By Dost, New Age Islam
9 October 2020
The other day, I was reading the draft of an interview of a friend of mine. He works in a university, where he teaches things to do with religion—specifically, the religion he was born into, as it were, and which he identifies with. But even as he is strongly rooted in his inherited religious tradition, he believes in the need to promote understanding and harmony between people who follow (or, more precisely, who claim to follow) different religions. In this regard, over the years he has written quite a bit on what is known as ‘interfaith dialogue’.
The interview was fascinating, providing glimpses into aspects of my friend’s life that I never knew about. His commitment, at the ideological level, to ‘interfaith dialogue’ was truly impressive, as his responses to questions put to him revealed. And this, as you will hopefully agree, was a really good thing!
But my friend’s reply to one question irritated me and set me thinking. In response to a query, “Besides writing, have you engaged in any other form of interfaith harmony related work?”, he didn’t have much to say beyond recounting that he had participated in seminars and workshops and had been a research fellow with a dialogue-related project of a certain university some years ago. Then, he added, possibly seeking to explain his limited practical work for interfaith understanding, “In my career, I did not get the opportunity [to be engaged] in this regard at the practical level.”
When I reflected on this response, I just couldn’t agree with the logic of my friend’s argument. At the same time though, I could understand why my friend might have thought this way. He possibly assumed that ‘interfaith dialogue’ is basically about ‘experts’ who believe in and practice (or, better put, who claim to believe in and practice) different religions getting together in a formal setting to speak about their respective religions. Speaking about each other’s religion is central to ‘interfaith dialogue’ conceived in this manner. It is a verbal exchange of views between two or more individuals or groups, which is what the word ‘dialogue’ is commonly taken to mean in other contexts too.
Now, if this is what my friend thinks ‘interfaith dialogue’ basically is and for which he might believe his career did not provide him the opportunity to engage in, I don’t know if I can really find fault with him for not doing much practical work for ‘interfaith dialogue’ beyond simply talking and writing about it and attending seminars and workshops on the subject, and so on. The reason why I ought to excuse my friend is that this is precisely what many other people, including several of those who claim to be ‘interfaith dialogue’ ‘experts’, think, or want to think, ‘interfaith dialogue’ essentially is, or should be. And, this is just what actually often happens in the name of ‘interfaith dialogue’: People who claim to ‘represent’ their religion (mostly religious professionals) join with others who make a similar claim with regard to their religion for a formal get-together that may last for a couple of hours. There is much talk, with ‘representatives’ of each religion speaking many good things about their wn religion while (sometimes) listening to the good things the other speakers have to say about their faiths. They issue passionate calls for global peace and insist that their religions are committed to that cause. Later, they share a hearty meal, after which it is time to depart!
A lot of what passes for ‘interfaith dialogue’ is, practically speaking, simply this—a great deal of such theological talk!
This being the case, I don’t know if I can criticise my friend for not having done much practically for ‘interfaith dialogue’. Given that what passes for ‘interfaith dialogue’ is often simply just verbal theological exchange of the sort described above, he might have been led to think that it was his job that prevented him from doing much ‘interfaith dialogue’ work if it had not provided him the opportunity for ‘interfaith dialogue’ understood in this way.
Some interfaith ‘experts’ might, for various reasons, want to limit efforts to promote interfaith understanding and inter-community harmony largely to just verbal dialogues about these issues, in the form of ‘interfaith dialogue’ events that are often high on preachy theological talk but low, if not rock-bottom zero, on practical engagement, action plans and follow-up. The fact of the matter is that such ‘interfaith dialogue’ by itself often has very little, if any, impact, in terms of improving relations between individuals from different faith backgrounds. One major reason for this is because, as is rightly said, actions speak louder than words. This adage applies to the realm of interfaith relations too. ‘Interfaith actions’ speak louder than ‘interfaith words’, which is what many understand ‘interfaith dialogue’ to be all about.
‘Interfaith words’—verbal theological exchange by religious ‘experts’ on religion and interfaith relations—do have their value and importance, but by themselves cannot suffice to promote interfaith understanding and inter-community harmony. ‘Interfaith dialogue’ as theological discussion has its own place, but it certainly cannot take the place of something equally, if not more, important: ‘Interfaith actions’, acts of compassionate service for people of other faith backgrounds and expressions of solidarity and oneness with them.
‘Interfaith dialogue’ in the form of formal theological discussions is generally the domain of ‘experts’—such as priests and clerics—who have spent years studying this or that religion. In contrast, every person, even the most theologically ‘illiterate’, can engage in ‘interfaith actions’. While ‘interfaith dialogue’ often costs a lot in terms of money—sometimes, ‘interfaith dialogue’ events are hosted at luxury venues, such as five star hotels and holiday resorts, with ‘international experts’ being flown in and out and being paid a handsome consultancy fee—‘interfaith actions’ can cost nothing at all!
My friend’s job may not have afforded him many chances for ‘interfaith dialogue’ as the term is understood conventionally. But besides and beyond his job, his everyday life did afford him immense opportunities to engage in ‘interfaith actions’. Be it while travelling in a bus or shopping in a market, having a meal in a restaurant or rubbing shoulders with colleagues at our workplace, almost every day we (including my friend) who are fortunate to live in a part of the world that is religiously very diverse are blessed with many opportunities to interact with people from religious backgrounds other than our own almost every single day! These are great occasions to engage in ‘interfaith actions’. In order to build bridges with people from diverse religious backgrounds we don’t need to talk theology with them. Instead, we can simply put our religious teachings and values into actual practice by engaging in ‘little’ acts of kindness while relating with them. Smiling at a passer-by or greeting a shopkeeper from a religious community different from one’s own can be a great ‘interfaith action’, as can sharing some food that you have cooked with a neighbour from a different faith or just being nice with a colleague in office from another religious background.
If we expand our understanding of interfaith engagement from ‘interfaith dialogue’ as mere verbal theological discussions to ‘interfaith actions’ in the form of acts of kindness in our daily life with people from diverse religious communities and backgrounds, we can discover that almost every day we are provided with abundant opportunities to engage with others in a manner that is often much more effective in promoting interfaith understanding and inter-community harmony than the pious preaching about the subject that often happens at ‘interfaith dialogue’ events. We can discover that ‘simple’ interpersonal acts of interfaith kindness can help melt barriers and build bridges of understanding and harmony in a manner that formal theological ‘interfaith dialogue’ by ‘experts’ often simply cannot.
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