A couple weeks ago I posted a poem by Taylor Mali entitled “Totally like whatever, you know?” Mali talks about our culture’s inability to speak with any conviction anymore. I definitely think that plays into our understanding of dialogue, especially when it pertains to interfaith dialogue. Many Christians tend to get a bad taste in their mouth when they hear the phrase “interfaith dialogue.” I think they get images of wishy-washy “liberals” sitting around saying things like, “Well, yah – I mean, I don’t really KNOW that Jesus is the only way, I mean, what’s good for you is good for you, and I guess, well…I’m not quite sure, why, but…yah, I mean…I kind of like Jesus, er…”
When it comes to those who are actually participating and working in the area of interfaith or interreligious dialogue, this is simply not the case. In fact, in order for there to be genuine and deep dialogue, one MUST speak with convictions. If you are not sharing what is most deeply and strongly held with another, you will never fully encounter the Other. M. Darrol Bryant (Co-Editor of Muslim-Christian Dialogue: Promise & Problems) writes the following:
“There is often a misconception of what occurs in dialogue. Many believe that it is a polite meeting where the depths of our respective faiths are set aside in the name of easy tolerance. But this is a misconception. Genuine encounter and dialogue is a meeting of the deepest levels of our respective faiths, where we bear witness to what of the spirit and of God has been given to us. This we do not for the sake of persuading the other that we are right and they are wrong, but for the sake of bearing witness to what each has experienced and knows of the One who is beyond. When we meet in this way, when the dialogue goes this deeply, then both parties can grow not only in their own faith but in their recognition of the validity of the other.”
When Christians enter into interfaith dialogue, the goal and purpose is NOT to convert, not to take Jesus or the Bible and smash it down the throats of those we’re in dialogue with, but simply to bear witness to the truths and divine encounters we’ve had in our lives. In an interesting move, Catholic missiologist Vincent Donovan says that while we must not enter into these conversations with the intent on conversion, we must in fact be open to being converted. He writes in The Church in the Midst of Creation, the following:
“When we enter this dialogue with all the cultures of the world…we must be open to conversion – conversion to a fuller truth…If we are not open to conversion, then we have no right to enter into true religious dialogue.”
In a very simliar vein, Raimon Panikkar, in his book The Intrareligious Dialogue, writes the following:
“…the religious person enters this arena without prejudices and preconceived solutions, knowing full well that she may in fact have to lose a particular belief or particular religion altogether. She trusts in truth. She enters unarmed and ready to be converted herself. She may lose her life – she may also be born again.”
I think it is important to speak with conviction; but we must also enter into the dialogue with enough humility that we are open to a conversion experience, that we are open to learning more about truth, about the Divine and about Other’s encounters with the Divine. And it is only when we enter into this form of dialogue with our convictions, our beliefs, our differences, our distinctions, and amidst all of these, that we’re able to embrace the Other without diminishing their uniqueness in Creation. It is then that we are able to fully encounter the Other, and in doing so, encounter the Divine.