This past year was christened the Year of Interfaith Understanding, and it brought with it a whole raft of discussions and projects dedicated to unpacking how people of different religious traditions can peacefully interact with one another. Organized dialogue between representatives of different faiths always struck me as somewhat disingenuous. These sessions tended to fall into one of two extremes.
Either the participants spun their talking points into what I call “mutual monologuing” or they were all too willing to affirm a kind of uncritical agreement. Both of these approaches indulge in a lack of openness, though of different kinds. One approach says “we are right, so join us or burn” and the other says “we are right, and so are you because you agree with us.” Because of this, I was for a long time deeply cynical about interfaith dialogue.
Last fall, however, I read a book called “Beyond Dialogue,” written by accomplished Methodist theologian John B. Cobb. In it, he argues that real dialogue will inevitably pull the engaged parties through and beyond it. Dialogue for its own sake is emptied of purpose, leading only to conversations that change no minds and make no real attempt to understand and live out other tradition’s best contributions.
It’s also crucial to recognize that religions disagree on fundamental issues. We should, he believes, look for truth in disagreements and be open to changing what and how we believe because of what we learn. Finally, I found a framework for interfaith understanding that recognized the reality of both our disagreements with other traditions and the fact that all traditions can offer something significant to other ones.
Other religions are not simply different manifestations of some universal truth we can all agree upon. Nor, I contend, are they demonic perversions that must be brought into our own community. They are contextually rooted communities of faith, all grappling with life’s ultimate questions to the utmost of their ability. We need not begin dialogue by agreeing on least common denominator principles but, through faithful and open conversations, all traditions can become more authentic and transformative in the world.
A Christianity that took seriously Buddhist critiques would not be the same, of course, but neither would it cease to be Christian. I would argue that it would be a better Christianity than one that stubbornly stuck to its preconceived notions and refused to acknowledge the vast array of human wisdom and insight that other traditions have to offer. My own faith has grown because of my appropriation of Buddhist ideas, not diminished.
Cobb finishes the book with the following passage: “Our mission is to display the universal meaning of Christ freed from our past compulsion to contradict the truths known in other traditions …Once we allow Christ to speak apart from the impediments we have placed in the way, Christ will carry out the authentic Christian mission. Christ as Truth will transform the truths of all other traditions even as they transform ours.”
While we could retreat and settle for mere toleration, I believe that this robust, critical approach to dialogue could allow Christians to profess with confidence while also recognizing that our own conceptions are secondary and fleeting in comparison to the great divine Truth embodied in Jesus, a Truth which knows no boundaries.