The Mechanics of Personal Transformation via Interfaith Dialogue

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 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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5 thoughts on “The Mechanics of Personal Transformation via Interfaith Dialogue

  1. Thanks for your article. I’m curious: how can a temporary power balance be achieved in a dialogue in which the contemporary context is a long-time, deeply-endured historical experience of oppression and terror, with one group clearly in a position of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual dominance over the other? What kind of free choice to participate (or opt out) of dialogue is possible when there has been no reconciliation and/or reparations to resolve/redress the historical trauma of oppression? And even supposing such reconciliation has occurred (or is occurring), given the historical trauma between the two groups, what kind of authenticity is possible? To give a concrete example: In my work as an activist, we talk about internalized superiority and internalized oppression as a mechanism of racism and white supremacy. This internalization functions to inhibit authenticity..not only between people but within people..i.e. I can’t see myself clearly because of the racist narrative about me and in which I am participating that reinforces my superiority as a white person. Curious to hear your thoughts…thanks Jenn!

    1. Hi Liz! Thank you so much for this insightful, crucial question. It reflects a critical and realistic approach to dialogue which is sorely needed. I have also asked this question of my research subjects in contexts of active, ongoing military occupation (Israel/Palestine). To create a temporary power balance, sufficient enough to enable the space of dialogue to be a “crucible” or resilient “safe haven” for the vulnerabilities inherent in transformation, there are several conditions required. The two I will address here are agency and concessions.

      First, all participants must be present with full agency. In Palestine there are many pressures against dialogue with Israelis as it is said to “normalize” the status quo of the occupation; this social pressure effectively prevents many settlers and displaced Palestinians from talking. Dialoguers who choose to disrupt this social paralysis argue that dialogue is actually “anti-normalization” whereby dialogue between representatives of the power asymmetry can serve to dislodge the regional habit of paralysis between these groups. These dialoguers, both Palestinians ignoring charges of “normalization” and Israelis ignoring a widespread conviction that “there is no Palestinian partner in peace,” are leaders who are exercising agency and clear intention in their actions to defy inculcated social rhetoric that solidifies their power imbalance. So, first you need visionaries and leaders who are courageous and driven enough, and who have adequately secure attachment patterns, to attempt a disruption. Everyone present needs to choose to be there and to be prepared to withstand the discomforts and accusations inherent in the encounter, and to trust in the protective constraints of the crucible of dialogue and the value of long term investment in the process.

      This leads me to my second point about the concessions required by both parties in order to create a safe haven with a functional power balance. (This process has been described to me by the leader of an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue group of bereaved families.)

      Doing dialogue in contexts of active conflict is a visionary leap of faith as it requires a non-linear immersion into an imaginary dynamic of equality that is not the social reality beyond the dialogue. This requires two phases: reconciliation then collaboration.

      Since the participants are from these societies the native power dynamic is deeply embedded in their relational habits. Thus, in the reconciliation phase, the group must allow for the power pendulum to swing the other way, in order to even the balance. The normally empowered party must listen more than they speak, and withstand the uncomfortable implications of their complicity in oppression. They must accept the historical mantle of their power and concede it. Then the normally disadvantaged party must air their grievances, and buy back the airtime that history has robbed.

      Eventually, once this “pendulum swing” has evened the balance and airtime has been more evenly distributed between the parties, then we enter the collaboration phase. In order for this to work, the normally disadvantaged party must strive to set aside self-righteous notions of victimhood. Both parties must accept concessions–one of complicity and one of abandoning the entitlement that victimhood carries and accepting that the performance of airing grievances has truly moved a pendulum and created a temporary power balance that all participants of a dialogue must imaginatively accept. The power balance achieved in this safe space is indeed not reflected in the larger systemic reality, and this is what makes it so potent, elusive, and a crucial seed for a radical change. Only after the imaginative engagement with the actualized possibility of this liminal power balance can the participants proceed in their engagement as equals.

      This is very very hard work, requiring leaders and individuals with strong vision, clear commitment, and secure attachment styles…which is why it must be repeated over time in order to take root on the muscular and cellular level and to teach participants through experience that a) they are not under existential threat, ie the dialogue crucible is safe, and b) that they are resilient and can survive and grow through the imaginative enterprise of disrupting and restoring a power dynamic long enough to collaborate as equals. For a long time this power balance may only be achieved in the crucible of dialogue. But it is a rip in the entrenched fabric of the status quo and so it is an effective seed of real transformation.

      I hope this reply speaks to your concerns. I am curious if this data from the specific Israel/Palestine context resonates with your experience in anti-racism dialogues! Dialogue is a very different process according to its context, with different obstacles and potentials in every power dynamic. But I would wager that these conditions of agency and concession, and the phases of reconciliation and collaboration, would be present across contexts.

      Thank you again for a hearty discussion!

