Notwithstanding the prizing of diversity, there IS some unified bottom line to interfaith dialogue. Nonviolent behavior is the basis for “unity in diversity.”
Behavior is a category about which all parties participating in a dialogue must actually be on the same page. A behavioral covenant of nonviolence is necessary to contain and maintain an interfaith engagement, to create a “safe haven” in which participants feel confident enough to encounter the anxiety of difference. A context free of threat and crisis creates a secure base, physically and psychically, from which dialogue participants can explore the faith claims of others and face irreconcilable differences that may arise.
We can’t be on the same page about beliefs, of course. Since experience and belief are often subjectively beheld and expressed, people can have very different beliefs within the same religion, even within the same household. The human brain’s ability to maintain function despite cognitive dissonance means that different beliefs might even co-mingle within the same person. Indeed, wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Diversity is at the very heart of unity.
If diversity is the natural and inevitable quality of existence, from whence comes our unity? It is in the fabric of our mutual ethical commitment.
The crucible of interfaith engagement 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…although language is tricky: a question that seems plaintive and direct to one might seem offensive and brash to another. So we must also develop the courage to be offended, and the skill to differentiate tension and enriching challenge from actual harm.
This distinction is not easy: it is indeed quite difficult, as the human amygdala—the part of the brain that registers threat—does not readily distinguish between emotional threat and physical threat. The animal limbic brain operates with a simple directive: fear leads to flight or fight. It only knows fear, informed by the brain’s emotion and memory centers. It does not know if the fear comes from a brandished gun or from a shallow insult. It does not know that a difficult emotion, like anxiety or offense, can be survived and managed. So, it takes psychological practice and sharpened awareness to differentiate the quality of a threat and to respond accordingly. It takes psychological practice to understand that threat does not always demand a defensive response or counterattack. It takes disciplined overriding of automatic fear responses, in order to cultivate self-aware cognition that can distinguish the nature of a threat prior to a flight or flight response. And it takes spiritual maturity to understand that emotional threat can be weathered and can even bear gifts.
Spiritual maturity notwithstanding, a mutually upheld behavioral covenant in the realm of dialogue will help reduce an air of threat or conflict that might compromise the vulnerability required to face difference. Contained safely in the haven of nonviolent behavior, we can work together to arrive at the heart of human encounter.
If the secure container of interfaith dialogue is in ethical principles, what is the heart? The encounter with otherness is only truly alive, and only contains potential for spontaneous intersubjective comprehension, if it is entered with full agency. Thus the space of interreligious encounter is a paradoxical space of constrained freedom: intention constrained by ethics. Through application of skilled intention and skilled behavior, the encounter with otherness can become therapeutic. It can become enlightening and liberating. It can provide us with the confidence that we can withstand emotional threat–it can give us the muscle memory of surviving the anxiety of difference, so that it gets easier with repetition.
The practice of dialogue with otherness is the practice of sitting on the hinge where identity and rationality fail, and skill and commitment remain, holding us aloft on the razor edge of irreconcilable difference and the dynamic tension at the heart of relation. In its finest hour, it can bring us into unity with the diverse paradoxes at the center of our being. It can merge our experience of the present with the knowledge of the ancients who scribed the fourth-century Nag Hammadi text Thunder, Perfect Mind:
For I am knowledge and ignorance.
I am shame and boldness.
I am shameless; I am ashamed.
I am strength and I am fear.
I am war and peace.
Give heed to me…
I, I am godless,
and I am the one whose God is great.
I am the one whom you have reflected upon,
and you have scorned me.
I am unlearned,
and they learn from me.
I am the one that you have despised,
and you reflect upon me.
I am the one whom you have hidden from,
and you appear to me.
But whenever you hide yourselves,
I myself will appear.
For whenever you appear,
I myself will hide from you…
For what is inside of you is what is outside of you,
and the one who fashions you on the outside
is the one who shaped the inside of you.
And what you see outside of you, you see inside of you;
it is visible and it is your garment.
Hear me, you hearers
and learn of my words, you who know me.
I am the hearing that is attainable to everything;
I am the speech that cannot be grasped.
I am the name of the sound
and the sound of the name.
I am the sign of the letter
and the designation of the division….
And they will find me there,
and they will live,
and they will not die again.
Image courtesy of the author.