When my Christian friends hear about what we are doing at the Institute of Religion, Culture & Peace (IRCP), I often hear the questions: “what is there for me to learn from others’ faith? Am I not to convert others to my faith? Isn’t interfaith dialogue a watering down of my faith?” My unspoken response is often, “I hope that your own faith is not that weak!” But that is a too glib a response to articulate, so here I want to offer an initial responses to how one could approach the question of relating across our faith boundaries.
I suggest there are three fundamental ways we can view our relationship with folks of a differing faith, starting with what we emphasize at the IRCP, engagement.
The hardest form of relationships is engagement. Engagement begins with the fundamental realization that God loves all people and we are all created in God’s image. It’s a deep seated realization that without loving our neighbors, whether we agree with them or not, we cannot love God. Engagement moves beyond a comparative dialogue to a journey focused on listening, empathizing, and trusting. When engaging with people from other faith communities, we are not attempting to understand their religion and religious practices through our religious lens. Instead, we are seeking to understand their faith and religion on their terms. Engagement strives to understand why their faith is meaningful for them and takes note of how God has been present in their lives already.
A second form of relationships is that of simple tolerance. Tolerance is when we are truly open toward people of other faith holding and living out their faith freely while we hold and live out our faith freely. We are together yet separate. When we practice tolerance, we develop and maintain clear barriers between faith communities, thereby maintaining a tolerant relationship between the two communities. When practicing tolerant relationships with people of other faiths, we tend to compare and contrast faith perspectives from our vantage point, often leading toward assumptions of God’s preference for our side of the barrier. In tolerant relationships, we may take part in dialogue with people of other faith communities where we may exchange ideas and opinions. In doing so, we may even find chords of commonality though never leading toward meaningful transformation. Sadly, such chords of commonality are fragile and can be easily broken through simple misunderstandings. Therefore, tolerance is good….but tolerance is not enough so barriers of separation remain.
Finally, the easiest form of engagement is that of intolerance, that is simply ignoring differences by simply claiming “I’m right, you’re wrong.” Intolerance is an unwillingness to listen or engage views that on the surface conflict with your own pre-existing assumptions of what faith is. Intolerance lacks curiosity and as a result it lacks true knowledge of other faith perspectives, as well as our own faith perspective. Extreme examples of intolerance would include actions taken by the German Third Reich. However, even more corrosive are folks who hold covert attitudes of intolerance toward people of other faith and remain silent in the face of injustice particularly by simply segregating themselves into a closed body of like-minded individuals. How can this be a response to a call to “Love Your Neighbor?” People with overt or covert attitudes of intolerance are like wolves preying on sheep for they both fail to recognize God’s abundant love for all people. The difference between the two is you can see an overt wolf coming toward you while a covert wolf is cloaked in sheep’s clothing.
Mark 12:28-34, we are reminded that loving God goes hand in hand with loving our neighbor. May we have the strength to move beyond the shackles of our fears to truly engage the neighbors God has placed among us.
Joe and Wanda Manickam are serving with viaShalom in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They are partnering with Payap University’s Institute of Religious Culture and Peace in their ministry of reconciliation.