When we first begin any interfaith exploration, it’s important to understand that the institution or individual(s) we interface with WILL NOT have the corner on the explanation of their particular faith. Every major religion has shades and textures that no one person or organization can express.
In other fields of study, we might call this their “bias”. Let’s look and see how this operates.
Stop and do this exercise right now! Consider this question—What is the core of your faith? Explain in as much detail as you can how you arrived at your answer.
In the book, Religion Gone Astray: What We Found at the Heart of Interfaith by Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon and Iman Jamal Rahman, the authors begin by sharing what they understand to be the “core” of their respective religions: oneness in Judaism, unconditional love in Christianity, and compassion in Islam. The entire book hangs on these core values, influencing the scriptures the authors choose, the topics they turn their attention to, etc. Did your answer match what they found? How does this make you feel? Are you more or less apt to read the entire book now?
For some Christians, the core may be the savior function of Jesus, the Ten Commandments, or even the linear nature of religious time (from Creation to Judgement Day). And this is the central hiccup with much of interfaith dialogue—we all most likely begin with different assumptions about what the core of our faith even is. Then we add to that yet another challenge—we bring to the table the assumptions we have about the core of faiths that are not our own!
What we are called to do in interfaith dialogue is tricky. We must first understand the particular way we view our own faith AND we must let the person or organization we engage convey their view without reacting in a judgmental or defensive manner. In other words, we listen with our whole mind and heart. Do you truly understand how difficult this is to do, even if you are Christian and the speaker is Christian, yet you don’t “recognize” his or her style of the faith? When we cannot listen in a non-judgmental way, we are illustrating that religion has become part of how we identify ourselves. Or, in psychological parlance, we are firmly situated in the ego, the “false self” Thomas Merton and others have identified.
Just what or who are we protecting when we cannot listen to the faith journey of another who is different from us? God? Does God really need protecting?
Demanding to have everyone on the same page in religious, political or social dialogues is one of THE most insidious and destructive forces in the world today. By learning to listen into the truth of another being’s faith, we in fact are practicing peace and compassion. This does not mean we have to adopt their view or belief, nor does it mean they have to adopt our view or belief. So much of what passes as dialogue often gets bogged down in salesmanship and conversion-minded wording. So how do we get to the place where we have “ears that can hear?”
Remove the label from the human being. When in any interfaith or interspiritual conversation, see the person to whom you are speaking. See THEM, not their faith, dogma or philosophy. Look in their eyes, pay attention to what they say about their families, their work, where they live, what they like to eat and how they like to play. In other words, listen into their basic humanity!
Come back to the present moment again and again and again. Often when we speak with another person, we tend to be mentally running our list of questions, judgments, comments and resources to add to the conversation. What happens when you simply stay present? You hear more than the words—you enter into the entire dance of communication which includes movement, inflection, tone, expressions in the face. We hear deeper! If you have ever been with anyone who knows how to just deeply listen like this, you know it feels like a blessing. It is a gift we can always give to the other.
Ask interested questions that do not lead or frame a reply we are fishing for. For instance, instead of saying, “Don’t you see Jesus as the savior, the one way to God?” ask “How do you understand Jesus?”
Understand your own biases and core beliefs. We all have specific ways we understand and function within our own faiths. If we are really quite honest, every person in every church has a very personal way of understanding and relating to the divine, no matter what their tradition. --That is the very thing that makes religious interaction so juicy—each person has their own “piece” of a massive stained glass window through which the Mystery streams. In interfaith dialogue, we don’t stop being ourselves-- we merely appreciate all the complexity of the Divine as expressed by literally billions of other “pieces” of reality. By being very clear with yourself about your own faith, you can appreciate and enjoy the “bit of color” you and another represent. Be clear with yourself: You aren’t shopping for new ways to be, you are simply one person of faith meeting another person of faith and gently discovering the Common Light between the two shades of your pieces of stained-glass understanding.
Be willing to not know. Whether playing with ideas from your own tradition or from someone else’s, be willing to not know the answer. Seriously. Thinking you know the complete and total answer to the questions of faith automatically limits your ability to listen into a larger universe. When sharp and clear “answers” pop into your head, it’s useful to question yourself—why do I believe this way? What experiences have I had in my life that support this answer? Is it always true, in every circumstance? When did I first form this answer? Did someone or some organization teach me this answer? For instance, if you are told all Muslims are violent because their holy book teaches them to be this way, first tell yourself “I don’t know. This may not be true.” Why do folks believe this way? “Well, for one thing, we are bombarded with partial information from the media that seems to show this to be true.” Do I have experiences that may cause me to either support or question this statement? “Well, yes—I went to school with a delightful young man from the Middle East who loved to laugh. I never found him to be violent.” And so on. In other words, you address the statement by analyzing your own experiences and actively questioning the sources that contributed to what you THINK you know. When you do this with both compassion and fearlessness, you often will find yourself in a place where you can “hear” into a different answer that transcends the simple assumptions you may unconsciously carry around with you.
These points are simply beginning places. But I pray they will help us all learn to enter into interfaith and interspiritual dialogue with tools that encourage us to make new friends and tread respectfully together within the Mystery.