Interfaith Dialogue as Co-Creative Process

[1] Across the U.S. we struggle to talk with neighbors, family, and strangers about the things that matter most. Our modes of social engagement have narrowed, for many of us; disengagement or debate feel like the only options remaining. Amid increasingly contentious public discourse our personal relationships also bear the strain. For those of us whose faith life and religious convictions are our source of hope and ground for our living disengagement from conversation is not an option. Yet debate is not viable if we value the nurture of our communities and relationships or seek a more inclusive and sustainable global future. Interfaith dialogue is a co-creative process that offers a faithful (and difficult) alternative to disengagement or debate.

[2] Interfaith dialogue seems to me to be essential in a life of faith today. We encounter different faith traditions, worldviews, cultures, and histories every day. They show up among family members, across generations, in the workplace and even in the grocery store. I have been serving as a chaplain in a multifaith setting for almost 30 years and teaching interfaith dialogue as an undergraduate course in religious studies since the beginning of this century. Using a dialogical process approach has opened a generous holding place for building interfaith communities. Students from the class tell me that they apply the dialogue skills that we explore and practice in their daily life. Finding ways to move beyond a comparative or competitive exercise, interfaith dialogue can raise awareness and questions that deepen the faith of the dialogue partners while simultaneously opening radically new possibilities at the intersections of multiple traditions.

[3] In this article I will describe the aspiration of dialogue across religious traditions or worldviews that I have been moving toward. Then I will share some of what I have learned with and from my students about the process itself. Using stories from my chaplaincy, I will point to possibilities and challenges that I have experienced while developing the practice of openness to unknowing. Finally, I will summarize with a few suggestions that the reader can consider if the aspiration that I outline feels like one that is worthy of their context.

Aspiring toward a relational process of co-discovery and meaning making

[4] I start by acknowledging that being a Christian in the United States gives me an historical and systemic advantage when engaging with persons from other faith traditions or worldviews. As a woman of color, I have also experienced gender and racial disadvantage. These have been both external, in the forms of systemic bias and disregard, and internal as self-doubt and internalized racism and gender negativity. I draw deeply on my own experiences and the discussions going on in the fields of race and gender studies to inform my aspirations for interfaith dialogue. Rather than a goal, measurable and achievable, I choose aspiration because they are something that we yearn toward. Aspirations share some of the essential qualities of dialogue as a distinct form of social engagement.

[5] I invite participants to aspire to a relational process of co-discovery that opens new paths to meaning making for all who are involved. It won’t be perfect because we are not. The process is an iterative one, a way from knowing that (information or facts) toward knowing from (experiencing in a relational context)[i] that necessarily includes a cycle of comprehension and confusion (or what I sometimes think of as construction and reconstruction). It is messy and sometimes embarrassing, full of misunderstandings and mind-blowing self-discovery. Unlike many other places in our lives, efficiency, agendas, roles, and data are not important tools and the outcome is always unknown. One description of it comes from the field of communications studies, “In dialogue we do not know exactly what we are going to say, and we can surprise not only the other but even ourselves because we may say something that, as Buber put it, we haven’t said (or thought) before.” [ii] I am inviting the participants to jump – with partners out of their respective airplanes – and as each is free falling, to construct something together.

[6] I believe that the participants in dialogue have the experiences that they need to recognize what I am attempting to describe. I ask them to remember the moments when they felt truly seen with unconditional regard and to imagine being in a relationship where radical difference is the starting point for the co-creation of something new that they could not imagine or create without the other. I ask them to recall experiences they have had of awe or mystery that gave them the courage to ask important and scary questions, because a kernel of faith in something unseen was taking root in the soul. I urge them to allow the experience to remind them of the yearning that they still feel for these experiences and to dare to aspire to more of this. And if they are not ready, there is no shame. It simply is not the right moment for them to engage in the kind of Interfaith dialogue that I am exploring here. There are other kinds of interfaith encounters that are appropriate in different contexts.

