Don’t Balk. Walk the Talk

by Rabbi Anson Laytner

I was recently at a meeting to discuss interreligious (or interfaith) programming.  As soon as one participant mentioned the words “interfaith dialogue”, eyes rolled, lungs sighed, and bodies squirmed.

When—and why—did interfaith dialogue get such a dubious reputation?

Why, I have to ask, is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake so undervalued?  Would we criticize a doctor or a scholar for wanting to learn more about her/his field of interest?  So what’s wrong with people of faith learning about other faiths through interfaith dialogue?

If we’re going to interact with people of other faiths then it is essential to know something about their worldview, beliefs and practices, and they of ours.  Sure, one can read a book, but even a book is a poor substitute for an encounter with real live human beings with a different faith tradition.

But that is precisely the problem: people.

Many people do not know how to present effectively.  Interfaith dialogue seems to conjure up sessions of endless talk about theological matters.  I have attended many such sessions.   Some were better than others, usually depending on whether or not the presenter knew how to engage the listeners.  More often than not, the sessions were just simply boring.

A second aspect of the problem is that most people are conflict adverse, meaning that we will go to great lengths to paper over real, legitimate differences in favor of bland, usually superficial, statements of harmony.  Although harmony is well and good, it is through intellectual conflict and spiritual challenge that real connections are made.

A third component is that we tend to take refuge in our dogmas rather than expose ourselves as thinking, spiritually-questing people.  Thus many in interfaith dialogues simply repeat what they’ve learned that their faiths believe rather than how they themselves believe.  True, you learn about other faiths, but when do you really encounter the people around the table with you?

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of Union for Reform Judaism, offered four principles to guide meaningful interfaith dialogues:

  • First, meaningful dialogue happens when the conversation turns to our religious differences.
  • Second, interreligious exchanges become compelling when participants give expression to their religious passions.
  • Third, interreligious dialogue engages when we discuss what we all consider to be true but what we rarely say: that, in some ways at least, we all believe in the exceptionalism of our own faith-traditions.
  • Fourth, interreligious dialogue becomes real when we talk about what in our own traditions and communities we don’t like and then talk frankly about why that it is so.

In my own experience, there is a fifth important principle:  talk must lead to action.  The purpose of most interfaith dialogues is the pursuit of knowledge in order to promote better understanding of one’s fellow human beings in order to build a better society.  This is a noble purpose.  But, in my own case, ten years of engaging in “pure” interfaith dialogue while directing community relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle led to exactly nothing.

It was only when I became executive director of Multifaith Works (currently Rosehedge-Multifaith Works), an organization that provides housing and supportive services for people living with AIDS, that I came to appreciate the value of practical—or applied—interfaith dialogue.

We didn’t have the luxury of sitting around discussing the various meanings of suffering, or the theological import, if any, of AIDS.  There were people dying every day and countless more who needed help while still living.  Instead, people of faith simply rolled up their sleeves and dove into the work of accompanying the dying and supporting the living.

Later, when there was time to reflect, we could talk about what our various faiths teach about caring for the sick, helping the poor and homeless, or traditional attitudes towards homosexuality, or the meaning of suffering.  First we came together to act, then we could talk on the basis of shared experience.  And that made all the difference to our conversation.

What we found, of course, was that all our faiths teach compassion for the sick and dying.  And, while many faiths or denominations had issues with homosexuality, our contact with living human beings softened all but the most judgmental of hearts.  From our experiences, we could talk meaningfully and groundedly and honestly.

Our organization wasn’t alone in discovering this principle.  STM’s own Faith and Family Homelessness project, Habitat for Humanity, Earth Ministry and other interfaith or single faith organizations likewise are built around this principle:  You need to walk the talk before you can genuinely talk the talk.

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Rabbi Anson Laytner is program manager of Seattle University School of Theology & Ministry’s Interreligious Initiative.

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