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Guidelines for Engaging in Productive Interfaith Dialogue

By Don Frew

First, why are you involved with interfaith dialogue? Are you promoting an understanding of your own faith in an interfaith venue or promoting interfaith itself?

These are two different levels of involvement. In the former, you are acting primarily as a public relations or public outreach person. You attend meetings and events that involve your own group or faith, and make yourself available to answer questions and provide information. This is the goal of many participants in interfaith activities.

In the latter, you find great value in promoting interfaith dialogue on its own merits. This is the level you find in interfaith executive committees and boards of directors. We work to promote events and projects that do not necessarily involve our own particular group or faith, knowing that what increases understanding and co-operation between faiths cannot help but benefit your own, as well as the world at large. It involves a much larger commitment of time and usually of resources as well.

Both levels of involvement are good, and the former can easily grow into the latter.

Act and dress normally.

This advice is about personal public relations. What is ‘normal’? A good general rule –  people should not be paying more attention to how you look than to what you are saying. Remember, though, in an interfaith gathering ‘normal’ can include ceremonial garb and regalia, when appropriate.

Do not proselytize.

This may seem obvious but is one of the most important issues in interfaith activities. Accept that others whom you meet in an interfaith context are as committed to their own faith as you are to yours. People are free to proselytize as they wish, but not in an interfaith context. It is not the place to win converts, nor should you worry about losing followers. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Let no one even for a moment entertain the fear that a reverent study of other religions is likely to weaken or shake one’s faith in one’s own.”

Be patient.

It’s as easy to wax enthusiastic about your religious experiences as it is for representatives from other groups. So if you want them to listen to you, listen to them.

Avoid negative comparisons.

You can and should promote an understanding of your own faith without attacking anyone else’s. Avoid the cheap shot. A favorite among Wiccans is to respond to the charge or issue of Satanism by pointing out that it is a “Christian heresy,” and so has nothing to do with a pre-Christian spirituality. This may or may not be true, but it comes off as criticizing Christianity and may well alienate a Christian listener unnecessarily.

Avoid “best” language.

On a related note, avoid using “best” words, like “oldest,” “largest,” “most educated,” “fastest growing,” and so on. Such language can sound competitive and condescending. By contrast, “one of the largest” is just as true and less confrontational.

Listen to your own words with the ears of others.

As members of religious groups, we talk among ourselves with in-house language and shared jargon. When talking with those of other faiths, our everyday words may be incomprehensible or, worse, have completely different meanings. Try to engage a sensitivity filter between your intended meaning and your words; try to hear your words from the point of view of a Baptist minister or a Buddhist monk or whomever. Choose your words appropriately to convey the intended meaning.

Never attribute to malice what a lack of knowledge is sufficient to explain.

Always assume that others are well-meaning in interfaith dialogue. Questions and statements that are offensive or contain offensive assumptions are almost always the result of ignorance. There is rarely any intent to hurt. Try to see such statements as opportunities for gentle education.

Be honest about your faith and practice.

Sometimes we tend to hide what we are afraid others won’t understand. This is OK. There is always a bit of initial wariness in interfaith dialogue. You can get through this wariness fairly quickly. Remember the recommendations above and engage your sensitivity filter; the goal is for your listener to come away with a true and accurate understanding of your faith and practice. Paradoxically, this might involve a bit of well-intentioned ‘spin control.’ Commonly used words and phrases can imply vastly different things in different faith contexts. For instance, a conversation about concepts of the sacramental nature of sacred sexuality in some indigenous traditions may sound like wild orgies to someone with different preconceptions and beliefs. Choose your words with care to create understanding in the listener, not shock or dismay.

Avoid discussing previous religious affiliation.

I recommend openness in interfaith dialogue, with a caveat for those who have chosen a faith different from their childhood tradition. It’s a good idea to avoid discussing previous religious involvement in an interfaith conversation until you are already fairly well acquainted with your listener. This is especially true if your listener’s faith community is the one you left behind. Despite all good intentions, such a revelation can shift you from being a representative of another faith tradition to being a ‘lost sheep,’ and your decision to abandon a faith held very deeply by another can divert a conversation towards conflict. Use your judgment.

Interact personally, as well as being a “representative.”

Spirituality is personal; avoid making it sound sterile or packaged. Everyone you meet in an interfaith context is personally involved in their own journey, however defined. One of the goals and joys comes in sharing one another’s story. Try to be open and share your personal experience of your faith tradition.

One powerful approach to interfaith dialogue comes from the organizational development movement called Appreciative Inquiry. This approach usually starts with an “appreciative interview,” where you are paired with someone you don’t know. You each answer a question like “What in your religious tradition is most valuable to you, most sustaining through thick and thin?” or “Would you share a story of when you felt particularly close to God, or to the name you use for ultimate reality?” Appreciative questions are carefully designed to elicit and share what we most value about the subject at hand. Subsequently you introduce your partner to a larger group. These interviews can be powerful and moving. Every person with whom I have shared an appreciative interview is now a friend of mine. Be as open as you can and enjoy the experience.

If you are promoting interfaith, be willing to put your own concerns on the back-burner at times.

Living among so many religions today means your tradition may not be represented in every workshop list or panel presentation. Do not seek to have representatives of your faith tradition featured in every program, but do speak up when your faith tradition’s unique perspective is germane to the subject at hand or if you are consistently left out.

Be present and helpful.

Once others are used to having you around and engaged, they won’t think of planning something without you. Volunteer for the day-to-day work of interfaith activities – helping with hospitality, computer input, or special mailings. Stay late and help cleanup. Become an indispensable asset rather than a mysterious stranger.

Reach out

It doesn’t hurt to be the one to initiate contact. If you are in an area where it is safe to be public about your faith tradition, feel free to take the initiative and introduce yourself to other local religious groups. Invite a priest or rabbi or shaman out for coffee, attend public events others host, send a holiday greeting card, and do anything else that helps build strong relationships, the foundation of vital interfaith activity.