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Practical suggestions for successful interfaith dialogue

Inter-religious Think-Tank

Part II: Practical Guidelines for successful inter-religious dialogue

Religions don’t speak. It is people, and not religious systems, who encounter each other in interfaith dialogue. They all live in specific socio-political contexts. They have all been influenced by their particular cultures and religions, by their economic position and social class, by their gender, and by their position as part of the social mainstream or as members of a minority group. Everybody’s identity is complex.

Religion is only one of the things that shape a person’s view of who he or she is. But in interfaith dialogue – if the encounter is one that concentrates on matters of religion – the religious part of a person’s identity gains more weight, perhaps more than it carries in their everyday life. When people make statements in an interfaith conversation, the statements may seem to be more strongly anchored in religion than they really are – and than the speaker intended them to be. Since the people involved in the dialogue may be seen primarily as representatives of their faith community, the people listening may come to think that opinions which are evidently subjective are actually based on religion, even if in fact they have no link at all to its core values. This can lead to people having a distorted view of each other – and of the religions in which they have grown up.

When people of different cultural or religious backgrounds meet, they usually have preconceptions about what the others are like. They have mental pictures of what they expect of the others in an encounter. Therefore, it is not enough merely to approach the other participants with openness and curiosity – you have to be conscious of the preconceptions you yourself have, and ask yourself what basis you have for them. Dialogue means not only learning, but also unlearning, if we are to reach an encounter based on mutual respect.

So what organisational measures need to be taken, and what attitudes must be adopted, if people in interfaith dialogue are going to understand each other?

In the following we formulate what we have learned over many years as Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women who have set out to promote dialogue. We offer guidelines and examples from our experience of interfaith dialogue in practice. Each example is followed by our reflections on what happened, and the insights we gained.

The examples often have to do with a feeling of uneasiness, a conflict, or an encounter which failed. They are based on our experience, and usually on an experience which we have had often – not merely once. It is these memories which show quite clearly where stumbling- blocks in interfaith dialogue can be encountered. Reading these examples, and our comments about how we realised what had gone wrong, may help you as a reader to gain useful and maybe unexpected insights. As people often say, you learn from your mistakes! And so we hope that the experiences, guidelines and rules which we formulate here will help readers to anticipate and avoid the things which can lead to conflict when people meet for dialogue; things which can very well lead to the failure of their efforts.

If you get the impression that these examples tend to stress the “mistakes” made by members of mainstream society and the Christian majority, you are quite right. This may at first seem unjustified and unfair. However, it is natural that the members of the majority society are less likely to question their own position than members of a minority with a “foreign” background. Members of the majority group make a lot of assumptions about what is the norm, and do not question them. These assumptions can easily lead to an unintended and unconscious lack of sensitivity.

The problem of relations between majority and minority groups leads to much of the friction which may occur in dialogue – and is, of course, a constant issue in all social contexts. But even though the members of the majority religion may have particular problems with dialogue, our suggestions are also intended to help representatives of religious minorities to improve their approach to dialogue, and thus contribute to the better and more lasting success of interfaith encounters.

The following guidelines and rules for dialogue are partly taken from the book by M. & J. Hartkemeyer und F. Dhority called “Miteinander Denken” [Thinking Together].18 Individuals from our group have adapted specific rules for interfaith dialogue for specific contexts, for example in the European Project for Inter-religious Learning (EPIL), interfaith theology courses, and interfaith contact groups. We have used them over several years. In these “Guidelines” we have also added some additional rules and suggestions of our own.19

2.1   If a dialogue is to go well it will depend on the dialogical attitudes of the participants

When the members of a group take turns to introduce themselves and their beliefs about the world, this is not yet dialogue. Dialogue involves empathy, exchange, interaction and trying to understand.

Dialogue is a special form of communication, because it is reciprocal. It depends on a balance of listening and speaking, and is based on respect, empathy, mutual acceptance, and the acknowledgement that all the people involved must be regarded as equal partners in discussion. If you embark on a dialogue with the feeling that you are part of a hierarchy – even though your feelings of superiority or inferiority are purely subjective – you will scarcely experience anything new. You will more likely be in danger of concluding that your existing imperfect knowledge of the other side is correct.

