My research on interfaith dialogue is driven by questions about people’s individual capacities for transformation and cohabitation with other humans.
In previous articles (here and here) I demonstrated that, contrary to what Gordon Allport’s classic contact theory (1954) says about the power of proximity to disconfirm negative stereotypes, it is not enough merely to put people together into a diverse urban environment. Religious diversity and de facto urban proximity does not automatically make for cosmopolitan openness and cooperation. Instead, it can create “hunkered down” ethnic enclaves (as sociologist Robert Putnam names them), and reinforce stereotypes because of the anxiety of difference triggered by living nearby—but perhaps not quite understanding—radical cultural and ideological differences.
Therefore, interfaith dialogue does not just happen in tandem with diversity. Indeed, diversity can present a crisis to a formerly homogenous society.
Crisis compromises alterity, the capacity for openness to diverse others. Paradoxically, crisis also creates more necessity for interventions that foster alterity. Interfaith methodologies aim to create conditions to foster intersubjectivity, or what interfaithers call “mutual recognition,” proposing that through repeated participation participants can transform their capacities for alterity. This article explicates this sequence in psychoanalytic theoretical terms seeking to understand the dialectic of crisis and alterity, and how the specific, intentionally-wraught conditions of religious pluralism provide a “corrective relational experience” (Sandage/Jensen/Jass 2008), alleviating crisis temporarily and providing adequate security to achieve connectedness with the religious other.
My research seeks to place side-by-side the psychoanalytic accounts of personal and spiritual transformation with grounded anthropological research on interfaith dialogue in Rome and in the Middle East, in order to push the theory forward and organize and interpret narratives of activism and transformation in the field.
In order to function, interfaith engagement must be an intentionally declared, consensual, cooperative activity with a defined beginning and end. It is our operational assumption that “a community which can support and encourage authentic seeking will not happen without intentionality” (Sandage/Jensen/Jass 2008). It is a temporary therapeutic intervention requiring a series of conditions into order to secure the potential for reconciliatory activity. All of these specifications distinguish it from de facto religious diversity.
Once an interfaith dialogue is declared and participants have acknowledged their common purpose, the interfaith engagement may assume the potential to be a crucible for personal and interpersonal transformation and reconciliation. The metaphor of the crucible has been used by Snarch and Sandage in order to describe the relationship that is able to “hold” a space where conflict can achieve transformation and growth. In order for interfaith engagement to become this crucible, it must present a safe haven in which participants are psychologically and physically secure enough to undertake engagement with difference and personal vulnerability. As I mentioned above, many participants of interfaith dialogue engage in dialogue after observing or experiencing crises that convinced them to try to grow or to help their community embrace different and new members. The space of intentional interfaith engagement creates a safe haven that can hold/pause the crisis of difference, creating the possibility of a temporary therapeutic intervention. The supple, durable realm of safe haven is clarified beautifully as “resilient space” by Esther Boyd in this article, and fully in line with Benjamin’s ideas of mutual recognition and how it builds a muscle to allow for reparations and elasticity in constructive human relations.
Involved with the free choice to participate in dialogue is the mutual buy-in the goal of dialogue, which is often declared to be “mutual understanding,” about which I have written here. In my ethnographic research, when I ask subjects if mutual comprehension is possible—can two different people really truly understand each other?—the answers can be sorted into three categories. First, some people answer optimistically along the lines of Carl Rogers, an American psychologist who promoted person-centered psychology: they say that dialogue is a matter of self-actualization and humanization of the other, a process of connecting on basic levels of shared human experiences such as familyhood, love, desires, and the search for personal fulfillment. A second group is more rational. They answer in the humanistic tradition of Jürgen Habermas: mutual comprehension is the product of a rational communicative process, and as long as we keep sharing, we can understand each other. A third category is more agnostic about the unknowable mysteries of another person and their answers reflect the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s sense that the other is traumatizing in their otherness and what we should strive for is to maintain ethical behaviors; their answers also reflect psychoanalytic theorist Jessica Benjamin’s conviction that mutual comprehension is more complicated that we accept but it is still possible, if conditions are right.
Benjamin’s work on the conditions required for what she calls intersubjectivity is very helpful for thinking through the mechanics of transformation in the ambit of interfaith dialogue. Benjamin’s early definition of mutual recognition is “a relation in which each person experiences the other as a ‘like subject,’ another mind who can be ‘felt with,’ yet has a distinct, separate center of feeling and perception” (2004). In her later work in the ambit of Israel-Palestine dialogue she expanded her definition (2012), arguing that mutual recognition is not solely founded on empathy but on the individual’s capacity to hold multiple voices inside the self and competing narratives and identifications, especially the identification with the dialogue group alongside the ethnic/political group narrative they are personally attached to. Benjamin’s notion of “the third” is the capacity to hold those tensions.
In my ethnographic research with interfaith activists in the Middle East and in Rome, and through my study of psychological and spiritual transformation produced by Snarch, Sandage, and Skowron, I have found that conditions required for interfaith dialogue to bear transformative/therapeutic potential are:
1. a free choice to participate,
2. security, generated from a temporary power balance between participants and the ethical covenant of the group (usually a nonviolence commitment),
3. good leadership, and
4. repeated participation.
Conditions 1) and 2) prepare the “safe haven” and transform it into a “third space” which makes possible the occurrence of “thirdness” (Benjamin 2004), the stage for clear-eyed mutual recognition where two vulnerable people interact and reveal themselves. Eventually the window of intersubjectivity slides to a close and it is time to go back to life, and the memory of the other’s true self is recalled as “through a glass, darkly.”
Repetition of this cycle is required in order to enlarge the lifespan of the intersubjective connection and reinforce what is revealed during this connection. Repetition is the enactment of relational resilience. Repeated participation in moments of intersubjectivity increase group familiarity, trust and friendship with other participants—or a more secure attachment to those who walk together in dialogue—and the kinesthetic understanding that the context of dialogue is indeed a “safe haven” of “thirdness” that allows for vulnerable engagement. This repetition, over time, serves to help people re-write negative or prejudicial associations, to re-cognize the “other” as similar struggling humans, to cement the new dynamics of the corrective relational experience of the dialogue, and to develop more mature thinking and reactions to encounters with difference. The temporariness of a dialogue’s intervention allows for people to return to their particular, familiar home religious contexts for spiritual reinvigoration and grounding—although many of my ethnographic subjects have participated so frequently or primarily in interfaith circles that the pluralistic dialogue group has become their new familiar, reinvigorating home base. As long as longevity is part of the dialogue construct, trust can develop and new levels of growth are supported.
Jessica Benjamin, Beyond Doer and Done to: An Intersubjective View of Thirdness. Psychoanalytic Quarterly (2012)
Jessica Benjamin, Engaging the Other (2012)
Sandage/Jensen/Jass, Relational Spirituality and Transformation: Risking Intimacy and Alterity (2008)
Image By Mkoenitzer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons