Rabbi’s Essays

A Parliament of Voices
The State of Interfaith Dialogue

This paper was written as a report on behalf of the Dialogue Committee for the Parliament on World Religions. The Parliament was held in 1993 as a centenary celebration of the first World Parliament of Religions which was part of the Chicago Columbia Exposition. The Dialogue Committee, which I chaired from 1989-91, brought together Jews, Christians (Catholic and Protestant), Unitarians, Buddhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Bahai, Native Americans and Theosophists, who discussed and implemented interfaith dialogues in preparation and promotion of the Parliament itself.

Given the increased interest in reaching out over religious and denominational lines engendered by the terror attack of September 11 and its aftermath, I have edited the original report and offer it as a call for renewed and effective dialogues among faith communities today.

A very early “Peanuts” comic depicted two girls conversing about the latest exploits of Charlie Brown. One told the other how she had watched Charlie being chased by older kids across the schoolyard when, all of a sudden, he turned around and organized them into a discussion group! For a long time, I have sensed that those who have engaged in interfaith dialogue are following the path of Charlie Brown: attempting to turn historic and often natural hostilities into opportunities for interchange and growth.

Dialogue between members of different faith communities, in the fashion to which I am referring, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Opposing religions, on the other hand, have been in direct contact with each other for millennia. These encounters can be categorized as mostly competitive. There were disputations, in which one faith would attempt to argue its superiority of philosophy and practice over that of another. There were ritualized contacts, principally established by a dominant religious authority, that would define or delimit the rights and prerogatives of other faith communities within its domain. And there were religious wars. None of these of encounters could be typified as mutual. Even when the purpose of meeting was not overtly hostile, the agenda of the two (or more) communities were rarely the same.

A significant example of such multiple purposes in interreligious encounter is the World’s Parliament of Religions, convened as part of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. The World Parliament was a unique and watershed event It typified, on the one hand, the classic mode of interfaith assembly, and yet portended, on the other, new models for contact among religions.

The World’s Parliament of Religions was one of a series of World Congresses that were planned for the World’s Fair that would mark the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World. Its organizers, led by the Rev. John Henry Barrows of Chicago’s First Presbyterian Church, saw the Parliament as an opportunity to showcase the moral and technological superiority of the West, highlighted by liberal Protestantism, to the benighted adherents of more conservative forms of Christianity and to the Eastern faiths. Representatives of non-Western religions—particularly Vedantist Hinduism and Sinhalese Buddhism—seized the opportunity afforded by the Parliament in a very different way. For them, it was a chance to engage in an internal dialogue between the tenets of their ancient faiths and the demands of modernity.

The Parliament was an enormous success. The eight days of speeches and presentations proceeded with very little tension and discord. About 4,000 people, mostly Midwesterners of course, attended the various meetings. For virtually all of them, it was their first contact with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Bahai (which had only recently been organized) and even Jews. Given the cross-purposes that representatives gave to their participation, the World’s Parliament of Religions could hardly be called an exercise in interfaith dialogue. It undoubtedly laid the groundwork for such efforts to take place in the Twentieth Century.

There have been sincere and sophisticated projects in interreligious dialogue for the past few decades. In the United States and Western Europe, in particular, advanced work has been done in Christian/Jewish encounter. A library can be filled with books detailing dialogue among Jews, Catholics, mainstream Protestant and evangelical Churches. At the same time, conferences and colloquia of delegates from religious judicatories representing many of the world’s religions have met with increasing frequency, in order to discuss common concerns of faith, reconciliation and peace.

Far more rare are dialogues that reach out, both beyond the familiar confines of Christians and Jews—to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahai and Native Americans, for instance—and also go beyond religious leaders and scholars, in order to bring in the interests and spiritual sensibilities of the layperson. While a large body of literature exists that both enumerates the principles of dialogue and discusses the scholarly underpinnings (theology/philosophy, sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc.) of comparative religion, it has rarely been brought to bear when ‘normal’ (non-scholar and non-professional) adherents of religions outside of Judaism and Christianity are brought into the encounter. Here are some of the fundamental issues that true interfaith dialogue must confront.

Secular vs. Religious

Among the most significant literature pertaining to interfaith dialogue is the correspondence between Franz Rosenzweig and his cousin and teacher, Eugen Rosenstock. Writing to each other during the early years of World War I, Rosenzweig would become one of the seminal modern Jewish philosophers, and Rosenstock would make an impact as a liberal Christian thinker and religious novelist. While they sought to defend and explain their own religious positions, they also implicitly recognized that the real issue was not one of Judaism versus Christianity, but rather that of Religion versus Paganism.

All individuals who engage in interfaith dialogue—particularly non-professionals—must recognize that their encounter takes place in the context of a secularized world; a world which suffuses and informs most of their own lives. The benefits of secularization are undeniable. They include the encouragement of pluralistic democracy, economic expansion and technological innovation. Secularization, on the other hand, has led to almost unbearable contradictions in terms of values and purposes; the results of which have been an explosion of violence that have made the twentieth century the bloodiest in history.

And what about Religion? Religious identity and expression has been placed in a most uncomfortable and paradoxical position. In Western style culture (which has for the most part been successfully promulgated throughout the world), religion has been privatized and isolated. Religious practice and thought is separated out of other spheres of everyday existence: political, economic, educational and even social. The spiritual life is set in opposition to the practical life. Those who wish to resist the advances of Western secularized culture tend to follow one of two courses. They either isolate themselves from society, or they turn to a conservative and militant religious structure that gives them both a value system and the organizing forces needed in order to combat the enticements of Modernity. The result of these twin poles of fragmentation and reaction is that Religion, as a political or intellectual force, acts as either the foundation for destructive, violent or hate-filled chauvinism, or as a polite irrelevance. Both roles can be understood as the result of the triumphs of modern paganism.

The contemporary interfaith dialogue must therefore seek to help participants see themselves as not just adherents of a particular faith community, but rather as religious beings in a world that tends to demean or demonize religiosity. All modern religions consider Peace, Justice and Reconciliation to be of the highest value, and yet religion is so often identified as the impetus for conflict. I believe that this sad state of affairs might be overcome, at least in part, through the sort of religious/secular integration that takes place in dialogue.

Comparisons and Contrasts

What is the purpose of interfaith dialogue? A better question is: What should the purposes of interfaith dialogue be? Undoubtedly, a common goal is found in learning something about another’s religion. This practice of information sharing is necessary and valuable, but it is only the most preliminary element of any truly useful dialogic engagement. Much of the data regarding a religion—its basic beliefs, sacred calendar, method of worship, rites and rituals—can be obtained from a book.

More significant, however, discussion about the religion is impersonal; an obstacle to dialogue. When questions of the form: “What does your religion say about…?” or “How does your religion deal with…?” are posed, they are inevitably answered by participating clergy. After all, who knows more about the history, thought and practice of the denomination in question? The religious leader (minister, rabbi, imam, monk, priest, etc.) moreover, is not so much answering as a professing member of the faith, but rather as an official spokesperson. He or she has simply taken the role of a talking book.

Dialogue is not between religions. It is among people who identify as and adhere to the tenets of particular religions. When the dialogue program recognizes this obvious but often overlooked feature, then the encounter may begin to find its central purposes. Each interfaith encounter has to create its own purpose for being, but the objectives can nonetheless be generalized into a few key concepts.

First, the dialogue is built on the awareness of commonalities. It may seem a banal observation to note that all participants in the dialogue share in humanity. Yet it is through one’s humanness that one feels the fundamental need for rootedness, a context for existence, ways of articulating answers to the near-inarticulate question of “Why . . . anything?”

It is here that dialogue begins. At first glance, what could be so radically different as—say—Christianity and Hinduism? Yet, the similarities become apparent when a Christian and a Hindu, each responding through their faith to the most basic issues of humanity, come in contact. Precisely when we find the common questions—for instance: How do I deal with my mortality? What do I do to impart faithfulness to my children? What am I attempting to do when I engage in meditation or prayer?—then the encounter moves from teaching and learning, and it becomes dialogue.

Comparisons of religious tenets and practices, however, are only a beginning. However much the participants might be fundamentally alike, the striking feature of dialogue is the differences, and it is in the differences that the purpose of dialogue is manifested.

Difference is the great paradox and challenge for dialogue. In the final analysis, the distinctions among adherents of various faith systems are quite arbitrary. They do not represent biological characteristics such as the color of one’s hair or skin. For the most part, they are the result of accidents of birth into a certain culture, family or society. Or, particularly in the case of converts, an ineluctable spiritual disposition toward a certain tradition and practice. One cannot make a sound argument for exactly why, in a democratic, non-coercive society, I am a Jew, and you—for example—are Buddhist. This is simply the case.

The challenge for dialogue is therefore to avoid the liberal and natural effort of attempting to bend the two faith systems toward some admixture that would represent “the best qualities of both.” It is a fruitless, misleading and potentially divisive task. Dialogue must rather be an act of reconciliation; a coming to grips with the very reality of the different way of thinking and being human that is represented by the dialogue partner.

Dealing with differences is the most difficult element of the interfaith dialogue process. Virtually every theological structure is predicated on the notion that it contains a pathway to fundamental Truth. How can my faith system permit yours to be anything but, at very best, an approximation of the way to Truth, and—more likely—a misleading deviation from godliness?

Participating in a dialogue therefore requires a critical frame of reference. The participant must be prepared to uphold commonality, but reject universality. Commonality, as noted above, is the acceptance of the common humanity of the dialogue partners, and thus the ability to engage in a mutually understandable conversation. Universality—the promotion of certain ideas, concepts and perhaps even practices as binding on all people—on the other hand, serves to change dialogue into negotiation or confrontation.

The key to successful interfaith dialogue, then, is found in an acceptance of particularism. And a sure purpose of the experience becomes finding a way to be at peace with one’s own articulation of faith in a world where the majority of humankind believes otherwise.

A Call to Dialogue

This is the everyday condition of virtually every American and an increasing number in the world: one’s normal contacts and interactions brings one constantly before someone of another faith community. Are each of these encounters occasions for interfaith dialogue? Hardly, but it does give one pause.

So much is lost in the inability to dialogue. We tend hear another’s expression of religious concern as a challenge or threat, and therefore learn to repress our own spiritual needs and quests. Public discourse remains adamantly secular, and religious speech is either private or reviled. The circumstance is not only sad—that opportunities for interpersonal contact is lost—but it can also be lethal. Even before the events of September 11, we witnessed interfaith violence (Kashmir, Nigeria, Indonesia, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and even scattered incidents throughout North America) betraying an unwillingness and inability simply to talk.

Real dialogue is not easy. In over twenty-five years of involvement in interfaith encounter, only a few dialogues that I have either formed or participated in could be evaluated as truly successful. Both sides must be willing to open themselves up; to hear the sincerity of expression in the other, and to respond with sincerity—that is, with self-honesty—themselves. Those that worked, however, made all the efforts worthwhile. While dialogue is demanding, starting one is not. All it takes is making the private—our interior religious needs and interests—public.

And all it takes is willingness to begin.