and renegotiating boundaries. But this boundary transgression is unnatural and intentional; it is temporal and it cannot be thorough.

      1. Hi Pamela and Ken! I love Ken’s reply too. It certainly jibes with my own matrix of moral priorities, worldview, and long-contemplated view of human transformation arcing toward a de-prioritization of the individual ego.

        I want to reiterate that I think it’s important that interfaith dialoguers remain self-conscious about the relative source and context of our claims, and understand that our convictions–as coherent and right and experienced-based as they may seem–are still epistemological constructions. Evangelicals or Mormons who make exclusive claims about who gets to end up in Heaven, or in which “level” of Heaven, may participate in dialogue without ever “giving up” their claims to exclusivity or the fundamentals of their religion. We can label them as overly attached to constructed dogmas, but if we do not consider that we have our own constructed dogmas and a prioris, then we are only committing an act of egoistic superiority claims–and an act of exclusivism in our own right.

        We cannot say that the egoless space of that which is “really real,” as John Hick wrote about, is the right one without doing exactly what we are accusing the other of.

        This is the paradox of pluralism. This is the demand of pluralism–that we continue to dance with partners who hear and step to a different tune entirely. The important thing is that we keep dancing, even if the dance floor looks a little uncoordinated.

        I do think that in the dialogues that arrive at such polarities there must be an acceptance of a respectful, irreconcilable difference. This difference can be threatening, but it can also serve to strengthen our own convictions. My assertion of the ego-less space that prioritizes love is stronger than ever after dialogues with people who tout exclusivist claims. And I believe that it is indeed my love for them and for the activity of dialogue that allows me to sit in the uncomfortable presence of a fundamental difference.

        At the end of the day it is my own responsibility to reflect and investigate why, when in dialogue with someone who doesn’t agree with what I KNOW to be true, whether my insistence on my claims is an act of ego, the result of cognitive dissonance, or a simple statement of I AM.

        Exodus 3:14–“God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

        1. Yes Jen, I love the analogy of continuing the dance together even if the rhythms differ and change. It’s easy in our interfaith group as everyone who has chosen to attend has a broadness of vision and we have become friends – and we are certainly a great mixed bunch. If an invited speaker begins the conversion patter, I think back to what my husband and I were like 25 years ago with our newly discovered spirituality – why didn’t our friends discard us? Since I’ve learned to hold my tongue a bit, I’m generally more interested in how someone IS rather than their words. Do they walk their talk?

          1. Ah, yes! Behavior!

            Now, THAT is a category in which I think all parties participating in a dialogue must actually be on the same page about.

            We can’t be on the same page about beliefs, of course, for all the reasons discussed above and more–not to mention that since experience and belief are often subjectively beheld and expressed, people can have very different beliefs within the same religion.

            But it seems that there is a behavioral covenant that is necessary to the interfaith realm–that of nonviolence.

            Getting into “behaving well” can start to introduce those constructed complexities of what exactly constitutes “good behavior.”

            The interfaith sphere can hold a manifold of faith expressions but it is constrained and protected by the respectful behavior of the participants. Does that include respectful language? Yes, I think so, basically…although I think that language and tricky, and a question that seems plaintive and direct to one might seem offensive and brash to another. So I think we have to have the courage to be offended, as long as we are not being intentionally harmed.

            Therefore, on the most basic levels of nonviolent behavior and a basic acknowledgement of human rights–we must have parity. So there IS some unified bottom line to dialogue.

            Could we call that “love”?

  6. If your goal is to move from cooperation to homogenization; that is not something I find attractive or would support, as I value variety of expression and choice highly. Isn’t ere an inconsistency of claiming to seek inclusiveness and plurality while bonding together via a shared, “other,” or enemy? This seems more akin to an agenda driven political alliance, wrapped in flowerly language. Perhaps this is more of a behavioral science issue, but I wonder if it is humanely possible for a group to bond without a real or perceived outsider or enemy?

