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Religious Dialogue, Not Religious Monologue

With each passing moment, the world in which we live becomes more and more religiously pluralistic. Thanks to popular media and online access, we have at our fingertips more information about the “religious other” than ever before. Thanks to the increasing availability of higher education, young adults come into face-to-face contact with a global populace that comes from various faith perspectives. The parochial boundaries of our past have shattered. We can no longer pretend that our everyday sphere of contact is homogenous.

Amidst this increasingly pluralistic atmosphere, we see a rise in religiously-informed violence. In most cases, religious ideologies do not lead directly to violence, but they do hold within them the seeds for a radicalism that leads to violent outbursts when coupled with radical political ideologies. Radical religion and political extremism can make a dangerous combination. Add to the mix personal emotional instability and insecurity and we have a powder keg waiting to be lit.

It seems that the most successful match for lighting that powder keg is the encounter with a dominating, opposing ideology that is infiltrating its snug cultural context. Whenever a narrow, hard-line ideology feels powerless against the advances of an alternative ideology, adherents can easily feel threatened. Cosmic implications are read into the new environment, leading to actions that would normally be abhorred but are now justified by the greater calling. As the religiously pluralistic culture continues to expand, we can only expect a rise in religious violence in the world.

It is time for religious adherents to take a stand for a particular form of religious interaction. Too often inter-faith monologue is the reality when religious representatives encounter each other. Each side presents its own perspective into the Truth as absolute. The purpose of listening serves the greater goal of conversion (connect, then convert). The assumption carried into the discussion is that “I am more right than you.” As long as we enter into conversations with that assumption, we are doomed to fall into a monologue; others are objectified as they become targets for the religious agenda, rather than being respected in their personhood.

A better posture for interfaith discussion is one of a humility, which says, “I hold to my truth because I have experienced it to be most true, but that doesn’t mean that your truth isn’t more true than mine.” This posture leads to an authentic dialogue. We enter the conversation with our judgment suspended. We are open to hearing what the other has to say to us. We are open to having our perspective changed for the better. Yet, we still are able to maintain that there is a reason that we hold to be true that which we hold to be true.

Keep in mind that there is nothing wrong with upholding one’s religious truth. Our truth (religious or otherwise) is our measure for what is right and wrong in the world, meaningful or meaningless. And there’s nothing wrong with using our religious truths as our filters for understanding others’ truths; this is just a fact of life for how human beings operate. The problem arises when we assume that we have personal access to the Truth in ways that no other does. At that point we have not only closed ourselves off to spiritual growth, but we have opened the door to the dismissive atmosphere that encourages, and indeed fuels, religious violence.

2 thoughts on “Religious Dialogue, Not Religious Monologue”

  1. Good post – and timely. In my opinion, I almost wish we could jettison the word "truth" because it carries so much weight and potential as a match to light these powder-kegs. I'd rather say that something works for me, or makes sense to me, or is meaningfull to me, or adds to my experience of life. At the same time, there is something deeper, something we might call truth. Most of the normative, enduring religions of the world say that this truth is embodied in compassion, in seeing, not dissimilarities between us, but commonalities, and, therefore, opportunities to act with emphathy towards the other. We find, in the other, ourselves. And we find, in the other, the divine or God.

    Of course, this has not always been so. Religious groups used to be characterized (and still can be) by the need to survive. When this happens, "truth" is used as a sword to defend and sometimes go on the offense towards anyone or anything that would threaten the group.

    Mature religious tells us that we don't bring God or the truth to others. Instead, we get to know the other as we discover God and the truth already there. It transcends monologue because, as you have rightly stately, monologue seeks to convert. Dialogue seeks to converse, to exchange, to entertwine – two (or more) becoming one. If we don't learn to do this, yes, we could destroy our civilization. Our technology exceeds our wisdom to use it. A group called "Charter for Compassion" is trying to address this very problem.

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