[7] If they are resonating (vibrating inside) I encourage them to share their yearning and these intimate experiences (which are their knowing from) and offer them to a stranger because they yearn for an interfaith encounter that is dialogical.

[8] All of this depends on decentering. The paradoxical heart for Christians engaging interfaith dialogue is that we start by placing our faith in our truth claim that it is only in giving up your life because of Christ that you will find it. (Matthew 10:39) In the relational process, this is also to embody, as best we can, the ancient Jewish and Christian refrain, “and God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:38.) To engage dialogically, one gives up pursuit of what we are yearning to find in the dialogue. Among the things we will work to decenter are a mental construct of the individual as primary; self-protection; a deeply cherished set of religious beliefs; a socially constructed concept of another tradition and its rituals and practices; and our desire to be seen and respected. While this is a tall order, I have experienced just enough rich connection to encourage others to move toward it.

Relational engagement of heart and soul

[9] As I noted at the start of this piece, it is almost impossible to avoid encountering folks from faith traditions that are different from one’s own. This means that there are many opportunities to practice decentering to move into an interfaith dialogue. Different containers are possible, from a one-time conversation to an extended engagement. A short dialogue may feed into another dialogical experience with someone else. The process extends beyond the moments when we are intentional about the dialogue and attentive to the relationship, splashing out into other encounters.

[10] I am not saying that anything can be interfaith dialogue as I have described it. In fact, I think that finding oneself in a context appropriate for a relational process of co-creating meaning is quite rare. Interfaith dialogue is an overlapping cyclical process. Some of the process happens within the individual; moving ourselves out of the center, learning to pause amid quick judgements, and strengthening our resistance to the impulse to move quickly to protection when something that we cherish is challenged. The parts of the process that happen between the individuals include their faith communities, larger contexts, and histories. The process must include error, practice, grace, repetition, and faithful humility. The overlapping pieces are themselves in constant motion. Each round in an entry into the unknown, inviting clarification, confusion, and new complexity.

[11] For someone aspiring to interfaith dialogue, the process begins with the individual’s own work of paying attention to the places where decentering can be practiced. Then comes the task of developing exercises that work in their particular context. In the classroom I start by using a talking stick to discuss the readings assigned for the day. Coming from the Indigenous community, the only person to speak is the one holding the stick. If another person would like to speak, they may ask for the talking stick, however the speaker is the one who decides who will receive the stick. Sometimes the practice includes the convention that once someone has spoken, they should not ask for the stick again until everyone has had the opportunity to speak. After we have used the talking stick for a class or two, I ask the students to free-write about what they notice about their emotional reactions, the others in the room, and what happened to their style of engaging. Without fail, students find it very frustrating and too slow, they talk about being confused – because they are unable to blurt out the response that was forming before the other person had finished talking or because someone else responded to a speaker in a way that makes them realize that they missed something or that a different way of interpreting it was possible. Students also noticed that while they felt less sure of what happened, the discussion was sticking with them, and they continued to ponder it after class. The talking stick is one way of practicing decentering. Once students have an experience of the ways they each put themselves at the center they can intentionally take an uncomfortable step away from the center. The awareness of decentering continues to show up once they begin to pa attention.

[12] After a few days, the class is ready to begin moving into our experiential experiences, which are organized around story sharing. This part of the process is where none of us knows where we will end up; where we agree to try co-creating our conversation rather than starting with assumptions about what constitutes a spiritual or religious life. Often the basis for inquiry in non-dialogical encounters are based on the internal structure and practices of the dominate tradition. The imbalance of power and control often leaves the dominate group to feel magnanimous and the out group to understand the game but not to have the motivation to enter a process of co-creation. Learning, especially for the dominant group, often happens, but the ethical implications are problematic when learning on the part of the power group means that the out group continues to pay the emotional cost with very little gain.

