What Can Interfaith Dialogue Really Do? Part 2 of 3

Read Part I here.

At lunch after Purim, I heard the rabbi criticize interfaith projects for being “just another religious group.” I reflected on the irony of a religious clergy person dismissing the bonding function of the interfaith society. If indeed the interfaith society becomes a “religion” of its own, this is no reason to deny its fundamental worth or to criticize its adherence for a “lack of progress.” These complaints would sound preposterous if applied to a congregation, a mosque, a sangha.

Naturally, interfaith community discourse refers often to transformation and social movements. However, one can’t make the mistake of using the referents of the conversation as the litmus by which to judge the functions and products of the community. Christians also talk a lot about Heaven; Jews talk about justice; Buddhists talk about Nirvana. If we don’t see these states being achieved, do we pooh-pooh the religion entirely?

No. We understand religion is more complicated than the destination referred to in its discourses, and we understand that there are rituals and rewards along the way. Likewise, in the interfaith community, having that conversation about transformation is the ritual by which participants affirm their fundamental values and find solace in solidarity with other like-minded people, who collectively share in a journey of education and self-articulation. By virtue of their curiosity and conversations they may or may not be making “progress”—but they are finding their own axiological enclave wherein the world isn’t such a scary place.

In Christian texts we read that the “kingdom is within us,” and perhaps we recognize in our own religious group a beloved community. It may, in certain sublime moments, embody transcendent principles that make the community a place separated from the mundane world. Interfaith community might be regarded thusly. In those sublime and successful moments of illuminated discourse, peopled by representatives of divergent and perhaps conflicting worldviews and vocabularies and goals, the interfaith group is realizing the promises of the kingdom. In these moments their potential and their actuality merge, and they stand for a revelation of new being—a new way of being—of being together.

How does interfaith engagement work? Out of common events and conversations, something new is created that acts back upon those involved. Dialoguers create a dialogue, and the dialogue re-creates them.

Certain “denominations” of the “interfaith society,” which can loosely be thought of as a sort of religion with its own totems and taboos and collective discourses—are more focused on efficacy and progress, while others are more focused on relationality. Some interfaith groups will count heads and worry about concrete, quantifiable referents for social transformation. Meanwhile, others are just worried whether there are enough pastries. They understand intrinsically the daunting prospects of measuring individual shifts in alterity, so they don’t try to quantify their activities. Some interfaith groups will go into schools or hospitals to develop religious literacy amongst educators, students, and caregivers; they will invite a local politician and seek press coverage. Others will just leave the door propped open and busy themselves preparing delicious tea, organizing the potluck, tracking down interesting speakers for a stimulating discussion. Ironically, the groups less concerned about efficacy and growth and quantitative self-evaluation often have the most loyal solidarities and offer the most interesting programming.

Where I do anthropological fieldwork, in Italy, a general arc of increased interfaith engagement can be demonstrated since Vatican II (1963-65). In Rome there is a gradual but significant growth of the demographic that practices dialogue since Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document that recognized the truth expressed in non-Catholic religions. It didn’t exist at all before then. And now there are many organizations reaching many people in many different ways. Over the decades, more and more of these groups are sprouting, developing mission statements confirming the overall value of human unity, presenting activities according to their particular investments in efficacy, progress, relationship, theology or education. Nevertheless, even though there are more and more groups, and the groups grow in increments, the work is slow. It suffers from the agonizing paradox of any social endeavor: organizers must choose between small and deep, or broad and shallow. It suffers from dismissiveness and misunderstanding from onlookers who apply a decidedly capitalistic critique of a fundamentally humanistic activity.

Interfaith dialogue is largely a humanization process, aiming to reduce fear and increase the sense of security people have when they encounter something unfamiliar. Interfaith encounters correct bad information by introducing people who are very different, whom conditions and circumstances have separated. It helps participants attain a more skilled “right view” of people to whom they may have had little access. Or it may simply provide a platform for common interest and devotion. It may be a symbolic demonstration of meaningful human unity in a world that seems to suffer from so little of it.

The correction of ungrounded negative associations and inaccuracies, or the forging of new friendships in a big lonely city, may not be earth-shattering or radical. But it takes a fairly robust cynic—or a myopic capitalist—to say that these results are not substantive and necessary. It also takes an optimist, perhaps a naive or self-aggrandizing optimist, to say that it will save the world in its present form. But there is a middle way, and there is also wisdom in acknowledging that it is already saving little worlds, local worlds, in both shallow and deep ways.

I believe that the problem with interfaith engagement is not the inefficacy of dialogue itself. The problem is the lack of educative dialogue, cultural literacy, and other formation processes that create engaged, informed citizens. Another challenge—on the outside and the inside of dialogue—is people’s lack of psychological unpreparedness for facing unsettling difference, lack of the capacity for maturation and surrender, and the lack of adequate psychological security and resilience required to embrace personal flaws and change habits. But that’s the human condition, and in my opinion, it is both the barrier to and the real work of dialogue, most successfully embarked upon by the truly and bravely prepared—i.e. the real leaders of dialogue.

The “science and religion” dialogue sometimes invokes “axiological axes,” that is, whether value is expressed in a cumulative, vertical direction, or whether it is expressed in a qualitative, horizontal direction. Technological and medicinal knowledge is vertical–it builds upon itself. Artistic knowledge and relationships are horizontal, having to do with subjective experiences of bonding, fulfillment, and joy.

The same rubric can be applied to interfaith engagement. Depending on the method of dialogue, its value can be assessed vertically or horizontally. Sometimes not both. But they represent equally useful dimensions of values. To place these directions in competition is moot, as they evoke different hemispheres of experience. You can’t compare medicine and music. But we need them both.

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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