Dialogue about faith requires listening skills

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Not long ago, a Muslim friend told me that she and one of her Jewish friends were planning to write a book about interfaith friendship and dialogue. She asked me what I thought would be important to remember so that such conversations and relationships can be healthy and respectful.

It’s exactly the right question to ask as we enter another new year in this post-9/11 era. Religion in our time can seem so divisive, and the way forward appears murky at best in a nation with a growing religious diversity. So I will tell you some of what I told her and then add a few thoughts from other sources.

The most important thing is to listen. Listen carefully, completely and humbly. Listen especially when what you’re hearing is hard to accept, hard to understand.

Be open and honest – both about differences and commonalities. Differences cannot be covered up or smoothed over. They must be acknowledged and understood – even if, in the end, they remain differences, as some surely will. But it’s also important to affirm areas of common ground, being careful, however, not to state the boundaries of that ground more broadly than is accurate. That kind of overstatement leads to disappointment and mistrust.

Don’t question the other person’s motives. You may correct misinformation and misunderstandings, but don’t assume ignorance or misinterpretation grows out of intentional hostility.

Any relationship must be built on trust. And that trust begins with small things – being together when you commit to be, for instance. If one partner cannot trust the other, the relationship is doomed.

Keep written lists of what ought to be remembered, such as the religious holidays important to the other person. Then acknowledge those dates and commemorations. Also, be honest about what religious holidays really are important to you and which may be less so. That is, if I as a Christian believe Lent is much more important than Advent, I should explain that, just as a Jew might want to explain why the High Holy Days are more central to her or him than Hanukkah.

Lists also can include favorite authors and music so that on special occasions you can give gifts of books and music that will be especially appreciated. Learn those things about the other person or people. Be cautious about giving books from your own faith tradition that might be interpreted as an effort to convert the other person. Such material can be shared but not with an attitude that says, “Here, learn the truth for a change.” And be careful about reading one book about a different religion and thinking you now know all there is to know about it.

Be present with the other person when possible in his or her place of worship. Feel what that’s like. But visit only on invitation. Don’t just barge in. And ask appreciative – not confrontational – questions.

Learn about the other person’s personal faith journey, including the story of that individual’s previous generations. Was the family always Hindu? Were there examples of ancestors with different faith commitments?

Learn to separate what’s religious from what’s merely cultural. There is much confusion about this, even among adherents. My own family, for instance, has some Swedish Christmas traditions that grew out of Scandinavian culture and are not mandates of Christianity. (But, to be sure, the brighter folks in my family, including me, would say that not liking herring or lingonberries is a sin.)

Some experts on interfaith relations suggest that the difficult thing to accomplish is being deeply committed to your own tradition – and able to articulate why – and yet being open to learning about other traditions without fear. As an orthodox rabbi told me not long ago, not many people in our culture are both deep and wide in this way.

Finally, experts insist that you must be clear about your purpose for entering into interfaith dialogue. Are you doing it to convert someone? Are you doing it to find allies for social or political action? Are you trying to figure out your own faith more clearly?

And, they say, before you ever discuss beliefs, learn about values and how those values are lived out.

Bill Tammeus is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. His e-mail address is: tammeus@kcstar.com.

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