Elephant in the Room: Interfaith Dialogue
I’ve had the pleasure participating in Christian-Jewish dialogue my entire career. In particular here in Mobile, Alabama for the last 25 years I have been a part of the oldest continually active lay led Christian-Jewish dialogue in existence in United States. More recently we have started a Trialogue group between the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities.
Over the years I’ve learned from the excellent intellectual presentations made by national and international scholars visiting our community. There is one serious problem however: the people who attend dialogue are invariably not the people who most need to attend these programs. The regular attendees are open-minded people from every religious denomination who are generally not convinced of the inerrancy of their respective traditions. They are open to learning about other faiths and ideas. They are a minority of the religious community.
The people who would benefit most by attending these programs rarely set foot in the door of either a church, mosque, or synagogue to hear such a program. Why will they not attend? Invariably they are members of a more fundamentalist denomination of their particular faith group, who simply put, know the truth. They have the religious answers and feel no need whatsoever to hear other people’s opinions about matters for which they are so very sure. When you possess absolute truth why waste your time listening to other people’s misguided opinions?
The people who most need to open their eyes, ears and hearts to the diversity of religion in our great country have no interest whatsoever in doing exactly that. That is the “elephant in the room” of interfaith relations.
One solution might be project oriented. In our diversity we can find unity in projects of service, which might have the possibility of bringing diverse communities together. Joint projects on topics such as under education, homelessness, poverty, and social justice to name only a few, might if carefully orchestrated become grounds for building relations. Relationship and conversation is where we must start, and at present there is little of either between liberal and fundamentalist denominations of any faith group.
Whether dialogue groups around the country have the enthusiasm, energy, and stamina to try to break down these age-old barriers is another story. It would be the true tough work of interfaith relations, but more importantly it would be where the greatest dividends could accrue. It is nice and lovely to talk with like-minded liberal interpreters of all religious traditions but it never crosses the bridge into the untouched world of fundamentalism. Maybe we should try.