More than two decades ago, as a new professor at a small college, I was assigned a course that included a unit on non-Christian religious traditions. Since I had little background myself in this area, my students and I learned together through our own research and field visits.
We encountered Judaism at the local synagogue, Hinduism at a Vishnu temple in a nearby city, and Islam at a mosque in the suburbs. We could also have studied Buddhism, Sikhism, and two other branches of Hinduism since there was a meditation society, a Gurdwara, and Shirdi and Jain temples in the city, as well as five additional mosques. Religious pluralism surrounded us, but we knew nothing about it because religious dialogue was not an ordinary activity.
Since taking students on such interfaith field visits was not common practice at the time, it stirred a mix of reactions. Many students approached the project with eager curiosity; they were rainbow optimists, following an arc of hope and expecting good at its end. Other students were reluctant, apprehensive, and afraid of the unknown; they armed themselves with intellectual rocks of protection for their worldview. Some parents even called my office to express their concern about the nature and purpose of such study for their children. Could curiosity weaken their child's faith, the parents wondered. Even though religious pluralism has been a reality throughout human history, and is certainly an element of our societies today, for many people, then as now, it has remained a distant reality, remote from the routines of daily life. When the opportunity for an interreligious encounter is offered, it can evoke both curiosity and fear. As human beings we are equipped to wonder about and seek the new or unknown, but we are also endowed with a certain caution about, even fear, of what is different. Both of these reactions have characterized the debate about religious dialogue today, often to the irritation of one another, as students have encountered in classes. But both of these approaches have something important to share and should be heard.
Enthusiasts for religious dialogue bring a desire for mutual enrichment and learning, and a confidence that coming to know one another better will bring benefits for all. The rock-wielding cautious fear that interreligious dialogue is a dangerous and misguided endeavor brings a deep sense of what is treasured and unique in our own traditions that must not be lost or sacrificed to the inevitable encounter. In listening to the concerns and hopes raised by both voices, it can become clearer what interreligious dialogue is not and also what it is intended to be; caution and enthusiasm together can shape encounters among various believers that are fruitful and inspirational.
The mirror of dialogue A frequent concern raised about dialogue is that it will be a disguised effort at proselytizing for conversions to one faith or another. This is certainly not the intention of genuine interreligious dialogue, and this approach should not be brought to the table of dialogue. Faithful and committed believers of a religious tradition are asked to respect the faithful believers of other religious traditions who share a similar devotion and joy in their commitments.
The holy Qur'an states, 'O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.' (49:13) The Roman Catholic Church also exhorts her members that 'through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions…they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among them.' (Nostra Aetate, 2)
Of course, believers engaged in dialogue will explain with great enthusiasm the faith that they hold dear, but the primary goal of interreligious dialogue is simply to listen to and come to know others. Far from converting believers away from their faith, interreligious experiences usually deepen original commitments. It has been suggested that 'those who know only one, know none.' In comprehending another faith, we come to a far deeper understanding and appreciation of our own belief. In our reflection in the Other, we come to see ourselves anew.
In my own experience over the years, leading dozens of classes on field visits to various houses of worship, I observe similar outcomes each time. Though the fear of parents that their children might be lured into a conversion by a persuasive speaker would seem to have even more ground today, since students often have very little religious knowledge when entering the classroom, the common response of students is not conversion to a new tradition but rather a renewed interest in the faith traditions of their own families. Even when students have been raised by their parents to make their own choice, as if a faith tradition were simply a matter of consumer preference in the marketplace, I have found that they want to 'come home.' If home does not provide much religious substance, to find spiritual roots students are more likely to turn to their grandparents than to convert simply because of exposure to a new tradition.
Not the baking method Sometimes the cautious question if interreligious dialogue is aiming to bring religions together in a way that creates a new and improved religion, a combination of the 'best of all,' so to speak. The technical term for this is syncretism, but it is also (derisively) known as the 'baking method'—take a little of this and a little of that and a little more of something else and bake it into a new tasty religion for all to follow. This approach, too, is certainly not an element of genuine interreligious dialogue but rather is an attitude born in the individualism of consumer culture—finding something that suits my taste. True interreligious dialogue takes places among faithful and committed believers of established religious traditions who intend to remain that way. It is not a casual comparison of recipes, but a sincere effort to know one another as we are.
