If you’re from the West, you’ve likely seen this word everywhere from bumper stickers to caps and from t-shirts to key-chains. But what exactly does it mean? How can a devout member of one religion really have peaceful relations with someone from another?
I recently completed an online 6 month certificate course through Harvard University Online (HarvardX) called “World Religions Through Their Scriptures.” (You can find out more about this course here) . This course examined Religious Literacy as a general concept and then went on to discuss Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism. Of course, all of the intricacies of each religion could not be covered in such a short amount of time and there are hundreds and thousands of other religious traditions that were not covered, however this course still gave me some important background knowledge for sharing in religious dialogues with others.
The key to a healthy inter-faith dialogue really begins with us understanding our own prejudices, motivations, and hopes for partaking in such a discourse. Sometimes people may go into a discussion in hopes that they will “convert” or “win” the other person over. However, this is not in the true spirit of inter-religious dialogue. It is fine to state one’s own opinions as long as it is done in a respectful way, but ultimately, such experiences should be a forum for mutual sharing and growth together. We should be motivated by a desire to break down barriers and end religious and cultural stereotyping, rather than further exasperating it.
Here are a few short tips I hope will be helpful when you begin talking to someone of a different religious practice:
- Understand where your own views come from. Our family upbringing, cultural heritage, geographical position, and education all are major factors in determining how we think and feel about religion. If we grew up practicing a specific religion, we can also think about how our church or other body of worship dealt with inter-faith matters. Some organizations and churches may be quite open-minded and even encourage differences in viewpoints, whereas others might have strictly held that there is only one correct way to go about our life. Becoming aware of these factors helps us begin to process where our opinions and worldviews stem from and also shows us some of the blind spots we may encounter when forging friendships and building bridges across religious divides.
- Be aware of internal diversity. There are a myriad of different opinions within each major world denomination. Using Christianity as just one religion among many, there are Christians who believe in male domination and also Christian feminists. There are Christians who believe in traditional marriage and also those who are great proponents of the LGBTQ+ movement. In either case, the person is still following the same religion and may even be doing so very sincerely and devoutly – however, there is just so much room to debate finer points within the tradition itself. Thus we need to be careful not to making any sweeping generalization when meeting someone of a different faith and we should also be careful to avoid sweeping generalization when speaking to someone about our own faith. For example, “Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” is a fairly safe statement, something like “All Christians are against the death penalty and abortion” is not. It is not only inaccurate and misrepresentative, but it is also a loaded statement which can create conflict and discord. Likewise a statement such as “Christians always seek to do good and live peacefully” is also unwise because it is too ambiguous and the meaning is entirely unclear. In inter-faith dialogues we need to keep the facts in view, ask questions for clarification, and be willing to listen without inserting our own opinions on the matter. Even if we studied religions intensely and feel like we know a particular one very well, we still need to step back and be humble recognizing that everyone follows their tradition in a slightly different way.
- Be aware of your own religion’s short-comings. It is often easy to represent our religion as superior or the right way over another religion, but this is neither fair nor wise. We cannot use the best of our religion and compare it to the worst in another person’s. We must realize that nearly all major world religions have created and fostered peace and harmony, engaged in wonderful social justice projects, and promoted human rights. Yet, each religion has also been responsible for cultural wars, violence, and oppression. Instead of using the shortcomings of another religion to fuel our passion for our own, we need to approach the dialogue in a balanced, respectful way seeing religion as a neutral force (neither inherently good nor inherently evil), but rather as a deep expression of one’s inner self.
- Lastly, we must engage in life-long learning. We need to take every available opportunity to learn more about religious expressions other than our own. We need to become well-read and well-researched. Enjoying the process for what it is rather than simply trying to prove a point.
So…what’s a Christian to do with Interfaith? It turns out a whole lot. Our responsibility as believers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not to flee from challenge or to deny our rapidly changing and expanding world, but rather it is to engage and engage in love. In our quest to do Kingdom work, we are to find ways to share our faith with others, but also let them share their faith with us. We are to dialogue rather than debate, to actively seek peace rather than to create hostility. We are to promote unity within diversity rather than ignore the wars and strife that religions can sometimes create. When we put forth this effort, when we share in a cross-cultural meal joining hearts and hands with those much different than ourselves, and when we truly believe that global harmony is possible – we are bringing about God’s Kingdom. I’m not saying to lay aside evangelism completely, not at all. I’m not saying to hide your faith, but I’m actually saying the opposite. I’m saying: be bold in your declaration of the Gospel of Christ, share it freely, but do it in love. Do it in service. Do it with sensitivity and compassion. Do it in the spirit of inter-faith.