What Can Interfaith Dialogue Really Do? Part 3 of 3

Read Part I here, and Part II here.

When I ate lunch with the rabbi he inveighed against interfaith dialogue and its inability to reach or transform the minds of those who are closed to dialogue. He said, “Interfaith activists say one thing and they do another—they preach transformation and tolerance, but they are already convinced, and they are not actually reaching the most problematic people and changing them.” This critique taps into the deep paradox of religious pluralism: it boasts an inclusiveness that is so convinced of the rightness of inclusion that it cannot stretch to include those who do not share the idea.

As those who practice dialogue have said to me during my fieldwork, however, the idea of dialogue is not to agree upon ideas. The idea is to grant your conversation partner human dignity and to listen to them, perhaps without the expectation of being heard or understood. Nevertheless, sharing some fundamental values is actually crucial—namely, the value that dia-logos, a colloquium between people, or friendly relationality—is valuable in and of itself. This value holds that accompanying and accepting each other is valuable. It implies that repetition of dialogue rewrites negative associations and prejudices of the other, whether it educates, or builds humanitarian bridges or friendships, whether it prays or eats together.

But if the fundamental value of dialogue is not shared, then a number of things can happen. Those who do dialogue can supply a number of rationalizations to better cope with the idea that some people in the world want nothing to do with dialogue—perhaps because they are extremists, or perhaps cynics like my lunchtime companion, or perhaps they are too busy or don’t care about religion, or perhaps they are more comfortable with simplicity, explicitly or de facto committing to “hunkering down” in a zone of unperturbed cultural homogeneity.

About people who don’t dialogue, dialoguers may say they are uneducated, ignorant of dialogue’s benefits and blessings; dialoguers may say they are willfully ignorant and denying the global, cosmopolitan, heterogeneous reality we live in. Dialoguers, in my observations, accept that these people exist and leave them alone, building stories and making meaning about why non-dialoguers think the way they do.

Regarding groups who both refuse dialogue and commit religiously justified violence, dialoguers take a pragmatic, bottom-line, no-tolerance position of nonviolence: they must be stopped. There are differences that cannot be embraced. (How to stop it? Another complex discussion, and not in the purview of this article.) But in the absence of a colloquium of dialogical values, there remains a baseline imperative for diffused conflict and fragile peace. If constructive, intentional engagement is not possible, the “safety net” of diversity management is human rights discourse: people can be left alone to believe what they want (as long as their practices are not inherently violent), and they shouldn’t be subject to violence or threat for doing so.

Sitting on the outside of dialogue and critiquing it is pointless. Such a critique reflects inexperience of what dialogue does for the people who actually participate, or unawareness of the fruits of dialogue’s intellectual and spiritual exercise. During and after the Occupy Wall Street Movement, there were plenty of people looking on from the outside saying, what is the point of this? They haven’t changed anything. This is just a waste of puppets.

But if you talk to somebody who actually participated, you will likely hear that the Occupy Wall Street Movement was profoundly transformative. For the first time in their lives participants found people suffering in the same ways as themselves. They made friends who wanted to stand next to them, together, against systemic frustration and injustice. They found words and arguments with which to express their pain. They got educated, engaged. They became citizens, of whatever micro-community they committed to within the movement. The worth of the Occupy Wall Street Movement was explicitly not about the bottom line, quantitative gain, or demonstrable material benefits. (Perhaps this was also its demise, as the purity of Occupy’s idealism and its lack of structure and specificity led to a whimpering implosion.)

I’ll wager that the methodological diversity of the interfaith movement—and the presence of interfaithers who are indeed concerned about (and skillfully demonstrating) efficacy and quantifiable progress—renders interfaithing somewhat more sustainable than the Occupy Wall Street Movement. The rich ecology of the interfaith society keeps it both in the world and of the world—just enough to stay dynamic, just enough to muddle along, just enough to write an annual report if the funder requires it.

The two most relevant poles to reference when discussing the value of interfaith dialogue are not “those who do dialogue” versus “extremists who want to eliminate difference.” Just as the opposite of love is not hatred but apathy, the fruitful counterpoint of those who do dialogue are those who don’t care about it at all. If the dialogical values of interfaith activists and religious extremists are assumed to be irreconcilably opposed, it is not useful to put them into conversation, because the only consequence to this dialectic is mutual negation, and the contra-dialogos position wins by default. Moreover, this extreme dialogue-extremist gridlock only takes shape in purely ideal terms, whereas the in-the-field complex reality is that many extremists are probably willing to tell you about their position, and many interfaith actors are doubtful about dialogue’s efficacy and clinging to its practice through faith, habit and community ties. The more fruitful discussion is between love and apathy, because since they are not irreconcilably opposed they can educate each other, find a third way, tumble out of balance and into new territory.

Perhaps the most relevant poles to reference when discussing the value of interfaith dialogue are progress and presence: do we find value in conversation and togetherness? Or must it be demonstrably productive in some way, in order that we don’t become hypocrites when we talk about transformation? Is simply being together enough to save the world? Or must we always try to enlarge the circle, at the risk of exposing our smallness and our slowness? Is it enough to feel transformed? How much does it matter that you—you who are transformed—are a part of this world and therefore the world is transformed? 

Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous lines might apply:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

There is a Middle Way where progress and presence arise mutually. In the meantime, all forms of interfaith dialogue are ways of loving the questions together–and living the questions together. 

My post-Purim lunchtime conversation—a spirited colloquium between the pro-dialogue social scientist and the ambivalent rabbi—was a meta-dialogue in which both participants were forced to reconsider, extend, and recalibrate our positions. It would be disingenuous if I don’t confess that I am proud to have tricked the good rabbi into a dialogue. It was one that even he had to admit was quite worthwhile—even if it wasn’t productive.

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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