Yesterday, Deepak Sarma, in a short and biting essay, basically dismissed interfaith/interreligious dialogue as a waste of most people’s time. Naturally, there were folks who have invested much time, energy, faith, and blood, sweat, and tears into the work of such dialogue who found his argument wanting. Though I think he overstates his case, I generally agree with Dr. Sarma.
In reading his article I was reminded of my time in Bulgaria last summer with the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life. Afterwards I was invited by the school to write an article for them. That article eventually became “Rejecting Utopias, Embracing Modesty.” One of the points of the article is that perhaps interfaith/interreligious practice is a better tool for overcoming religious intolerance, hatred, conflict, and violence than interfaith/interreligious dialogue is.
Now, generally speaking I am a “fan” of interfaith/interreligious dialogue. I think that it can and has been an activity that promotes and creates understanding, friendship, tolerance, and even a positive peace. However, as the years and years of such dialogue in Israel-Palestine or India so clearly show, it is by no means a cure-all for interreligious strife. And it has its own set of issues.
For example, choosing either “interfaith” or “interreligious” as the adjective is a loaded decision. One (interfaith) presumes the issue at stake is what one believes or has faith in. While sometimes this might actually be the case, in most cases the causes of conflict are economic, political, social, personal, or some mix of these factors. To choose “interreligious” assumes one can identify what counts as religion and that commitments to such things are the problem. Again, this may be the case but often is not. Thus, from the start, interfaith or interreligious dialogue proves to be a potentially helpful tool only for certain people and in certain situations.
In addition, one must ask, Why “dialogue”? This seems to be an especially western, if not Protestant Christian, way of addressing issues of religious conflict. And, of course, such sessions are often hosted by liberal Christians or those living in such an environment. Again, dialogue can be good, but it can too easily become theoretical, abstract, or about something other than actual conflicts. “Dialogue,” then, is only a limited tool for addressing religious conflict.
Thirdly, interfaith/interreligious dialogue is often critiqued for drawing those who are already like-minded and liberal leaning. Those who are often at the root of a conflict that exists for explicitly religious reasons are often those least likely to participate in such a session. Again, interfaith/interreligious dialogue is only one, and a limited one at that, tool in addressing religious conflict.
Finally, the biggest limit of interfaith/interreligious dialogue is when it actually achieves its goal of teaching those participating about another religion, but that truth turns out to be offensive. For example, while I can understand the wearing of headscarves by Muslim (or other) women as an act of devotion, piety, and modesty, I cannot understand the burqa as anything other than an act of oppression of women. I find it to be more than offensive; I find it to be unjust. In a like manner, I have “dialogued” with several Muslim women who insist that the immodesty of American women is truly offensive to them and they pray daily that their daughters will not be corrupted by this ungodly aspect of American culture. There is no bridging this gap, or “understanding” one another. I want burqas to cease to exist. They want women to cover up in public. We disagree and have reached an impasse that cannot be overcome. (This is just one example of many religious differences that can be uncomfortable, obnoxious, offensive, or distasteful.)
So, what do we do? Have some more dialogue? No. We must live together. Peacefully. And this is the rub. Dialogue can’t bring us to this point.
Well, I think that certain liberal legal provisions – like freedom of religion and speech – can help. But I also think that, perhaps, interfaith/interreligious practice might hold more promise than dialogue does.
For example, the American Civil Rights Movement (and the South African anti-apartheid movement) was, for its time, a remarkably interfaith affair. The shared practice of marching, prayer, and promoting justice enabled people of different faiths to live together. (Admittedly, the CRM was primarily a Christian movement, but the primarily Hindu movement for independence in India is another example.) I truly believe that shared work for justice is a better tool for bringing interreligious peace than dialogue is.
Or, shared rituals – like national holidays, though I worry about the ways that can fuel international conflicts, or local community gatherings – can build tolerant communities. Maybe caring for a community garden could bring together Christians who care about food justice, Jews and Muslims who have certain food requirements, and secularists who care about sustainability to invest in a common good and goal.
The point is this: Dialogue will not overcome all difference – and there are real differences, not all religions preach the same thing using different words – and some of those differences might very well be offensive, but we must still live together peacefully in those differences (especially when they are offensive). To do this, it seems to me, we must go far beyond talking to practicing life together. I’m really not sure what such practices might be in this or that particular community, but I am hopeful that such practices can take us farther than dialogue has or can.