We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Faith Line

As described in my last posting, back in November the United Kingdom and United States Provinces of the Catholic Xaverian Missionaries convened a conference at the Conforti Institute, Coatbridge, Scotland, on the topic, “Common Ground: A Conversation Between Religious Believers and Humanists on Values and Ethics.”  In this posting, I would like to continue to reflect on Jeremy Rodell's response to the conference in his thoughtful blog posting entitled, "A humanist perspective on the 'Common Ground' conference."  He is the Chair of South West London Humanists.

As we saw in the last posting, Rodell felt that the "Common Ground" conference was a good experience during which genuine dialogue took place.  He reminds his readers, however, that they should not be naïve. He writes, "There are people within almost all religion and belief communities who have no interest in dialogue – they know they’re right and at best want either to isolate themselves, or to argue, and at worst to impose their views by force. They’re just not interested in listening and understanding people they consider to be 'the enemy'." On the other hand, "...there are people in these same communities who understand that we live in a plural world in which mutual understanding is essential for peace, and where it is often possible to find common ground with those with whom we disagree." Between these two groups, there stands a "faith line," a concept introduced by the interfaith activist, Eboo Patel. Patel states (quoted here), "“On one side of the faith line are the religious totalitarians. Their conviction is that only one interpretation of one religion is a legitimate way of being, believing, and belonging on earth. Everyone else needs to be cowed, or converted, or condemned, or killed. On the other side of the faith line are the religious pluralists, who hold that people believing in different creeds and belonging to different communities need to learn to live together.”

The reality of the faith line points to a serious limitation, even weakness, of interfaith dialogue.  To a large degree, it isn't really really "interfaith" at all.  Those of us who stand on the pluralist side of the line generally feel more comfortable with and better able to speak honestly with those of other faiths that share our pluralist orientation.  Below our differences, we recognize a common spirit.  It is, on the other hand, all impossible to dialogue with those who don't want to listen, share, reflect, and listen again.  We stand on different sides of the faith line.

There is, at the same time, another line separating people of faith, which we might call the "dialogue line."  I saw this in Thailand where serious practitioners of Buddhism were simply not interested in dialogue.  They were content with their own way and did not feel a need to talk with people of other ways.  They happily accepted the validity of those other ways for those who practiced them, but like a person who prefers Thai cuisine and wouldn't even bother to enter an Italian restaurant they just weren't interested.  "Each to their own," was their motto.

The utility of dialogue, thus, is limited to those who are willing to engage in it.  For them, it can be an exciting experience.