Dialogue is neither a monologue nor a duel. As an example, consider discussion programmes on TV. These like to give the impression that they are offering an in-depth exploration of a theme which will contribute to an increase in public understanding. They like to give the impression that all points of view are represented and that they can thus contribute to the formation of public opinion and even to social integration. (These ideas are formulated in the guidelines for discussions staged by Swiss public TV). However, in actual fact, the people appearing on these programmes are chosen so that they will confront each other argumentatively – in effect, in a duel rather than a dialogue.

For example: on June 14th 2013 in Arena, a programme for political debate on German-Swiss TV, there was a discussion on the theme Is forbidding head-scarves sensible or discriminatory? Should Muslim girls and women be forbidden to wear head-scarves in certain situations? Or would such a measure discriminate against Muslim women? The debate was sparked off by a dispute about whether two Muslim schoolgirls should be allowed to wear headscarves in school. Two of the four speakers argued for prohibition in public schools; one of them was a well-known feminist, and the other was a member of the right-wing party responsible for much of the propaganda against Muslims in Switzerland. Both had made a name for themselves during the earlier national campaign to forbid the building of minarets in the country,20 and were known to be very critical of Islam in public discussions. Both had already had a lot of experience of appearing on TV and radio.

Their introductory statements contained a series of assertions calculated to stir up anti-Muslim emotions, referring to the danger of Islamisation, or the way that people from foreign cultures must adapt themselves more to Swiss society than they do at present.” They produced sweeping allegations, for instance that Muslim children are held captive, mentally and socially, in their family’s traditional Islamic value-system”, and made highly questionable comparisons. The headscarf was said to be like a condom; something which reduces sensory perception.

The two people on the other side, especially the Muslim woman invited to attend, who was experiencing the heat of a TV discussion for the very first time, were forced into a defensive position, answering the accusations which had been made. It was only the second opponent of the proposal to ban headscarves from schools, a Swiss woman from the Green Party, who managed to bring the discussion to a more realistic and pragmatic level.

This example shows that in TV Talk-Shows – and more and more also in public discussions – although theoretically the objective is mutual understanding, what happens is a dispute, a verbal duel, presented in a way which is as exciting and as confrontational as possible. Such events are not really meant to help people to understand each other, empathise with each other and look for solutions to common problems. The participants are trying all the time to gain victory over the others. They are competing for public support. So, especially in programmes in which the people taking part are mostly elected politicians speaking to their particular constituency, the opinions presented and the questions discussed are formulated aggressively and in such a way as to make a clear division between “them” and “us”.21

There can, of course, be an opposite problem: “dialogues” in which everybody concerned wants to keep things harmonious, and real differences are kept under wraps. Any dissonance is automatically regarded as judgemental and avoided because it is liable to lead to a quarrel.

It is important to remember that the dialogical approach is different from negotiation. In negotiations both sides know what they want to achieve, where they are prepared to give way or compromise, and precisely what they are demanding. In political “dialogue” it is not in fact the dialogue that is in the foreground, but the results of the negotiations – for example between Muslim organisations and the State.

Ideally, a dialogue between people of different religious and cultural backgrounds is a two-way encounter that can lead to change, in which both sides learn something about the other side – and about themselves.

It is good to be aware of the different forms and levels of dialogue:

There is the dialogue of great conferences, like the World Conferences of Religions in 1983, 1993 and 2004, or the meetings of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, founded in 1970.

There is the institutional dialogue between institutions, commissions, and representatives of organisations whose function it is to promote dialogue. Examples are the meetings of the Council for Religions in Switzerland, or the Muslim Dialogue conducted by the Swiss Federal Government.

There is the theological dialogue about questions of doctrine and teachings.

There is the dialogue of everyday life when people in a neighbourhood or community make contact and meet each other.

There is the spiritual dialogue in the framework of common inter-religious celebrations and prayers.

There is the ethical dialogue about common action, such as the search for religious resources for mutual efforts to promote a culture of peace and justice.

And finally, there is the dialogue about dialogue, that is, reflection on the necessary conditions for dialogue, the prerequisites and the necessary social framework.

2.2   Radical respect for your opposite number is fundamental

We must acknowledge that in dialogue others have equal rights. They must be recognised as equal partners, and their intellectual positions have to be accepted as fundamentally legitimate.

