Just as Americans were getting into the full swing of the Christmas holidays, a plane landed at Detroit airport having narrowly escaped being blown apart on its flight from Amsterdam. Quick-witted passengers had subdued a young Nigerian Muslim who was apparently ready to kill himself and all those on the flight for reasons that conflate the categories of politics, religion and global conflict. When all of us heard this news, I suspect we experienced a broad range of reactions: anger over the attack, fear for our fragility as individuals and as a nation, perhaps some weariness at the thought of yet longer security lines in our airports or maybe a strong sense of reluctance at the very thought of flying again. I remember the rush of all these thoughts but there was another voice in my head, one that kept repeating, “Oh no, not again”! As someone who has spent decades working to achieve greater understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims, I knew that this incident—like so many others—would damage those efforts, would make this work even harder.
From the earliest years of my graduate courses in Islamic studies at the University of Toronto I have been involved in various forms of interreligious dialogue. I recall consulting for a series on revelation that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced in the mid-80s. During that same period, I served on the board of an early interfaith group that called itself Islam-West and I also worked with the Christian-Muslim National Liaison Committee of Canada. After taking a position in the United States, at Emory University, I began to assist with the ecumenical and interfaith office of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. This was followed by a decade-long tenure on the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims, a group that operated as a kind of think-tank for Roman Catholic outreach to the Muslim world. More recently, I have been involved with an annual gathering of Muslim and Christian scholars convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Known as “The Building Bridges Seminar,” this initiative was launched as a response to 9/11 and its meetings alternate between Muslim and Western cities and sites. Over the last two years, I have convened with other scholars in London, Rome and Washington, DC to discuss the important document released in October 2008 by the Jordanian Ahl al-Bayt Foundation—more about that later.
Formed by the past
Relations between religions have a very long history to which our contemporary contacts are heir. More specifically, relations between Christianity and Islam go back to the earliest years of Muhammad’s prophethood. Scholars of the Qur’an hypothesize that Muhammad’s preaching in both Mecca and Medina took place in a biblically-saturated environment. As he called his contemporaries to the worship of the one God, Muhammad could elliptically allude to narratives about Abraham, Moses and Jesus because his audience knew these stories. They could fill in the blanks.
As the nascent Muslim community increasingly defined itself as differentiated from Judaism and Christianity, tensions and animosities with these earlier monotheistic traditions increased. By the early ninth century the Byzantine historian Theophanes (d. 817) would describe Muhammad in his Chronicle as a false prophet whose visions were nothing but epileptic seizures, who had learned a distorted form of Christianity from heretical monks and who promised his warriors a paradise of sensual delights. A century earlier Bede (d. 735) had complained in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People of the Saracens, who invaded and laid waste to Gaul but were eventually turned back in defeat. Even Bede’s quarrel was not simply with Muslim militancy; it was also a theological dispute. The Qur’an states the terms and sets the limits of Christian error. The basic lines of dispute are straightforward: (1) God is not three; (2) God does not have sons; (3) Jesus was not crucified (cf. Q. 4:157, 171); and (4) the Bible has been falsified and misinterpreted. This final charge presents an interesting dilemma because while claiming that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament have been deliberately or inadvertently corrupted, medieval Muslim ‘biblical’ scholars also searched these same scriptures for anticipatory attestations to the prophet Muhammad. They found him foretold in these preceding revelations.
Prominent Christian voices in the early centuries of Muslim-Christian controversy, theologians like John of Damascus (d. 749) and Theodore Abū Qurrah (8th-9th), offer valuable clues to the key lines of contention. In these same centuries, a parallel, scholarly interest in science, medicine and philosophy emerged in the Arab world via the Arabic translations of Greek and Hellenistic works. By the 11th and 12th centuries, the Crusades stimulated yet another wave of interest in Islam and Muslims, much of it fanciful and intended to incite hatred of the foe. Yet, in this era also, a scholarly counterbalance surfaced. Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny (c. 1094 – 1156), visited Spain from 1142-1143. There he commissioned the translation of the Qur’anic paraphrase by Robert of Ketton. Ketton’s translation circulated widely in many manuscripts until its printing in the 16th century. The motivation for this project could best be captured in the precept: ‘Know the enemy, but do so with accuracy’.
