A little over two months ago, I went on a trip to Turkey. One of the stops on our trip was Konya, a city which was once the Seljuk capital and cultural center of Anatolia, but is now best known as the town of Rumi, an extremely important figure in Sufis all over the world. Sufism is not a sect of Islam, but rather, a broad tradition that tends to be more esoteric and places love, peace, and tolerance at the center of the practice of Islam. Every year in December, thousands of people travel to Konya for a Rumi festival, the highlight of which, for many, are performances of the Whirling Dervishes. Now, I won’t even attempt to explain the spiritual and liturgical complexities of the Sema ritual, but basically it’s a series of prayers and a whirling dances to sacred music. Each of the dervishes sheds his black cloak to reveal white robes, and enters into a spinning dance, like that of a child spinning round and round in the middle of a field. As his fluid, smooth, graceful motion picks up speed, he raises his arms, pointing one hand to heaven and one to the earth, and spins in a deep, euphoric state of prayer. The goal of the dancer is to be lifted from this world into a state of union with the divine. All of the dancers are spinning, and at the same time rotating in patterns around the arena. From afar, it looks like a meticulously rehearsed and choreographed performance. In reality, however, the movement of the dervishes, individually and as a whole, happens naturally and organically. It was absolutely beautiful. The questioning Westerner that I am was a little perplexed by the mechanics of it, so I turned to one of our Muslim guides on the trip to ask more questions (which at this point on the trip, had to have begun trying his patience!). “How come they aren’t getting dizzy? How come they aren’t running into each other? How do they know where to go and when to start and stop? How does it work, Esad?” He patiently replied, “They just do, Ashley. They just do. They aren’t paying attention to anything around them. This is prayer for them, and all they’re focusing on is God.” It seemed so complex to me, but so beautifully simple at the same time. Since the beginning of our trip, I was excited about seeing the Whirling Dervishes Honestly, though, I thought it would be more of a fun, touristy thing to see. It turned out to be a much more poignant experience than I bargained for.
Like much of what I saw in Turkey, I spent a great deal of time processing the experience, letting it really sink in, and figuring out what it meant for me. I saw this experience as a powerful metaphor for the wider communion of God-seekers, attempting to live together on a world stage. Each of us as individuals and as units−places of worship, denominations, religions−each is spinning in a hungry drive to experience the divine, to understand and be a part of the mystery and magnitude of God. We are too often, however, distracted by the waxing and waning distances between the dancers, the different ways of spinning, insecurities in our own movement. We are colliding with one another in a clumsy, chaotic mess. If we could lift our eyes and our arms to God and just spin, moving in the ecstatic reality of God’s love, not only would our personal spiritual experience be enriched, but we would begin to spin together, to fall into a beautiful, cosmic dance, one of peace and harmony.
The question then comes: how do we do that? This place of harmony and peace, quite frankly, seems distant and illusory. Humanity is a diverse assortment of peoples, trying to live together in an increasingly small world. And, it’s not looking good.
There is a startlingly prevalent tone in the world arena of intolerance, judgment, and hatred. Mankind is tragically plagued with violence, hurt, oppression, and war, and too much of this takes place in the context of religious differences. Our differences aren’t going to dissipate any time soon, nor should they. What has to happen is dialogue. We have got to learn to love one another, to respect one another, and to communicate with one another. As people of God, we can do one of two things. We can couple our religious identity with that of a soldier, armed and ready for the clash of religious empires, or we can take our seat at the table of humanity with a voice of love, humility, and faith.
Religious tolerance is a huge first step that we must take, first in our personal lives, then toward a peaceful world communion. Religion is one of the most deep and penetrating faces of the human condition. It bears in it an energy of passion and intensity, a power that little else in the sphere of human existence does. We are inherently driven to seek a union with our creator, with the divine, with something that is greater than ourselves. While I personally believe that this hunger is a universal, natural core of our being, it undoubtedly manifests itself in infinitely varying ways. There is no ignoring the fact that there are huge differences and points of separation between the world’s religious nomenclature. There are points of convergence and divergence on every level, from East to West, Jew to Buddhist, Episcopalian to Baptist, and from me to you. The only way to love all in the context of this diversity is to acknowledge and respect those differences.
