In the modern world, there is a tremendous need for interfaith dialogue. When done right, dialogue can ease tensions, reduce anxiety, build trust, increase empathy, and change perceptions.
But, when done wrong, it can cement distrust, fortify stereotypes, and deepen divides. The wrong way, in this context, is to bring total strangers together and lead with the most contentious topic that you can find. It doesn’t take an active imagination to see where that will end.
If you are interested in improving relations, both between people of different faiths and between people of no faith and the faithful, allow me to offer a step-by-step approach that has served the interfaith community well.
Step 1) Get to Know 'the Other'
The first step is to give people a chance to get to know each other as human beings. Have them eat together and talk about their shared humanity, including, where they grew up, where they have lived, about their family, the work they do, the worries they have, and so on.
For this first step, keep the Maslow hierarchy of needs in mind. The lower in the pyramid that the needs are, the more universal they are and easier to talk about. Leave religion and contentious issues out of the discussion for now.
Step 2) Talk About Shared Humanity
Once people see each other as equally co-human, begin talking about shared human interests and emotional concepts that everyone shares. Many interfaith organizations work on humanitarian issues such as poverty, climate change, and discrimination, to name a few, while others focus on aspirational aspects in their dialogues and discuss topics such as hope, love, compassion, home, harmony, justice, peace, and so on.
When people are allowed to ruminate on issues and emotions that all human beings share, even if their approaches are different, they will see similarities where they saw none before.
Step 3) Learn About Other Belief Systems
Steps one and two are especially important when trust has been broken or when groups are suspicious of each other. That being said, some people are naturally comfortable with jumping straight into step three and start learning about other people’s beliefs, theologies, cultures and traditions. For those participants, learning how others conduct their religious and spiritual life is the very reason why they engaged in interfaith dialogue to begin with.
Lectures can be helpful in this context, but learning about people’s personal experiences, as they relate to scripture and traditions, in small discussion groups (when possible) gives the sharing experience a human touch that is more memorable and relatable.
Step 4) Discuss Difficult Issues
Once the foundation has been laid, it is possible to have more difficult discussions about contentious issues, everything from theological differences to political divides. Through the first three steps participants establish empathy and trust. Once that has been done, there is less of a chance of the whole thing blowing up because of differing ideologies. It helps to have well-trained moderators or mediators on hand when you venture into the deep end. We offer several time-tested dialogue guidelines in our new book.
"But, I Came Here to Talk About..."
In our modern atmosphere, arguments are common, especially online. The problem with most of those arguments is that people are not getting convinced of anything except their own righteousness. The goal seems to be to land a punch, belittle ‘the other’ or show off in front of a like-minded ideological tribe.
Regrettably, those same attitudes of ‘hitting people where it hurts’ sometimes bleed into interfaith dialogue settings. I’ve met several people over the last few years that were impatient with the friendly tenor of interfaith dialogue. “This is B.S.,” they’ve told me. “I came here to talk about [insert the contentious issue of the day], not this.” They want to fight and came armed with talking points.
What Is Your Goal?
If your goal is to make headway in dialogue, to ease tensions rather than excite apprehensions, to dispel stereotypes rather than pigeonhole adversaries, to increase empathy rather than sow intolerance, to build bridges not widen chasms, then it is better to take the long road, to build interfaith dialogue step-by-step until there is enough trust to talk about difficult issues.
I am at no point suggesting that people of different faiths will agree on everything, but when they see each other as equally human, when they like each other and trust each other, they usually want to keep talking, even if they differ. That’s the whole point of the exercise.
Rev. Gudjon Bergmann
Founder and Lead Educator at Harmony Interfaith Initiative
Author of Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides
Here's how you can celebrate World Interfaith Harmony Week (Feb. 1-7, 2019)
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Our mission is to train and support people who want to do good in the world. We do this by providing access to strategies, methods, and ideas that promote social harmony and enable bridge-building across divides. Our primary goal is to help others create harmony in diverse communities.
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Founded in 2018
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