Again, in my own field visit experience with classes, it is precisely when faced with the devotion of a believing community at worship that students are inspired to look at their own tradition to see what they have missed. The prayer practice of Islam has led students to discover the Angelus and the Liturgy of the Hours in the Catholic tradition, or the practice of daily scripture devotion in other Christian traditions. This is not syncretism, but rather interfaith inspiration that strengthens.
But can we disagree? Two other objections I have heard raised about dialogue seem to be from opposite sides of the same coin. First, some fear that participants from other traditions will judge our beliefs or practices and condemn them unfairly because they are based in a different set of values or cultural apprehension. The second worry is that as we listen to others we may hear some things with which we profoundly disagree but, prevented from expressing this by the 'etiquette' of dialogue, be reduced to tacitly supporting relativism. I believe the question raised by both objections is essentially the same—where is Truth to be found and how do we act upon it? Can we truly listen to one another without discovering all the places we disagree? And what then do we do with that disagreement?
In response to these foundational questions, two points must be kept in mind. One is that each of us has the human obligation to sincerely seek for Truth, for the objective reality at the heart of the universe. This will necessarily entail that we must make judgments for ourselves in regard to various Truth claims. However, it is important to be clear that the basic purpose of interreligious dialogue is simply coming to know and understand those varied claims made by religious traditions; we are not expecting to reach agreement on them in regard to religious doctrine or practice.
The second point clarifies this further. In coming to know one another we may find real and significant differences in the lived moral consequences of our beliefs and practices. It is very important to remember that we do not grapple with these differences in interreligious dialogue. Rather, the proper sphere for that work is in political debate. In a multicultural democracy we engage one another in political discussion, convincing one another of the value and efficacy of our moral vision and why it should prevail in law. It is at the table of interreligious dialogue that we come to understand one another, but it is at the table of political discourse that we try to persuade one another, not for a religious conversion to our Truth claims, but for a moral consensus regarding lived values. The conversation at each table is better because of the work of the other.
Wisdom of the heart With these cautions and clarifications in mind, we are better able to hear the enthusiasts in explaining the benefits of dialogue. At center is the inspiration that dialogue can renew our own spirituality. I certainly see this result in the classroom. Most parents have encountered a stage in their adolescent children's development when they listen to advice with greater openness if it comes from someone other than their parents. Interreligious experience is a similar inspiration, and not just to questioning teens, but to developed believers as well. Hearing others share their deepest convictions about the Divine can renew the vigor of our own quest for holiness. Often in dialogue our hearts meet before our heads agree and we find that it is in the wisdom of the heart that God's presence is made known. Understanding one another and how very much our traditions hold in common can bring mutual enrichment on local and global levels as well. Citizens in society are better equipped to live in peace and work for justice when they have had interreligious encounters to share and learn about one another. Prejudice is exposed and broken. In the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, I received several email messages from former students who expressed their gratitude for the field visits they had made to mosques in earlier years. Having met Muslims as prayerful, welcoming human beings was helping them, at that difficult national moment, to share with others that Islam is not a religion of terrorism and all Muslims were not responsible for, nor rejoiced in, the events of that tragedy. They were able to be voices of peace in the midst of great national confusion.
Sustained encounters When it is possible for interreligious dialogue to become a sustained encounter among individuals or groups, over time it can begin to reshape those who participate in profound and beautiful ways. Though most of my students are only able to have one or two field experiences during their study, I am privileged to be on every trip, returning year after year and building friendships with the generous believers who host our visits. The encounters have gradually ceased to be between 'us' and 'them,' learning about their ways and teaching them our ways. Instead, as we have continued to listen and share, we find ourselves becoming a 'we' in our common humanity, a commonality that honors, and yet also transcends the differences of culture and faith, of geography and economics. I am deeply grateful to my dialogue partners for the depth and strength they have added to my own faith journey.
Religious pluralism is a reality; it surrounds us and permeates the culture. But interreligious dialogue is a choice. Burying our heads in the sand and throwing rocks when we come up for air will not change anyone's heart, including our own. Instead we can choose to move toward a mind of greater perception, a heart of greater love, a world of greater peace, by accepting the invitation to know one another, carefully and respectfully crossing the arc of dialogue into mutual understanding.
Frances M. Leap is associate professor of religious studies at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.