Radical respect for the Other, and for people who are different, is the foundation for dialogue. Radical respect is much more than tolerance. Tolerance means having patience with something – putting up with it. When we tolerate something we are really wishing it did not exist. So, deeply embedded in tolerance, there is a trace of intolerance – which is one reason why, in a crisis, tolerance can so quickly flip over into intolerance. Some people realised this at the very time in European history when a move towards tolerance was gaining strength. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was of the opinion that tolerance was an expression of arrogance, and Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), in his “Maxims and Reflections”22, put his finger on the weak point of the practice of tolerance: “Tolerance must be a temporary attitude only. It must lead to acknowledgement and appreciation. The attitude of patiently putting up with something you actually dislike is, at base, an insult.”

When tolerance is simply allowing something to exist – whether we are talking about religious or political views or a philosophy of life – the person or group that tolerates has more power than the person or group that is tolerated. Tolerance is conferred by those above on those below, graciously given by the majority to a minority – as for instance in the current discussion about tolerance for Islam in Western society. In a Western culture stamped by Christianity and its history, Christians frequently say that they tolerate Jews and Muslims. But if Jews or Muslims in Europe were to talk about tolerating Christians, the Christians would regard this as presumptuous. So, as Dorothee Sölle said, “Tolerance is not a value that exists independently – it establishes a necessary framework for dialogue within a society”. It should lead to radical respect, to recognition and appreciation of others.23

Radical respect for my opposite number not only means that I acknowledge that he or she has a different pattern of beliefs from me. It also means that I respect the concepts and ideas on which this different pattern of beliefs is based.

For example, in an inter-religious meeting people are thinking about the holy scriptures of Christianity and Islam. The speakers demonstrate the significance of the Bible in Christianity and the Koran in Islam. They point out the differing understandings of the nature of scripture on both sides and sketch their different methods of interpreting the holy texts. Many of the Christian participants have difficulties with the Islamic way of seeing the Koran as the authentically revealed Word of God. For some Christians that is an old-fashioned concept. They say, “For a long time we also saw the Bible as the authentic Word of God”, but they feel they have progressed to a further stage which Islam has not yet reached. Others see the Islamic attitude as a claim to exclusive truth, which is a serious hindrance to dialogue. On the other hand, many of the Muslims present have difficulty in accepting the way liberal modern Christians read texts from the Bible with a critical-historical approach. They perceive this kind of reading as taking the holiness away from Holy Scripture, and reducing the Bible’s authority. They therefore consider this kind of reading as a quite unacceptable detraction from the authority and majesty of Divine Revelation.

This example shows that our differing understandings of Holy Scripture can definitely be discussed in a theological way. Respect for and appreciation of the faith of others does not mean that I share their convictions, or must accept their convictions for myself. Posing critical questions is possible when it happens in the context of open respect for one’s partners in dialogue – and respect for what they hold to be the truth of their faith, or what they consider holy. Yes, the religious convictions of others are to be respected with no “ifs” or “buts”. This applies to the way different religions regard their holy scriptures and also to the central tenets of their faiths. Why should Christians pass judgement on the central importance of the Koran for Muslims? Or Jews and Muslims criticise the central significance for Christians of Jesus as the Son of God? In dialogue one cannot really debate the central tenets of religions, or peoples’ different convictions. Radical respect also includes accepting, therefore, that there will be limits to how far we can understand each other.

There are, of course, many differing points of view to be found within any religious tradition. For example among Christian feminists, conservative Evangelicals or traditional Catholics each have their very different understandings of the Bible as the Word of God, and of Jesus as the Christ. And in the same way there are different traditions of Koran interpretation in Islam, and in Judaism there are different understandings of the Torah. Respect for the faith of others means that we need to perceive and accept that there are differences not only between religions but within one religious community. One group of Christians may understand the Bible differently from other Christians. Some Muslims may see and understand the Koran in a different way from other Muslims. And equally, some Jews see and understand the Torah in ways different from other Jews. Even when we cannot find any common ground, we can at least approach the faith of others with respect.

This radical respect for the religious truths of people we are talking to is necessary for everybody participating in dialogue.