Three centuries later, Nicolas of Cusa (d. 1464) wrote De pace fidei, On the Peace of Faith, a treatise in which he envisioned a heavenly meeting of representatives from all nations and religions in dialogue with the Word of God. This would be una religio in varietate rituum, one religion but a variety of rites. The goal of the dialogue was still conversion to the fullness of truth in Christianity but not by degrading other religions. They were to remain objects of respect. Nicolas of Cusa also produced Cribratio Alkorani (Sifting the Koran), an apologetic argument prompted by his reading of Ketton’s Qur’an translation.
Beginning with Rome and rippling outward
Fastforwarding five centuries, let’s look at the contemporary world of Muslim-Christian interaction, touching upon key events and tracking significant development. On October 28, 1965, Pope Paul VI proclaimed Nostra Aetate, one of the most important documents of the Second Vatican Council (2221 bishops approved it and 81 voted against it). Nostra Aetate is much the shortest of the 16 documents from Vatican II, just 41 sentences in 5 paragraphs. The section on Islam begins with a succinct summary of Muslim belief:
The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
Nostra Aetate then acknowledges the difficult history:
Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind, social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.
There is a clear and explicit call to dialogue:
The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration [italics are mine] with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.
At a distance of almost fifty years, it’s hard to realize what a revolution in Catholic thinking these words and their subsequent implementation constituted. Yet the 60s were a decisive decade in so many ways, not least of all in how they shaped the future of interreligious relations. The years immediately preceding had witnessed independence movements that redrew the map of the world: in 1947, the creation of Pakistan; in 1954, the British withdrawal from Suez; in 1960, Congo’s independence from Belgium; in 1962, the end of the Algerian war. With declarations of independence, leadership often passed from colonial overlords—British, French, Dutch, Italian—to Muslim presidents and prime ministers. In North America, changes in immigration laws were another major legacy of the 60s, one that has redrawn the religious landscape of this continent.
But returning to Nostra Aetate and its aftermath: In 1964, the Vatican established the Secretariat for Non-Christians, later renamed the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Its mandate is “to promote mutual understanding, respect and collaboration between Catholics and the followers of others religious traditions; to encourage the study of religions; to promote the formation of persons dedicated to dialogue.” The beginnings were quiet and cautious with a limited agenda of International meetings and conferences. Not only did this new initiative face a long history of animosities, complicated by current issues in international relations, but there was also the ever-present suspicion of intent: Was this simply missionary activity in disguise?
After 1987 the operations of the Pontifical Council grew more rapidly under the executive leadership of Bishop Michael Fitzgerald. By 1989 he had organized colloquia with the World Islamic Call Society in Libya and with Jordan’s Prince Hassan bin Talal and the Jordanian Al al-Bayt Foundation. Meetings began in 1994 with the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and in 2000 with the Al-Azhar in Cairo, the oldest and most prestigious university in the Muslim world. 2000 was also the year that Pope John Paul II visited Cairo as part of the jubilee year commemoration. The Permanent Committee of Al-Azhar for Dialogue with Monotheistic Religions continues to convene annually with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
Closer to home, the momentum created by Nostra Aetate generated actions on the American scene. Local parish and diocesan initiatives throughout the 1980s attracted the attention of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 1986 they created a Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and in 1991, meetings began between Muslim and Christian participants. Eventually these developed into three annual series of dialogues, in the midwest (1996) with the Islamic Society of North America, on the east coast (1998) with the Islamic Circle of North America and on the west coast (2000) with the Orange County Shura Advisory Council. In a recent report on the more than twenty years of this tripartite dialogue, two important results of this work were noted: (1) Over two hundred Muslim and Christian leaders have gotten to know each other well and have acquired a much deeper knowledge of the other’s faith tradition. (2) When an interreligious dispute or difficulty occurs on the regional or local level, there is now a solid network of relationships ready to respond.
