What is Interfaith Dialogue?

As a member of Mid-Ohio Valley Interfaith, I am pleased by the attention our efforts have received from the Marietta Times, including coverage of our events and publication of opinion pieces written by our members.

Even the critical article by contributor Nancy Hamilton, who recently wrote “A Troubling Subject,” while not mentioning us specifically, shows that people in the community are thinking about and responding to the idea of interfaith dialogue.

I am sorry to say, however, that the article is mistaken about what interfaith dialogue is and why people like me participate in it. Interfaith dialogue, in its essence, is just people of different religions speaking to and trying to understand each other. It can happen in the forum of a meeting organized by a group like ours.

It can also happen informally, through conversations with neighbors or online.

One is not required to believe that religions are somehow “all the same underneath,” or equally valid paths to the truth and salvation, in order to participate in interfaith dialogue. Indeed, many participants do hold to some version of this idea, called religious pluralism, but not all do. I do not. As a Christian, I would not relinquish what I understand to be the particular and even exclusive truth claims of my faith in order to participate in dialogue. Just as I would not expect a Muslim or a member of any other religion to relinquish the particularities of her faith in order to have a conversation. Otherwise, what would the point of a conversation be?

There are many reasons for people of different religions to engage in dialogue, even if they can never agree on some points. There are areas where they can agree, particularly on matters of ethics. Every major world religion has some version of the “the Golden Rule,” the principle of treating others the way one would like to be treated. Finding common moral ground can be a basis for interfaith acts of service, such as working together on a Habitat for Humanity home or a similar project. This is not chasing a utopian “vision of a religious Shangri-La,” as Ms. Hamilton puts it. It is a realistic pursuit the common good in a world in which religious diversity is an undeniable fact.

Another reason to engage in dialogue is simply to gain knowledge about the different religions–their beliefs and practices–from the perspective of those who belong to them. There is nothing inimical to Christian witness about listening and learning, respect and understanding. The Apostle Paul, even when trying to convert the Athenians to Christianity, showed respect for and knowledge of their beliefs (Acts 17: 22-34). Listening and learning, I would say, is Christian witness. It is following Jesus, who recognized, and who taught his followers to recognize, faith and goodness in people outside of their religious circle (Mark 9:38-41, Luke 10:29-37).

Those who wish to learn more about Mid-Ohio Valley Interfaith are welcome to contact us, most easily through our Facebook account.

David Torbett is a professor of religion at Marietta College and a member of Marietta’s Interfaith Dialog Planning Group.