For example, Christians attending a course on relations between religions may find themselves listening to a Muslim speaking about his great respect for Jesus the Prophet, and hear him quoting the Koran verses about Jesus and the story of his birth. They may be astonished at the great significance Jesus has in Islam. But when it is the turn of the Christians to speak about their faith in Jesus as the Son of God, about the significance of his Incarnation and how his death brought Salvation, their Muslim partner in dialogue will correct them: According to the Koran, Jesus was not the Son of God.

This example shows how radical respect for the faith of others has to be exercised by all sides. This does not mean that Muslims taking part in a discussion have to accept the Christian understanding that Jesus was the Son of God. Neither side should be put under pressure to take on the faith of another. But both sides must approach the faith of the other with respect, and attempt to understand what it means to its adherents. It is, for example, not very helpful if Muslims or Jews take up the results of modern research on the Bible concerning the historical Jesus and triumphantly assert “We always knew that Jesus was only a human being”, and thus try to “prove” that the traditional Christian teachings are false. It is just as much a sign of a lack of respect – and indeed of ignorance – if Muslims, speaking to Christians who have problems with traditional Christology, and who in conversation mention their doubts about Jesus being the Son of God, respond by saying that those Christians are really not proper Christians, but actually Muslims, and ask if they would not like to convert.

2.3   Be aware of structural asymmetry, and take measures to counteract it

Inter-religious dialogue in Europe or elsewhere is by no means free from issues of power and dominance.

When Christians in Switzerland embark on interfaith dialogue they must be aware that the situation will inevitably be affected by structural inequalities. The participants are not standing on a level playing field. Christians are part of the established majority of the population and the majority religion, which automatically puts them into a superior position. Their Jewish, Muslim, Alevite, Buddhist and Hindu partners in dialogue belong to minority groups that are disadvantaged in various ways, including in their practice of religion.

For example, Christians take it for granted that they can have the day off work for the great Christian festivals – these are officially recognised holidays in Switzerland. But in most Swiss Cantons, Jews and Muslims have to enquire whether they can take the day off on their festival days, and have to get permission to take their children out of school. The same problems occur in most Western countries, though in Switzerland there are particular difficulties because there is no uniform law governing this matter that applies to the whole country. In schools, it often depends on the class teacher whether a pupil is allowed to be absent for a religious festival. So people practising a minority religion in Switzerland do not have the same rights as those who practise, and identify themselves with, the majority religion.

We need to be conscious of this structural asymmetry when we embark on interfaith dialogue. People belonging to the majority culture and the majority religion always speak from a position of social dominance. They cannot avoid it.

The question is: what should they do about it? Are they aware of this problem when they participate in dialogue? Do they make efforts to create a framework in which the participants will be as much as possible on an equal footing – for example by making a conscious effort to include the same number of people from all groups, if at all possible? If you hold a public discussion where one Muslim faces five Christians on the platform, you are simply strengthening the structural asymmetry – and in addition, of course, very often an asymmetry in the representation of women.

Structural asymmetry in a dialogue situation not only influences Christian partners in their reaction to other religions. It also influences the way other partners in the dialogue present their own religious traditions. For example, Muslim participants are very often concerned to draw as positive a picture of Islam as they can. This attitude has a lot to do with their situation as members of a minority group, needing to defend themselves against the prejudice and distrust of their religion that they meet everywhere. It is easy to understand why they want to present their traditions in the most positive way possible.

For example, in a course for women on inter-religious dialogue the Christian participants complained that the way the Muslim women presented their faith was not critical enough, and indeed that the participants were not self-critical about themselves. The Christians leading the course emphasised not only the positive and liberating aspects of their religion, but also its negative side. The Muslim speakers, however, only talked about the positive side of theirs. As a result, the Christian participants accused them of presenting a very one-sided picture of Islam.

This example shows that critical reflection on your own religion, and recognising your own “blind spots”, is more difficult when you are always on the defensive and feel constantly under attack – whether or not this feeling is really justified.

Another result of this inequality in discussion can be that people feel obliged to assert themselves by taking an “orthodox” position – even when in other situations they are much more open in the views they express. This will clearly not promote a profitable dialogue.

Structural asymmetry in interfaith dialogue is usually further strengthened by the way the dialogue is set up. For example, when speakers are invited for a public interfaith symposium, as a rule the chairperson is someone who represents the majority religion.

