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The Frightening Next Step in Interfaith Dialogue

By Rabbi Rami Shapiro

There are two kinds of interfaith programs: the safe and the frightening. The safe leave us untouched; we are the same persons going in as we are coming out. The frightening leave us not only touched but transformed; we are different coming out then we were going in. 

In the safe program representatives from various religions set forth the key teachings and practices of their respective faiths while their fellow panelists nod politely, pretending to some universal agreement that we know doesn’t exist if for no other reason than if it did exist, it would render our religions redundant. 

Safe gatherings avoid both controversy and real conversation. They are not opportunities for dialogue, and focus on serial monologue instead. Now, lest you think I am opposed to this kind of gathering, let me say quite clearly that I am not opposed. On the contrary: I believe there is a real need for safe interfaith programming. For some of us just sitting on the same dais with members of other faiths is a breakthrough, let alone finding some common ground of agreement with them. I am not asking people to go further than they can. I am only interested in challenging them to go as far as they can. And for some of us, the safe is nowhere near far enough.

Martin Buber

Martin Buber

The deeper, scarier interfaith dialogue to which I am committed happens when people of different faiths engage with one another in the realm Martin Buber called “the between.” Standing in “the between” you no longer follow a script; you are no longer an apologist for your faith, but a seeker of that Truth toward which all faiths may point and no faith can own. Standing in “the between” you cannot know in advance what you are going to say, because you are responding to the unknown and fundamentally unknowable. It is by standing together in “the between” that we share the possibility of hearing something new, and being changed by it.

Those of us who do this dangerous work need an understanding of religion that allows such meeting to happen. Let me share my own understanding as a means of starting a conversation on the promise of interfaith. 

I approach the world’s religions the way I approach the world’s languages. First, while we might say that the capacity for human language is God-given, specific languages are human creations. Second, there is no right or wrong language, no true language or false language. There are only a multiplicity of languages that help those who speak them to make sense of life and plant meaning in its midst. 

Languages, like religions, differ. They have different grammars, emphases, and tones. They each see the world in slightly and sometimes vastly different ways. Hence there are things you can say in French that you just cannot say or cannot say as well in Chinese, and there are things you can say in Hinduism that you just cannot say or cannot say as well in Catholicism. 

The more spoken languages I know, the richer and more nuanced is my understanding of the world. The more religious languages I know, the richer and more nuanced is my understanding of life.

This has nothing to do with creating some religious version of Esperanto. I love my mother tongues—both English and Judaism—and have no desire to abandon either. But I am enriched beyond description by learning Sanskrit, Chinese, Arabic, and Greek; Hinduism, Taoism, Islam, and Christianity. No one should be asked to abandon her mother tongue, and everyone should be encouraged to study the other languages of human religiosity. Deep interfaith encounter is one way to learn another’s language, and when we do we cannot help but be transformed by that knowledge.

This is the kind of interfaith dialogue I long for. This is the kind of interfaith dialogue Scarritt-Bennett Center and Wisdom House promote in our monthly Common Table breakfasts, our Dialogues on Faith groups, our Essential Conversations lunches, and other programs. We are not looking to change the languages of faith, but to change those who speak them. We are not looking to create a new religion, but to help foster a new religious sensitivity. We are not interested in blending religions or laying claim to a false and facile religious unity, but to helping one another find in our differences insights of spiritual genius that can transform our lives.

Hinduism’s Rig Veda, perhaps the world’s oldest sacred text, teaches: “Truth is one; different people call it by different names.” The names matter. The Tao isn’t Allah, and Christ isn’t Krishna. Rather they, and all the names we humans have created for that which is ultimately Unnamable, speak to part of the Truth. The more names we know, the more parts we understand, and the closer to Truth we come. But we can never reduce Truth to words. This is why in addition to dialogue we must engage with one another in silent meditation as well. 

As the Tao te Ching tells us, “The Tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao.” Ultimately all words fall short; and all voices must fall silent. It is good that we share our liturgies; it is better that we share the greater silence. And this too is the promise of interfaith. 

When we are free to share our languages without having to defend them, we will at last come to the end of talk, and fall silent together in a humbling stillness that frees us from words, and awakens us to that Ultimate Truth that no words can frame.

This week is World Interfaith Harmony Week. The harmony we seek is not the cheap harmony of serial monologue, or the faux harmony of people ignoring differences, or the fragile harmony of people pretending to believe what they do not believe simply to get along. 

Real harmony will take more than a week to create. It will not happen among those who fear to hear, let alone speak, another’s religious language. It will not happen among those whose faith needs defending, but only among those whose faith leads them to the ultimate humbling, and the courage to step into “the between.” 

To enter “the between,” first in words and then in silence, is the challenge and promise of interfaith, the goal of World Interfaith Harmony Week, and the mission of Scarritt–Bennett’s Wisdom House. This is the path on which we embark this morning. Let us walk it to the end.