While Rome may have developed the most extensive global dialogue outreach, other American denominations and educational institutions have also sustained decades-long forms of engagement, such as the National Council of Churches, the Hartford Seminary and Georgetown University. Beyond our borders, one can find many other forms and forums of interreligious engagement. As examples, I can point to the 1989 publication of Trying to answer the questions. This compact volume represents the work of a group of priests, nuns, and lay people living in Tunisia who, for more than 15 years, gathered regularly to prepare responses to the questions that were typically asked by their Muslim friends and colleagues. They were motivated by 1 Peter 3, 15: “To have our answer ready for people who ask us the reason for that hope that we all have.”
The format of their responses acknowledges the Muslim mindset underlying the question, the Muslim view on the question and then the present state of Christian teaching. Here are some of the topics: Do Christians recognize the prophethood of Muhammad? Why don’t priests and nuns marry? Are Christians really monotheists or do they believe in three gods? Why are there four Gospels and not just one? Which is the real one? On Christian prayer: How do you perform Christian prayer? Why do you pray with bread and wine (haram!)? Do you really believe that God is present in this bread and wine? That you ‘eat’ God? What’s in that little box on the altar? What’s the difference between Mass in a big church on Sunday and weekday Masses in a small chapel?
The rupture that reorients
While the last third of the twentieth century certainly saw ever-expanding efforts in Christian outreach to Muslims, with some modest reciprocity, any future historian of interreligious dialogue will recognize September 11, 2001 as a watershed moment. At that time, I was the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Georgetown University and I vividly remember our students standing on their dorm roofs and gazing down the Potomac at the smoke billowing from the Pentagon. Even more vividly, I recall the way that students, both Christian and Jewish, reached out to their Muslim classmates in solidarity and support. And I remember the way that my phone started ringing off the hook with requests for interviews, lectures, and panel presentations. Suddenly, people across this nation awoke to the Muslim presence in America and to how little we know or understand about one of the biggest religions on the globe.
The search for knowledge and understanding generated an explosion of interfaith initiatives at all levels—local, national and international. One to which I have given much time and attention for almost a decade is the ‘Building Bridges Seminar’. This began in January 2002 when George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury convened a gathering of prominent Muslim and Christian religious leaders at Lambeth Palace in London. Out of that first encounter grew a yearly, international dialogue led by Carey’s successor, Archbishop Rowan Williams. The site of the annual meeting alternates between a Muslim country and a Christian or Western one. Meetings to date have been held in Doha, Sarajevo, Singapore, Istanbul, London, Washington and Rome. In my experience, the format and structure of this dialogue have proven to be particularly effective. A group of between 25 – 30 Muslim and Christian scholars gathers for several days of intensive study and discussion. The core membership of this group has stayed fairly constant over its entire duration but each year additions to this core are invited from the city and country that is hosting the meeting. The focus of our study and discussion is a selection of biblical and qur’anic passages keyed to the theme selected for that year’s gathering. Some of the themes explored have been: Muslims, Christians and the Common Good (Sarejevo); Justice and Rights (Washington, DC); and Revelation, Translation and Interpretation (Rome). Members of the Seminar break into working sessions for intensive analysis of the assigned scriptural texts, assisted by the scholarly expertise of the respective participants. This scriptural specificity grounds the discussions, tethering us to the texts and keeping the conversation from floating off into pious generalities. As a balance to these closed working sessions, the Building Bridges Seminar usually offers several presentations by some of the scholar participants that are open to the public.
Two factors are essential to the effectiveness of this methodology. (1) The first is core continuity within the group of Muslim and Christian scholars. This continuity allows trust and mutual confidence to develop and that is crucial. When dialogue groups of Muslims and Christians first form there is a strong tendency for participants to adopt the posture of ‘professional Christian’ or ‘professional Muslim’. It’s hard to avoid feeling that one has to operate as a worthy ‘representative’ of one’s faith. But this representational posture precludes genuine dialogue. Only after repeated contact and conversation do the barriers begin to fall. People begin to speak out of their own faith and experience. Then the dialogue comes alive and mutual understanding can move to a deeper level. (2) The second factor for success is a commitment to advance preparation and study, especially of the selected scriptural texts. Successful dialogue cannot be built upon anything less than serious and sustained study. Unlike airline travel, ‘winging it’ is not an option, at least if you want to get anywhere.