    2. Hi Liz–You may also be interested in the article “Dialogue as a Tool for Racial Reconciliation: Examining Racialised Frameworks” by Elli Nagai-Rothe in The Journal for Dialogue Studies, Volume 3, Number 1. It seems to present a good hard look at your question. My response was in terms of an idealized description of a process but it is very very methodologically tricky to assess the outcome of such structures. Anyway, here is the abstract for that article: “In this paper, I draw on my experiences as facilitator of a seven-week intergroup dialogue on
      race to explore the role of dialogue as a tool for racial reconciliation, particularly in the context
      of domestic U.S. race relations. Additionally, I examine and raise questions about the cultural
      frameworks and assumptions that shape dialogue processes and methodologies: is the dialogue
      framework (as a conflict resolution tool) inherently racialised? How are power imbalances
      addressed in a dialogue setting, and how do these power imbalances influence opportunities
      for racial reconciliation? I posit that the dialogue framework has been constructed through a
      culturally/racially biased lens that privileges ‘White Talk’ characteristics, and does not adequately
      address power imbalances. As power imbalances are not effectively addressed in a dialogue
      setting, opportunities for genuine and comprehensive racial reconciliation (as defined by leading
      reconciliation scholars) are limited. Ultimately, I argue that dialogue alone is not enough to
      reach a genuine and sustainable process for racial reconciliation. Mechanisms to address
      structural inequality and power disparities at the societal level must be in place together with the
      interpersonal reconciliation that takes place within dialogue settings.”

  2. Thank you, Jenn, for that excellent article recommendation! Many of the examples in it resonate with my own experience. You mentioned that there are pressures against dialogue among Palestinians…I’m wondering if some of that resistance stems out of the experience of having to “make things comfortable” for Israelis….i.e. they have to self-censor in order not to lose their seat at the table, can’t go “too far” in confronting issues? I hear that a lot from people of color about racial dialogue. The article by Elli Nagai-Rothe mentions this also, the ways that racial dialogue is often beneficial for whites but oppressive for people of color, because of the way that whites dominate and frame the conversation. This has definitely been my experience…it is challenging to find a way to subvert existing power structures when entering the conversation, despite best intentions.

  3. I have also heard (and seen) the same about Jewish-Christian dialogue, wherein there is often a risk that the Christian community will reach out and then unreflexively impose their own norms, expectations, and guilt complex–and also provide the language for the encounter, thus perpetuating the problem. This is a strong (and I think legit) argument against the type of “spiritual dialogue” when groups collaborate on a religious service together. Often the particularities of each tradition are diluted into something that is called a common denominator but which actually just looks a lot like the dominant form.

    Once I asked someone directly about this and the reply was as follows: “I have my own personal hesitations about shared or mixed prayer services – mainly because I find them complex and difficult to figure out how to do well and to figure out what is going on theologically. In other words, ‘fusion’ works better for food than prayer, in my experience. I find it much easier to have a ‘Christian’ service with Jewish guests invited, or a ‘Jewish’ service with Christian guests invited – that way everyone knows what to expect.”

    This person recommended an article in Spring 1990’s Cross Currents on “worship in common” by Lawrence Hoffman: “Jewish-Christian Services–Babel or Mixed Multitude?” And in the classic article “Confrontation” Rabbi Soloveitchik argued that a community’s faith is an intimate, and often incommunicable affair. He writes, “The divine imperatives and commandments to which a faith community is unreservedly committed must not be equated with the ritual and ethos of another community. Each faith community is engaged in a singular normative gesture reflecting the numinous nature of the act of faith itself, and it is futile to try to find common denominators. Particularly when we speak of the Jewish faith community, whose very essence is expressed in the halakhic performance which is a most individuating factor, any attempt to equate our identity with another is sheer absurdity. … Standardization of practices, equalization of dogmatic certitudes, and the waiving of eschatological claims spell the end of the vibrant and great faith experience of any religious community.”

    So…I am totally on board with you about the elusive achievement of a real “power balance.” But I also think that interfaith engagement offers a liminal space, a subjunctive moment of play, of accompanying each other in an “as if” space, when participants with utmost self awareness and humility (as much as the strongest of us can really achieve) create an extra-ordinary moment of equality, overthrowing constructed social mores for a contained moment of time, practicing mutuality and actualizing the possibility of equality. And they keep coming back and flexing that muscle.

    I think some groups make it happen sometimes, and I think some people are better at it than others. I think being blind and in thrall to social constructions is also part of the human condition, so I’m not sure the general populace can do it. But in the years since Nostra Aetate / Vatican 2 (1965) and the American Civil Rights Movement, for example, there is a long slow arc of aggregating Catholic and white-ally participation in sensitive dialogues. I think there’s a lot of empirical evidence demonstrating the growth of pluralistic universalism, which can justify our patience and fend against cynicism (see Steven Pinker’s 2011 “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”). We shouldn’t and can’t stop trying and thinking about this stuff and having conversations like this……

    Thanks 🙂

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