Two weeks ago I attended an interfaith gathering in Portland, OR. The purpose of the gathering was to introduce people to the Parliament of the World’s Religions and encourage us to attend this year’s Parliament in Australia. It was a nice enough gathering with the usual collection of well-intentioned people peppered with a smattering of socially functional schizophrenics. One conversion I had with a member of the former group proved most interesting.
A sixty-something woman who has devoted the latter part of her life to promoting interfaith understanding told me that she was tired of gatherings such as this where we all put on our most polite faces, unpacked our most humble theological positions, and pretended that all religions are rooted in and pointing toward the same truth. “I would prefer,” she told me, “to speak about the differences among the world’s religions rather than their supposed similarities.”
I smiled, nodded in a noncommittal manner, and hoped the subject would pass. It didn’t. She pressed me for an opinion. I gave her one, unfortunately it was my own.
I don’t think people who come to interfaith gatherings are really interested in learning about other religions, but only in learning how other religions jibe with their own. Isn’t it wonderful: we all want to end poverty, homelessness, inequality, and fix the environment! But do we? Look at countries like Iran, Iraq, and Israel—countries that define themselves to one degree or another by religion. Are these nations paragons of environmental health? Have they eliminated poverty, homelessness, and inequality? Or look at the United States, ostensibly a secular state, yet one with a population that describes itself as overwhelmingly religious: are we exemplars of virtue?
So even on those subjects where we pretend to take a real interest, we actually do very little. If we were to open the can of worms called “difference” would that help? If Jew were honest and admitted that Judaism’s notion that Jews are God’s Chosen People elevates Jews above all others in the eyes of God, would that help interfaith cooperation? If Christians who believed that Jesus Christ is the only way, life, and truth affirmed that faith and admitted that this means all other religions are false, would our dialogue improve? If Buddhists really made it clear that there is no soul, would those whose religions depend on the existence of souls be any more inclined to carry on a conversation? Would it improve relations between Islam and Christianity if Muslim attendees at interfaith gatherings voiced the central Muslim idea that the very thought of God having a son is anathema?
Of course not. Interfaith dialogue as most people practice it is built on a foundation of voluntary silence: everyone agrees to remain silent about the beliefs they hold when those beliefs contradict those of other religions. I suspect that if real issues of belief were broached at most interfaith gatherings the dialogue would end immediately.
Most people I encounter at most interfaith gatherings want to believe that everyone else believes just what they believe only they use different words to say it. Given this premise, there really isn’t much dialogue going on at these gatherings at all.