Local initiatives have also surged in the wake of September 11. Not long ago, I published a review of a book entitled Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America, written by the journalist Gus Niebuhr. It’s a wonderful account of his travels across this country, exploring events like the annual “Festival of Faiths” organized by the Catholic cathedral in Louisville, Kentucky and the “Open Mosque Days” hosted by Muslim communities in Los Angeles. Niebuhr, who had written for The New York Times about the backlash against American Muslims that followed the fall of the Twin Towers wanted to find the “quiet countertrend” of interfaith efforts that were springing up in all parts of the US.
Fortunately, in looking for that ‘countertrend’, he did not limit himself to Christian activities. For decades the world of Christian-Muslim dialogue was lopsided with many more efforts initiated by Christian groups than by Muslim. But that, too, began to change rapidly after September 11th. At the end of Ramadan in 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan issued the Amman Message, a call for intra-Islamic tolerance and unity and a reiteration of the basic beliefs and principles of Islam. Repeatedly, the Amman Message rejects distortions of these beliefs:
“No day has passed, but that this religion [Islam] has been at war against extremism, radicalism and fanaticism, for they veil the intellect from foreseeing negative consequences [of one's actions]. Such blind impetuousness falls outside the human regulations pertaining to religion, reason and character. They are not from the true character of the tolerant, accepting Muslim.”
“Islam rejects extremism, radicalism and fanaticism—just as all noble, heavenly religions reject them—considering them as recalcitrant ways and forms of injustice.”
“We denounce and condemn extremism, radicalism and fanaticism today, just as our forefathers tirelessly denounced and opposed them throughout Islamic history. “
After issuing the Amman Message, King Abdullah sent 3 questions to 24 of the Muslim world’s most eminent scholars. The scholars were selected to represent the internal diversity of the Muslim community. The three questions were: (1) Who is a Muslim? (2) Is it permissible to declare someone an apostate (takfir)? (3) Who has the right to undertake issuing fatwas (legal rulings)? Within the following year, a number of important conferences were mounted by major international organizations within the Muslim world to address these issues.
Although the Amman Message does not deal directly with interfaith dialogue, it promotes an intra-Islamic unity that can create a helpful context for interfaith work. Speaking generally, there is a fundamental asymmetry in the religious structures of dialogue work between Christianity and Islam. Christian denominations, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, have clearly identifiable official bodies who can function in a representational fashion. Islam is far less officially hierarchical; authority is more distributed and it is consequently more difficult to determine who can ‘speak’ for Islam.
In October 2007, a subsequent Muslim effort to speak with a more unified voice appeared, arguably the most significant dialogue initiative to issue from the Muslim world to date. Titled “A Common Word between Us and You”, this open letter’s initial 138 signatories included Muslim scholars and religious leaders from around the world. A year earlier, a shorter letter had been released by a smaller group (38) in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture at the University of Regensburg on 12 September 2006, a lecture in which he quoted a fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor’s (Manuel II Palaiologos) denunciation of the prophet Muhammad. Although it’s fair to say that the Pope’s use of that quotation was misinterpreted, it’s equally undeniable that it seriously damaged Catholic-Muslim relations. The 2007 letter seeks to find its common ground or ‘common word’ in the centrality for Islam and Christianity of love of God and love of neighbor. Drawing upon biblical and qur’anic quotations, it foregrounds those passags that express this mutually acceptable message.
The reception of the letter and the response to it have been extraordinary. Major conferences have been held at Yale, Cambridge and Georgetown universities and important discussions hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope. Papers and books have been prepared and citations from the document in public speeches have proliferated. The Vatican’s primary response, in addition to references to the document in several papal speeches, was a meeting of Muslim and Christian scholars and religious leaders in November 2008, billed as the first Catholic Muslim Forum. As a participant in that meeting, I can attest to the intensity and rigor with which the document was discussed and the conference’s final declaration debated. One key quotation from that declaration captures the Forum’s tone: “We profess that Catholics and Muslims are called to be instruments of love and harmony among believers, and for humanity as a whole, renouncing any oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism, especially that committed in the name of religion, and upholding the principles of justice for all.”
