In Defense of Interfaith Dialogue.

I recently found myself compelled to post the following reply to an online journal entry titled “Why I Quit the Interfaith Praise Band.”

Lately I am seeing a number of unfortunate misrepresentations of the work of interfaith dialogue and feel it is important to counter these.  Here is the content of my reply:

How unfortunate that interfaith work has come to mean in anyone’s mind “the cold grey pablum of ‘we’re all the same’ liberalism.”  I’ve been working in interfaith dialogue for 30 years now. Interfaith communication is hardly that. It is tough encounter if it is anything. Dr. Diana Eck at Harvard said 25 years ago at one of the North American Interfaith Network gatherings that the opposite face of intolerance is total unquestioning acceptance — both deny the reality of difference. I have never considered the “we are all one” stance as anything but the opposite of dialogue.

Your writing and experience is clearly exploring just that depth of difference. Perhaps trite but still quite true the motto is “Unity, not uniformity.” There is a place for unity as an agreement to civil discourse — to hold the boundaries of difference in enough of an embrace that we can safely disagree. That boundary is broken by war, hate speech, terrorism and all the evils of religiously based animosity.

I am deeply disturbed by the current all-or-nothing position taking (especially as we are seeing it in political ideologies lately). It denies the legitimate place of difference. It is totalitarian. We can not have a functional society without the unity of dialogue which acknowledges difference but does not fear it.

So I do have to protest the language I’ve seen creeping into the descriptions of interfaith dialogue lately — above in the comments and other places. It is neither “kum-ba-ya” nor “we are all one” liberalism. These “straw-man” descriptions are misleading representations of what so many have struggled for years to achieve. True interfaith dialogue is an action of conviction, community and civil discourse, in some arenas a very daring and sometimes even life-threatening action but given the past history of animosity and grief between the religions all the more necessary.

Chair,
North American Interfaith Network

3 Comments
  1. Of course the “we are all one” view has some deeper resonance of reality to it if it is not used to obliterate / ignore our real (and valuable) differences.

  2. For me the entire joy of interfaith dialogue is the discovery of some nuance of religion or spirituality that allows me to see my own religion from a new and different angle. “Wow! I never thought of asking that question of myself” or “Humm, how does one explain that to a person unfamiliar with my spiritual path?” Of course for me the trip is made more interesting by the fact that I am not among the Abrahamic faiths, and so everything looks different from here. What is most clear to me through these interfaith dialogues is that we are absolutely NOT all one.

    I can only hope that we have reached the point in our maturity that we can begin to unpack the topics of real difference and how we can support one another within those differences.
    R. Watcher

  3. “Interfaith dialogue is a must today, and the first step in establishing it is forgetting the past, ignoring polemical arguments, and giving precedence to common points, which far outnumber polemical ones.” (Fethullah Gulen)
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