For example: A well-qualified Muslim lady was invited to take part in an interfaith symposium. In a preparatory meeting she offered to chair the discussion, pointing out that she had the necessary qualifications and experience. But she was told that this was unfortunately not possible, because as a representative of a minority immigrant religion she was really not neutral.

This example illustrates how the position of the majority is automatically considered to be “objective” or neutral, while it is assumed that people from a minority group will have a subjective and prejudiced view. The fear on the side of the majority population was that a Muslim chairperson would not be able to lead the discussion in a neutral and balanced way, and that she would not be able to fulfil the chairperson’s role of being a representative of the audience or the general public – or would not fulfil it adequately. The result of this kind of attitude is inevitably that the power of defining the terms of a discussion, of setting the agenda and formulating the questions, always remains in the hands of the majority group, and the stereotyping of representatives of majority and minority groups is firmly entrenched. This is contrary to any real process of integration, and quite different from the organisation of a dialogue of partners meeting on an equal footing.

There are various ways to reduce this asymmetry, involving all the different interest-groups. Muslims, Jews, and groups belonging to other minority religions should set out to organise events themselves, and thus set their own agendas.

For instance, an interfaith symposium in which representatives of the Christian churches or the majority community would face critical questions from representatives of minority groups would not only be an interesting and eye-opening reversal of the usual situation, but would certainly bring new insights and ideas into interfaith relations.

2.4   Give up thinking you have the power to make or use unilateral definitions. Respect other peoples’ interpretation of what they think and do

If you are a member of the majority religion and culture, do not make the mistake of thinking your view of reality is universally acceptable, or universally valid.

True dialogue – a real exchange of ideas, and encounters with people of a different cultural and religious background – can only happen if the people involved avoid setting their own culture as the universal norm, and avoid judging other cultures by comparison with their own value-systems and convictions.

For example, during a theology course for Christian women the participants spent a weekend working on the theme, “The role of women and the concept of gender in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”

The Muslim lecturer demonstrated how the Koran teaches equality between the sexes, how pious women are spoken to in the same way as men, and how women have the same religious duties as men. She showed, in this way, that the western prejudice about the Koran legitimising the oppression of women is false.

Most of the Christian women present were unwilling to accept this presentation. They accused the lecturer of looking at Islam through rose-tinted spectacles. And they also criticised the Islamic concept of gender as backward.

The lecturer replied to these accusations and in turn she criticised the attitude of the Christian women as neo-colonial. They were assuming that their western feminism, their view of women and their role in life should be the norm for all women, everywhere, at all times.

As the course went on, however, these heated debates led to a certain degree of mutual comprehension. Constructive discussions about the differing concepts of gender became possible.

This example demonstrates that women in the western mainstream and majority culture often claim the power of definition over women from other religious communities. They think they are the ones with the best knowledge of the world, they “know” what the role of women in Islam really looks like. With this attitude they refuse to accept that Muslim women have the right to interpret their religious tradition for themselves.

Of course, their knowledge of Islam mostly refers to the position of women in Muslim countries.

So two different perspectives clash. Muslim women often understand “the role of woman in Islam” to mean communicating what the Koran says about women in its ideal and comprehensive way. And that is very different from the way the Christian women in the example above were using the social realities prevailing in many Muslim countries as their point of reference.

If these fundamentally different points of view can be recognised and clearly stated, and if both sides are prepared to accept that the other’s attitude is legitimate and deserving of consideration, the clash of perspectives can be replaced by a much more differentiated way of considering the issues at stake.

A key problem in this example was that one side was assuming – without having really considered the difficulties of this position – that their own culturally determined concepts of women’s role and the nature of emancipation were universally valid and could be applied anywhere, at any time. In other words, western feminists often think they know what emancipation should look like for all women.

A striking present-day example of this was the campaign launched by the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN in April 2013 for a “topless jihad day”. FEMEN24 challenged Muslim women to demonstrate with the upper part of their body naked and bearing the legend “My Body Against Islamism”.

