I have been actively involved in interfaith dialogue for thirty years. During this time I have observed three kinds of interfaith conversations:
Serial Monologue where spokespersons from each faith represented on the panel speak of their respective with no reference to others on the panel.
We Are One where spokespersons from each faith gloss over any areas of differences and conflict so that every religion sounds like every other religion.
Roll Up Our Sleeves where spokespersons from each faith focus on a shared moral, political, or social agenda and work together to achieve their common objectives.
There is something positive to be said for each of these, and I have been involved in all of them. But lately they bore me. What excites me is a far more risky kind of dialogue rooted in disagreement and conflict. I find that there is nothing to learn when we pretend that all religions agree. Learning comes from creative discord where thoughtful, committed, and compassionate people on opposing sides of an issue or idea struggle not agree but learn and grow from those very places where agreement is impossible.
My model for this is a reimagined version of the Hindu parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. You know the story: A group of blind men are asked to describe an elephant. One takes hold of the tale and imagines a long thin creature. Another grasps the trunk and speaks of much thicker animal. The person holding the legs describes another animal, and those holding the ears, the trunk, and the belly describe even more diverse “elephants”. Who is right? They are all right in part, but none is right in toto. What they have to accept is their partial truth and by exploring the experience of the others come to a greater truth about the true nature of the elephant.
Imagine an interfaith gathering where the speakers admitted from the start that they are all blind. What they come to offer is their piece of the puzzle. What they hope to glean are other pieces so that in time they may better understand the Truth that surpasses their partial understandings. They speak with authority and humility, knowing that what they know is true but the whole truth.
Conversations such as these would be heated at times, for it is difficult to imagine how the elephant’s tail and trunk can possible be part of the same creature. Differences will lead to disagreements, and argument, and honest struggling with on another. But how else can we learn?
This is an idea in the rough, and I have to do lots more thinking about it. But I invite you to think along with me. Imagine hosting a gathering called “Defining the Elephant: Searching for Truth Beyond Trunk and Tail” where we focus on where we differ, why we differ, and what our differences have to teach us about the nature of Reality.
Just a thought, but one I find very exciting.