[13] Storytelling helps to balance the power and agency within the dialogue and is an effective way for everyone involved to learn to use peripheral vision. Horseback riders realize that peripheral vision is the key to balance, which is an interactive process where both the horse and rider are constantly rebalancing. To ride in balance, one must learn not to focus attention on the place that you are headed – because that takes our attention away from what is happening below and around us. In dialogue too we need to learn not to focus attention on where we think we are going – so that we are free to attend to what is taking place between us. The narrative invitations that I have used with the students are designed to keep us in our peripheral brain so that attention on one another makes new discoveries by both the speaker and the listener(s) possible.[iii] This is not to avoid conflict, rather to hold a space for deep listening that invites all parties, regardless of their position in the wider social context, to show up and work together to ensure everyone’s agency in the co-creative process.

[14] I have discovered that decentering is contagious. One or two people in a room who are grounded and able to focus on others can create a culture that invites everyone to show more of themselves and to be open to what is being shared. Sharing personal stories is a powerful way to learn from. A story invites the listener to move away from the idea or concept and closer to an experience that brings our peripheral balance to the fore. Powerful stories engage our imaginations, hearts, and souls. We hear, smell, taste, and feel together. The shared experience moves the listener out of the observer stance, making it less likely for us to rush to a reductionist or defensive judgement. Receiving another person’s story requires the listener to step back and release the focus that is dictated by their unconscious assumptions. Like balanced riding, the dialogue that takes place becomes an empathic response to both parties’ motion, reality, and emotion.

[15] The message, all have a voice here, is sent when the dialogue begins with an invitation to tell stories about important moments. Dialogue built around important stories helps to build a foundation that can handle conflict. If the partners build trust and begin to show themselves, conflict is often a sign that the dialogue is moving deeper. Sometimes the difficult task at hand is finding a way to keep the process moving. In these moments, I have found that when hearts and souls are involved, then the trust and care and the empathy and grace that the community has been practicing will see them through. In part this is possible because they have left behind all agendas other than knowing one another. Sometime the answer to being able to move forward is a well-constructed clarifying question.

[16] One student, who recently completed her seminary degree, looked back noting its impact on her, “it’s rare that I find myself in a room where I trust the others there to listen first and where I can speak my questions without fear.” Another, from the Church of the Latter-Day Saints wrote to me several years later, “I remember taking off my shoes, gathering in a circle, and taking time to arrive in the space after we had arrived to the space. I was touched by the curious and respectful ways in which we spoke about faith. I felt a sense of community.”

[17] The process of co-creating meaning extends beyond the moments when we are intentional about the dialogue and attentive to the relationship. Baccalaureate at the schools where I have served emerges from a several month-long process of dialogue and imagination where the co-creating seniors invite the congregation into an embodied experience of their multifaith spiritual journey. One year, I experienced the process continuing out beyond the circle of seniors. I included this experience in my chapter in College and University Chaplaincy in the 21st Century.[iv] The baccalaureate service starts with a multifaith call to prayer. A small group of seniors invite the worshippers to join in prayer, speaking in the languages most familiar to their respective faith traditions. This year the five students spoke in English, Hindi, Hebrew, and a dialect from Bhutan. Last to speak was Ali. Cupping his ear with his left hand, head bowed in concentration, he sang, “Allahu Akbar, Ash-hadu an-la ilah illallah . . .” (I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except God. I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. Come to prayer. . .) His recitation filled the chapel that had been built for Christian worship with beautiful echoes. Following the completion of the service, I was approached by a man, “Chaplain, thank you for your work with the students to create this service. I found it very moving. But tell me, what was the religious tradition represented by the student who sang at the end, it was stunning.”

[18] I smiled and thanked him, “That was Ali; he was reciting the Muslim call to prayer.”

[19] His eyes widened and he paused, “I knew it was familiar, but all of the other times I have heard it have been on TV where it is accompanied by scenes of violence.” I felt my heart drop and hurt for Ali. The man continued, “I had no idea what it meant.” Another long pause, “I mean, in this context it was beautiful.”