What’s the point?
“Renouncing any oppression, aggressive violence and terrorism”: necessary words, important words but what effect do they have? Does all this dialoguing make any difference? Or is it just a way to generate feel-good sentiments among those who give their time to it? I am asking these questions today more directly, more starkly than I have ever before posed them in a public presentation. They are questions that have preoccupied me during all the years in which I have given energy and attention to these efforts. I know from private conversations that they are questions that perplex many of my fellow scholars and religious leaders who also engage in interfaith work.
As I try and retry to work out my own answers to these questions I find it important to remember that dialogue takes several forms. A four-fold typology has become a popular way to categorize this. What I’ve been discussing today is dubbed the “dialogue of discourse”, i.e. the discussion of religious beliefs and practices. But there is also the “dialogue of life” when people of different faiths share the same community or workplace. There is the “dialogue of action” when faith groups come together around a common cause, whether this is confronting poverty or supporting environmental sustainability. Finally, there is the “dialogue of spirituality” with the interfaith practice of prayer and meditation. Monastics, both Buddhist of Christian, have a decades-long history of this form of dialogue with figures like the late Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh and the current Dalai Llama being especially prominent proponents.
I also try to remember that dialogue engagements are not all ‘campfires and Kum by Yah’. Serious interfaith conversations can be tough, tense work. In this country and elsewhere, there is a rising fear of Islam and a growing prejudice against it. Understandably, this can leave Muslim participants feeling defensive and embattled.
Furthermore, many meetings in which I have participated over the years have been haunted by the specter of American foreign policies. It won’t surprise anyone in this audience to hear that America is not universally admired and loved. In many parts of the world we are seen as an oppressive power bent upon realizing our own national interests regardless of the effects on others. The tragedy of unending conflict in the Middle East can infiltrate interfaith conversations in both expected and unexpected ways. In his Cairo speech last June, President Obama addressed the world Muslim community and the challenges presented by (1) Iraq and Afghanistan; (2) Israel, Palestine and the Arab world; (3) nuclear proliferation; (4) the promotion of democracy; (5) religious freedom; (6) women’s rights and (7) economic development and opportunity.
Dialogue arouses suspicion. Many fear that it is simply a covert effort at evangelization or what Muslims call da’wa. Especially for those believers, both Christian and Muslim, who live with a very strong sense of possessing God’s final truth, the idea of interfaith explorations can border on blasphemy.
Dialogue can be dangerous. A deeply engaged form of the “dialogue of life” was that practiced by the Trappists of Tibhirine, a group of French monks who lived a life of prayful witness within a mountainous Muslim community in Algeria. In March 1996 they were kidnapped during a particularly bitter period of the Algerian civil war and assassinated two months later.
Dare I say it? Dialogue can also be boring. After years of engagement all conversations can begin to sound the same. People enter dialogue meetings with different levels of experience and different kinds of interfaith socialization. It takes time to build sufficient confidence in the process that one feels safe in moving beyond bland generalities.
Perhaps the most vexing problem in interfaith work is what I have come to call ‘the monolith and the many.’ Countless times I have heard participants preface their remarks with categorical statements like “Islam says . . .” or “Christianity asserts that . . .” I’m always tempted to respond “Whose Islam”? “Whose Christianity”? As we all know, religions are not monovocal. They do not speak with one voice yet the temptation to pontificate—to use a decidedly Catholic term—and to speak in universals can be overwhelming in dialogue situations.
A variant of this dilemma is the perplexing issue of ‘who’s the host?’ and ‘who’s the guest?’ The religious group that invites, that initiates the process, ordinarily sets the agenda. As I mentioned earlier, for decades the preponderance of such initiatives lay with Christian organizations and denominations. Not surprisingly, the focus given to a particular dialogue meeting ordinarily drew from Christian categories and experience. Religions do not line up symmetrically, as the early ‘comparativists’ quickly learned. Consequently, there can be an immediate sense of discomfort experienced by Muslim participants as they try to adjust their thoughts and perspectives to these Christian-oriented categories.
So why bother?
