Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Danger of Difference

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.


Anonymous said...

Rami, I recall you've expressed this perspective before. I guess it begs the question, why do you go to events like this?

eashtov said...

Shalom Aron,

You beat me to the question that immediately
popped into my aging brain. Thanks for asking.

Shabbat Shalom to all of us


6:26 AM

Rabbi Rami said...

I go because I hope to meet people who would like to go deeper, reach farther.

Far more troubling is the fact that I am repeating myself. Maybe it is time to say good-bye and start a new project.

Anonymous said...

I didn't really mean to suggest derision or criticism in my comments so much as to find out what the positive side of interfaith has been in the past for you, really.

Not to sugarcoat this, but a message I've gotten from reading your work here and in books was a spirituality that went beyond the tribal limits of each tradition. For that, I seek interfaith, but admittingly not so much interfaith for it's own sake that I think these conferences sometimes encourage.

I can't say you'd said exactly this before, but I do recall you discussing the limits of interfaith before.

I certainly don't want you to stop blogging on my account!

Shabbat Shalom,

Maggid said...

I was invited to attend a pre-parliament thingy -I haven't talked myself into it, yet. BUT - When it comes to interfaith - on my way home on the bus today I had an encounter with a person who explained that there are space ships here NOW - helping to prepare the earth for the new messiah - he was very excited because he's had a few personal sightings lately. All i could think of was how much you'd enjoy the conversation.

Thank you for sharing. Thank you for making yourself available.


Andrea Perez said...

Please don't stop! I go to a UU fellowship along with my synoguage membership. So much of the time is spent trying to be "accepting" of each other that when something remotely controversial comes up such as how to spend our "money" all the prior bagggage comes to the surface. You could almost line everyone up along a wall and from the way they are acting figure out who the Jews, Catholics, Presbies, Anglicans and so on are in our "respectful" midsts. It takes a lot of time and a few people with really stiff backbones to get through this foolishness. So please don't give up! Rabbi Rami you seem to be one of the ones who is trying to get through!

Cheers! said...

Why wouldn't you talk about the differences. Or the similarities? What's the point in going then? What about talking about living together peacefully without having to push your faith on anyone else? Taking the "business" of religion out of governtment, letting it live beside it, not tangled up inside of it?

Cole said...

Thanks for that - I was wondering what was going on at those 'dialogue between you and us' meetings - it seems to me that the main problem stems from the Muslims and their belief that all non-Muslims should be attacked - (I mean they have to go to the Koran to find a reason -not to attack you - its like look - here - the Koran says we should be nice to you - under these circumstances).

One would hope that these meeting could sort that out - then we could comfortably go back to our illusions that - all religions are basically the same - with a few finer differences.

Islamic Jihad - unfortunately - is a difference most are no prepared to live with - throw in the subjugation under Shariah law - as well !!