    1. I think I answered this above with the moral Foundations Theory reference to varied moral priorities. We have a few comment threads going on though 🙂

  7. I would like to share that on my spiritual journey when of course those words I quoted above, “God is Love and Love is God” came up in religion, I somehow skimmed over them lightly, touching on the word “love”. Now they have become my focus. If God Is Love and I constantly use this as my life practice, I believe that more and more I connect to Divinity. I believe that this is the stepping stone. Which means that finally there are no doctrines and no compartments called “other religions”. This is why, although I am a member of an absolutely wonderful interfaith group, sometimes I question myself, “is there another organisation I should join?” If God is Love, then this is available to everyone … Isn’t it??? it is totally inclusive of everyone. Whether one is an atheist, a sceptic, a complete non believer. I am really interested to hear your comments.

  8. The Rabbi: “What needs to happen is to confront fundamentalists and extremists who, because of their fundamentalism and extremism, refuse to speak to anyone else anyway,”

    As a Christian “fundamentalist”, I feel that I am always trying to talk to anyone I can about faith issues. If your rabbi wants to talk with me about truth, please let him have my email.

    Blessings and peace,

    1. Dear Travis, I’m very happy for your feedback! I can imagine that it is very frustrating for you to endure the conflation of fundamentalists, extremists, non-dialoguers, and those who commit violence in the name of religion. I’m glad you’re taking the time to recalibrate misinterpreted associations with the word fundamentalist. Actually, since someone was frustrated by my use of the word “liberal” in this post too, your comment brings to mind the fact that all labels are inexact and subject to misuse, and change according to context. Which is why we should try to deal with individuals and not labels (and consider more carefully our language describing social categories).

      But I think that you and I arrive at a very similar criticism of the rabbi’s “black and white” thinking here. It is true that the term fundamentalist can describe both those who are devout to the furthest degree, and also, at least in colloquial association, those who would exert their extreme position through violent action. Those two uses ought to be distinguished and you have done so here.

      I wonder–and maybe you can tell me–if there is any conversation in your fundamentalist community about the popular use of this term and its connotations. Is there any talk of adopting a new moniker, or of correcting people to use a more accurate terms to describe violent religious extremists?

      Thanks for the discussion!

      1. Hi Jen,

        I very much appreciate hearing your response. I also am glad that you draw the distinction between the use of “fundamentalist” to describe someone who holds with seriousness the traditional tenets of their faith and someone who uses violent or uncharitable means to try to further their cause in the public arena. Personally, I feel the latter use of the term is a bit of an abuse, but apparently it is now being widely used this way.

        I do not think that I am much of a conversation-setter among the “evangelical community” as such. Among the evangelicals I speak with or hear from, though, it does not seem that there is much or any discussion of trying to influence the connotation of the word “fundamentalist” in the wider culture. If reference to the term is made, I think it is usually in the context of being saddened that the wider Western culture has so far departed from the fundamentals of the historic Christian faith that today the term for someone who honors those fundamentals is a kind of pejorative in some circles. On the other hand, I think there is recognition that sincere and Biblical faith has in a way always been resisted by the culture-at-large, even when the “West” was more unquestionably Christian in name.

        I hope that answer is helpful and am happy to discuss.

  9. I appreciate this series of essays and think the rabbi may be onto something. This critique needs to be taken to heart. Instead of interfaith dialogue I pursue religious diplomacy that seeks to to change hearts and minds so that enemies see each other as trusted rivals in spite of irreconcilable differences. So differences are discussed as much as common ground, and efforts are made to effect change in intrafaith as well as interfaith contexts.

    For some thoughts on this see my essay interacting with some comments in the past by Eboo Patel, although I think he’s changed his views: http://www.patheos.com/Evangelical/Interfaith-and-Religious-Difference-John-Morehead-02-08-2012.html

    How might interfaith dialogue and religious diplomacy practitioners and activists discuss this in order to make real social change so desperately needed?

  10. hi Jen, can you give me an explanation of cognitive dissonance in Inter-Religious Dialogue? I would like to get a better grasp of it..thank you very much.

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