I had dinner Thursday night with two Jews, three Unitarians, a Greek Orthodox born in Egypt, a Syrian Muslim who almost converted to Judaism in his 20's, a Hindu, and a Quaker-turned-Presbyterian. Although this sounds like the set up for a joke, it was actually the set up for a great conversation organized by The Amazing Faiths Project, a movement which began last year in Houston, Texas for the purpose of building respect, understanding and tolerance among people of different faiths. On November 13 there were 7 Amazing Faiths conversations in the greater D.C. area involving over 60 people. I hope there will be more soon--this is a style of interfaith conversation that is well worth pursuing.
I've been involved with a number of interfaith conversations over the years--both inside my household and in more formal contexts. While I certainly am sympathetic with the desire to build the basis for religious tolerance in the world, I usually find most programmed interfaith dialogues disappointing. The main problem, in my opinion, is that in these contexts people often start speaking on behalf of their religion instead of speaking on behalf of themselves. They will talk about the "four tenets of Hinduism" instead of saying anything about what they really believe and how that affects the way they live. And while it might be interesting to learn more about the principles of another religion, information, in my experience, rarely helps us to love each other more.
The Amazing Faiths conversation takes a totally different approach to interfaith dialogue. The conversation, which is supposed to happen over a vegetarian dinner, is entirely directed by questions which are printed on a set of cards. Each participant takes a turn taking a card, reading the question on it, thinking for a few moments, and then answering it in five minutes or less. During this time, the rest of the group listens--no interruptions, no questions, no comments, no words of encouragement, no arguments. After one person has finished speaking, there is a moment of silence and then the next person takes a card and answers another (different) question.
Two things make this process particularly effective. For one, the questions are personal, complex, and encourage each person to respond out of their own experience, history or story. For example, someone drew a card that asked, "What would you do if your religion was made illegal and you were prohibited from practicing it?" Another asked, "Do you believe that God communicates with humankind? How?" Another asked, "How does your religious practice or belief foster your compassion?" Another asked, "Have there been conflicts within your family around religion?" (I wish I could remember all the questions, or have been able to keep the deck of cards!)
The other thing that made the dialogues effective was that each of us was asked only to listen--not to discuss or debate, to agree or disagree. This frustrated a number of people at my dinner, especially when they felt they needed more information about a person's religion before they could really understand their response. But I found that the format helped to increase the sense that each person was heard and respected when they spoke.
The evening ended up really reinforcing my sense that we don't just need more information about each other in order to build a more tolerant world. Understanding history or doctrine might be part of the process of building a world with room for people of different faiths, but I don't think the process begins there. I think we need to begin with sharing our own faith stories and listening to those of others with gratitude and love.
Appreciative silence may be the best way to allow compassion for others to well up within us and to infuse the world around us.