[20] Touching his arm lightly, I responded, “For Ali, I think it is always beautiful.”

[21] He shook my hand warmly, “Thank you for the service,” He paused, still grasping my hand, before finishing his thought, “It was beautiful.”

[22] The brief encounter left me with much to think about and I have no doubt that the man also left with much to consider. The relational process of meaning-making that had given Ali the courage to recite in the chapel built by Christians, opened the space to shift the meaning that this man made of a sacred Islamic recitation as well.

Spiritual discipline for interfaith dialogue

[23] In this article I have focused on decentering as an essential practice for ethical Christian engagement in interfaith dialogue. Beyond interfaith dialogue, I find that this practice missing in many places in our social, political, and religious world. Kwok Pui Lan, post-colonial, Asian feminist scholar notes, “scholars in Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Islamic studies have used postcolonial theories to scrutinize how colonial interests have colored the comparative study of religion in general and their fields of study in particular, Christian theologians have seldom engaged in a parallel self-critical reflection of their discipline. . . under the Christian imperialistic gaze, an essential Western religious framework was superimposed onto non-Western wisdom traditions, from determining what is and is not religious to influencing the approaches and methods of study.”[v] Christianity certainly has much to consider when we ask ourselves how to dialogue with persons from different wisdom traditions, or no specific tradition, while doing the least harm to the other. Coming from this tradition, makes the kind of interfaith dialogue that I am suggesting even more important and challenging.

[24] Decentering in various forms has always been a part of Christianity (and core to many other traditions as well) even if enlightenment and modernism coupled with capitalism have eclipsed these practices. While the invitation that the kind of interfaith dialogue that I am offering is guaranteed to be frustrating, uncomfortable, humbling, and possibly frightening it can be equally invigorating, creative, and connective. For me and many others it has been an experience of deepening and more complex understanding and faith along with widening horizons. As a spiritual discipline, it is an invitation to being in a world that values only doing. The practices of allowing others to lead, of silence, and of review are a few that allow the Christian dialoguer to share the co-creative dialogue and to find relationship with another with whom unconditional regard is possible.

[25] Among a generation that is increasingly being studied for the rapid rise levels of reported loneliness, the experience of relational, co-creative dialogue offers possibilities for seeing themselves and others through a more human and humane lens. Many of the students who have come through my classroom continue to seek out mentors and spaces where they can pursue questions of meaning and purpose. Hunger for community and attention to just one thing is recognized in the dialogical process and spiritual practices emerge.

[26] For Christians, it may be that the interfaith dialogue that asks us to decenter assumptions of an ideal path or single truth by putting respect and humility as the center will lead us closer to a genuine desire to see God doing a new thing.

[i] Robyn Penman, Reconstructing Communicating: Looking to a Future, (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000) 47.

[ii] Ibid., 87

[iii] Talk about a time when you felt connected beyond yourself.

Who are you in your personal relationship w/ a member of the non-human world. Consider taking up the challenge of sharing a narrative about a non-animate part of the more than human world.

Talk about an experience where “time” behaved differently than usual.

How do humans fit into the world or even the multiverse?

Who are people who have shaped your worldview, both positively and negatively? You may have met them only once.

What are the myths, quotes, rules, truths, ideas that underly your worldview?

How has geography or culture been a factor in your spiritual life?

[iv] Linda J. Morgan-Clement, “Betwixt and Between: Interstitial Dialogue, Identity and Mending on a College Campus,” in College and University Chaplaincy in the 21st Century, ed. Lucy Forester-Smith (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2013) 194-196.

[v]  Kwok Pui-lan, Postcolonial Imagination & Feminist Theology, (Westminster John Know Press, 2005) 187-8.

Linda J. Morgan-Clement

Linda J. Morgan-Clement is an ordained Presbyterian minister and recently retired Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life and Chaplain to the University at Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin.