“Stand together yet not too near together”: How Interfaith Dialogue Teaches Participants to Value Diversity

“Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.

For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.

And stand together yet not too near together:

For the pillars of the temple stand apart,

And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Khalil Gibran wrote this tribute to healthy, individuated partnership with marriage in mind. I believe that it is also applicable to interfaith dialogue. In interfaith dialogue, people aim to face radical otherness, the irreconcilable fact of another person’s separate nature and convictions, and to listen and learn from them while articulating your own position.

It is easy to celebrate commonalities. But managing the differences between people is the real work of marriage and intimacy, and also of interfaith dialogue. In these contexts you will inevitably encounter the irreconcilable differences between you and your dialogue partner—all those ways in which never the twain shall meet. Resilience and grace in the encounter with radical difference–and a hearty appreciation for healthy separateness–are the crux of both healthy adult relationships and of interfaith engagement. In this article I will attempt to explain what that means in social-psychological terms.

In a previous article I explored the meaning of “mutual recognition,” a common goal of interfaith engagement. “Mutual recognition” most commonly means a respectful awareness of another person’s separate, sometimes different, worldviews and values. I also explored the methodological complications inherent in detecting the presence of mutual recognition, a multidimensional construct that is highly subjective, personalized, and contextualized. Since “mutual recognition” is such a common aim for dialoguers working together across differences, it seems reasonable to consider how interfaith groups can evaluate whether they are successfully fostering relational transformation.

In the spirit of pragmatic psychologist William James, who wrote, “God is real because he produces real effects,” I propose that we can gauge the presence of “mutual recognition” by measuring the effects, or consequences, it would have. I assume tat if two people can learn to really see each other they will start to feel some affects of having experienced a clear vision of the other person–their gifts, their defects, and the ways in which they are irreconcilably different from each other. In my study of mutual recognition I have gleaned that these moments are the relational change agents of dialogue, a spontaneous experience of another person that, through repetition, strengthens a person’s ability to encounter and appreciate radical difference. So, in order to measure the concept of mutual recognition, I turn to the concept of “differentiation of self,” a psychological maturity construct.

“Differentiation of self” was originally developed as part of the family systems theory of Murray Bowen. It is defined by Skowron/Friedlander (1998) as “the degree to which one is able to balance (a) emotional and intellectual functioning and (b) intimacy and autonomy in relationships.… On an interpersonal level, differentiation of self refers to the ability to experience intimacy with and independence from others.” Sandage/Jensen/Jass (2008) add, “people with a high degree of differentiation of self are less emotionally reactive to others and have greater flexibility and self-awareness than those with low self-differentiation.” They also cite interpersonal psychologist David Schnarch, who describes differentiation of self as “an ability to ‘hold onto oneself’ in close proximity to others, which suggests a mature relational capacity to handle the anxiety of both closeness (intimacy) and difference (alterity)” (ibid.).

This passage from the article Relational Spirituality, Differentiation of Self, and Virtue as Predictors of Intercultural Development (Sandage/Harden 2011) further clarifies this construct:

“One of the more recent conceptualizations of spiritual maturity is that of differentiation-based spirituality … which involves the notion that spiritual development involves growth in differentiated capacities for (a) self-regulation … and (b) balancing mature intimacy and alterity in relationships. Schnarch (1997) suggested those high in differentiation of self may be less prone to spiritual polarization (i.e., ‘‘us versus them’’) and more capable of spiritual complexity that facilitates positive relationships across differences. Differentiation of self is particularly relevant to intercultural development since it involves the ability to tolerate the anxiety of difference while maintaining awareness and concern for both self and for others. This could include differentiating one’s own cultural framework from that of another person while keeping both frameworks in mind.”

In more colloquial terms, the more differentiated you are from others, the less threatening their difference is, the less it implicates you, and the more “unique” the other person becomes. With a high level of differentiation, you can see other people not only as differentiated from yourself but also from each other: it becomes harder to generalize about people, and it becomes harder to exoticize and idealize them. Some groups of people are not all jerks, and other groups of people are not all delightful, glorious heroes. The differentiated perspective leads to an understanding of others that involves less projection, is more individuated from others, and affords a more granulated view of individual qualities and characteristics.

One’s personal level of differentiation can be attributed to an underlying capacity—namely, their psychological style of “attachment” to other people. According to object relations theory, people generally demonstrate one of three different styles of relating to each other: secure, anxious, and avoidant. These attachment styles are developed in childhood and therefore one’s capacity for differentiation of self is largely determined by upbringing and temperament. A relatively high starting measure of differentiation would predispose an individual to be attracted to or to make the choice to participate in interfaith dialogue activity. A low rate of differentiation would predispose a person to feel much more secure in homogenous environments and to be destabilized or defensive in the face of different opinions and behaviors. This means that people of a certain type are more likely to participate in interfaith dialogue, and these people have a higher capacity for achieving mutual recognition. This brings up the notion that interfaith dialogue generally serves to strengthen pluralistic inclinations that were already present prior to dialogue. Experiences of mutual recognition in dialogue work like a muscle and can serve to render a participant’s attachment style more secure, as they learn to rewrite negative associations and learn through experience that radical difference is not always an existential threat or an end-game for a relationship. This does not mean that people who lack the starting capacity for mutual recognition cannot participate meaningfully in interfaith engagement; but it does probably mean that they will benefit more productively from forms of dialogue (lectures, humanitarian projects, artistic collaborations, and collaborative prayer) that do not involve corrective, radical intimacy with difference.

So, differentiation of self indicates the resilience with which people handle encounters with radical difference. Therefore, a psychometric measure of this construct, administered in stages over time, could deliver valuable data about the presence and impact of “mutual recognition” and what forms and contexts of interfaith dialogue are more likely to inspire relational transformation.

Differentiation can be measured via the Differentiation of Self Inventory (Skowron & Schmitt, 2003), a 46-item self-report measure used to assess Bowen’s original concept of differentiation. I hypothesize that repeated engagement in moments of interfaith intersubjectivity have the potential to increase spiritual maturity and levels of differentiation, thereby also increasing resilience and decreasing anxiety in the encounter with difference. Further longitudinal application of Skowron’s differentiation scale could reveal more information about starting capacities for transformation, and rates of transformation over time in the sphere of interfaith dialogue.

The experience of interfaith dialogue moves along a certain arc: from the anxiety of the unknown toward a generally enjoyable pursuit of curiosity and relationship. While some dialoguers are satisfied with deepening relationships—with dialogue itself being the product of dialogue—other dialoguers are more concerned with the social efficacy of dialogue. They therefore concentrate on developing more effective and confident programming in schools and hospitals, and producing articulated indicators of progress. In order to gauge the efficacy of these programs one would need to identify different concrete indicators for progress, as relational change is unlikely to result from non-relational methods.

This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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