Now, it is important to note that religious tolerance is not merely a failure to stand up for what one believes. It isn’t a weak cop-out. It begins with a security and understanding of one’s own identity, one’s spiritual core. An awareness of and conviction to one’s own beliefs allows for calmly, strongly held, but permeable boundaries. Tolerance does not require an abdication of those boundaries, but neither does it call for a relentless defense of those boundaries.
Stopping at tolerance is not enough, though. There is no room for growth in merely recognizing differences and agreeing to respect one another from a distance. If we, as individuals, seek growth, and if we as a global religious community seek movement toward a peaceful existence together, have to take it further. We have to dialogue, to engage in a meaningful conversation with one another. Dialogue is a two way sharing between different sides. This means that through love, you share your faith with others. But, it also means that through love you seek a better understanding of those whose faith is different from your own.
Interfaith dialogue is an extremely powerful, highly underestimated tool for achieving peace in such a deeply divided world. Globalization is rapidly and forcefully changing the way we live our lives, whether we realize it or not. Every day, technology transportation, and communication are getting better, placing the entire world in our reach. Geographical separation is becoming much less significant and real. The cultural and religious separations, however, are not narrowing. I live in a tiny global neighborhood with Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Methodists and the like. We are neighbors who don’t understand one another, don’t talk to one another….we just stay at home, separated by high fences. The fences are there for a reason, we tell ourselves. Better yet, let’s build them higher, and let’s build some more. How much energy have we spent on building these barriers? We have to be intentional about breaking down those fences and living out the inclusiveness and universality of God’s immeasurable and unconditional love. This doesn’t mean losing our identity or abdicating our beliefs. It means making love, compassion, and understanding a priority.
One of Christ’s major endeavors as a social activist was to tear down the walls that separate humanity and to unite all of mankind under the banner of divine love. The Jewish community during his time was in a tumultuous state of tension between its religious identity and a growing Roman presence. Among the varying responses from the Jewish community, one of the most prevalent was that of the Pharisees. They believed that the redemption of Israel would come from a strict adherence to the complex codes of holiness and purity. Christ made clear, though, that it is Yahweh’s love, compassion, and mercy that supercede the walls that we build to separate and compartmentalize ourselves. He wanted to override the barriers that separate Jews and Greeks, Slaves and Free, prostitutes and tax-collectors, Pharisees and Saducees, rich and poor with divine love. We are called to do the same.
While there are very real issues that separate the religions of the world, our points of commonality are far greater. In loving one another we must understand, dig deeper into our differences. We must move away from a polemic approach to one another and toward a respectful appreciation for religious diversity. We must come to the table with humility and a sincere desire to grow.
In “The Dialogue Decalogue,” Leonard Swidler lists some commandments for effective inter-religious dialogue.
1. The purpose of dialogue is to increase understanding.
2. Participants should engage in both interfaith and inter-religious dialogue.
3. Participants should be honest and sincere.
4. Participants should assume that other participants are equally honest and sincere.
5. Each participant should be allowed self-definition.
6. There should be no preconceptions as to areas of disagreement.
7. Dialogue can only occur between equals.
8. Dialogue can only occur where there is mutual trust.
9. Participants must be self-critical of their religious traditions.
10. Participants must attempt to experience how the traditions of others affect them holistically.
Basically, interfaith dialogue brings people of faith together, creates a loving, respectful relationship between them, and offers immeasurable growth to every party.
I know I’m running on some really broad, abstract ideas, so I want to offer my real, personal experience with interfaith dialogue. My interest in dialogue between religions and within my own faith goes far back, but my recent trip to Turkey transformed that interest into something much deeper and more passionate.
We traveled all over the country, visiting important cultural and religious sites and spending time with people who were a part of this huge movement in Turkey and within Islam. The movement stems from the teachings of Fethullah Gulen, a religious leader and social activist.
I also left with a massive charge on my heart to bring Christianity to the table with equal fervor and conviction. We need to step it up, join our voices in this exciting and hopeful journey toward peace through understanding and education. We have so much to gain, and so much to offer.
I want to leave you with a quote by Huston Smith. “What a strange fellowship this is, the God-seekers in every land lifting their voices in the most disparate way imaginable to the God of all life. How does it sound from above? Like bedlam, or do the strains blend in strange, ethereal harmony? Does one faith carry the lead, or do the parts share in counterpoint and antiphony where not in full-throated chorus? We cannot know. All we can do is try to listen carefully and with full attention to each voice in turn as it addresses the divine.”