A rehearsal of the difficulties associated with interfaith dialogue sharpens the question: ‘What’s the point?’ ‘Why bother?’ The best—and maybe the only—answer is that we have no choice. If we don’t try and try again to understand each other, to reach out to each other, the walls grow higher, the misperceptions and misunderstandings multiply, tensions trigger eruptions that escalate too rapidly. But the justifications for interfaith dialogue are not all preventive and precautionary. There are very positive reasons for the pursuit of interreligious understanding and quite genuine benefits that accrue to those who engage.
Most basically, honest dialogue expands our understanding of each other. Every conversation illuminates some as-yet-unrealized area of apprehension. Religious believers as the living, breathing embodiments of their traditions represent an ever-new source of insight into the multi-faceted aspects of their respective traditions.
Deepening insights and expanded knowledge of another’s traditions inevitably breaks down negative impressions and preconceptions. I’m often asked to introduce audiences to Islam and the Qur’an. Most such invitations, I must decline given my other responsibilities. I always regret that, however, because the need for clear, unbiased information is profound. But some invitations I can accept and I always enjoy these opportunities. Yet, almost invariably, I find myself in front of people who are afraid. Not all of them but a significant percentage. In this country there is a widespread and growing fear of Islam and Muslims. We are a nation at war with a Muslim country and beset with the threat—and the realities—of terrorism. The media feeds this fear with its relentless depictions of violence committed for ostensibly religious reasons.
Events like the aborted bomb on the Detroit flight heighten fear levels, as do articles like the recent New York Times profile of the American jihadist, Omar Hammami/Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki. So often, in my long years as a scholar and a speaker on Islam, it has felt like ‘for every two steps forward, there’s one step back.” But that’s the reason I remain engaged with dialogue work. I am confident that each encounter, each conversation is a pebble in the pool. Its effects ripple outward.
On a yet more personal level, interfaith dialogue creates friendship and trust. In fact, for dialogue to be productive, ever-deeper trust is indispensable. That is an important factor in the success of the Building Bridges Seminar and in other, longstanding interfaith efforts that expand well beyond the initial, polite exchanges.
Dialogue pushes theology. As the experience of believers from different faiths outstrips the official doctrines and declarations of their religious bodies, a theology-from-the-ground-up forges ahead. Assertions of theological exclusivity ring hollow when people see the good in each other, when they witness how another’s faith prompts deeds that builds a better future for us all.
Increasingly, dialogue efforts, particularly on the local and regional level, move beyond talk to action. A few years ago, I heard about the Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston and its head, Rabbi Elliott Gershenson. At the time I was helping to organize a private meeting for Prince Charles and a group of American interfaith leaders and activists. When I called to invite Rabbi Gershenson, I learned about the extraordinary disaster relief work that his group had done in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Because of the emergency response procedures already in place, Interfaith Ministries was able to quickly place hurricane refugees in Houston homes and connect them with needed social services.
Finally, I will point to a consequence or benefit that may not have geopolitical importance but which does affect lives. Virtually everyone whom I’ve come to know through interfaith engagements has told me that his or her own faith has been strengthened by participation in dialogue meetings. As you try to explain your faith to another and listen to that person’s attempt to do the same, you reengage with you own religious formation, your own spiritual heritage. Probably my most profound experience of this truth was at a conference in Rome a few years ago that was convened to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate. During the concluding session, one speaker after another—all of them with long experience in dialogue—rose to testify to this spiritual transformation. I dwell on this because it flies in the face of the concern mentioned earlier, that interfaith dialogue is a form of covert proselytizing that will weaken or destroy one’s faith.
A final comment
As I conclude these remarks, I will let Albert Camus have the last word in response to my questions, “Why bother?”, “What’s the point?” I am grateful to Gus Niebuhr for unearthing this prophetic proclamation from an essay penned by the Franco-Algerian philosopher in 1946:
In the coming years an endless struggle will be waged across five continents, a struggle in which either violence or dialogue will prevail. Granted the former has a thousand times the chances of the latter. But I have always thought that if the man who places hope in the human condition is a fool, then he who gives up hope in the face of circumstances is a coward. Henceforth, the only honor will lie in obstinately holding to a formidable gamble: that words are strong than bullets.”