Muslim women worldwide protested against this suggestion. An anti-campaign developed, especially in social networks, but also in the classical media, with the title “Muslima Pride Day”. Their message to the world was “We Muslim women speak up for ourselves.” In other words: western feminists and critics of Islam should not feel they can impose their concepts of freedom, equality and self-determination on Muslim women without even asking for their reactions.

The Muslim women activists who were insisting that, “We Muslim women speak for ourselves”, made it quite clear that they were not questioning fundamental ideas about women’s rights. But the application of these ideas to their situation, and the question of the actions and the words to be used in agitating for these rights, were something they should be left to decide for themselves. The women who joined these protests included some whose faces were completely veiled, as well as Muslim women in jeans and T-Shirts with no covering for their heads.

This was the first time that a broad group of Muslim women had opposed the concept of “women’s freedom” which a European movement for women’s rights was trying to impose on them, and the methods which the European women were using to propagate these ideas.

These European feminists went too far precisely because they belonged to the “dominance culture” of the West. This meant that they assumed that their own value system – for an outside observer clearly culture-specific – was universally valid.

Realising the cultural stamp which their own value-system bears, and understanding, at least during dialogue encounters, that others probably have valid questions and objections to put forward about it, are necessary preconditions for true dialogue.

In all the above examples it is important to understand and acknowledge that western feminist concepts are not universal values, but rooted in a particular cultural background. They cannot simply be taken as a norm for all women.

Dialogue means listening to the way in which women with another cultural and religious background see and judge for themselves their religion and their role as women. It means listening to what they mean by emancipation, and to the way they develop a concept to explain what they mean by “woman”. When that happens there can be constructive discussions about the different understandings among women of what being a woman means – and that is far away from preaching your own concept as the standard which all women have to fulfil.

So an important outcome for all women who engage in interfaith dialogue is to learn to accept that there are different and equally well worked out forms of feminism.

Here is another example of the way the power of definition can be easily monopolised by representatives of the dominant society in an interfaith encounter.

For many years at Whitsun people have celebrated an “Afro-Pentecost” (Afro-Pfingsten) in the Swiss city of Winterthur. Each year it has had an inter-religious closing ceremony.25 In 2013 someone had the idea of advertising it as an inter-religious celebration of Pentecost (eine interreligiöse Pfingstfeier).

Those running the festival were surprised at how difficult it was to find representatives of other religions who were prepared to take a lead in this inter-religious celebration. But then someone intervened and pointed out the difficulty of conceiving of an inter-religious Pentecost celebration and the invitation was adjusted to “An inter-religious celebration at Whitsun”.

This example shows once more how members of the mainstream society use Christian concepts and assume that these can be understood and accepted by everyone.

In a way this is understandable, for the Christian roots of the majority society still have a very broad impact and the names for Christian festivals are used in the secular world quite separately from their religious content. But on the other hand, not least in an interfaith dialogue, it is important to learn to put aside any idea of having a power of definition over what others think – and to remember to respect their interpretations of their own religious traditions.

2.5   Remember, we are all learners, and learning all the time

Meet other people with an attitude of respect and interest in their views, admitting your ignorance, and wanting to know more.

People who agree to become involved in interfaith dialogue almost always have some existing ideas and mental images of the other religions, and so think they know something about them already. This knowledge is often fragmentary and clichéd. But if people use this (half-) knowledge as though it is fundamental truth, it makes dialogue difficult. It hinders openness, careful listening, and learning from the other side.

For example, after an event for interfaith dialogue, some of the participants came up to the Jewish speaker and told her at some length how rich Jews are, how they support the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”26; how they are in control of the media and how they secretly dominate American politics. They even told her that Jews only have sexual contact with each other through a hole in the sheet!

An attitude like that, bringing prejudiced opinions and clichés into the discussion and believing them to be facts, completely blocks exchange between groups from different religions; there can be no further exchange. It implies that, “I already know all about you; you can’t deceive me”. A Jewish participant is not likely to be very motivated to continue the discussion with people who seem to have made up their minds already about what they think of Judaism, and are not really interested in finding out what their Jewish opposite numbers have actually experienced, or how they really view the world.

A further example: In an inter-religious discussion on the theme “sin”, a Muslim woman participant referred to the Christian teaching on Original Sin and said that, in contrast to Christians, Muslims do not need to be redeemed. The Christian theologian was not prepared to let this stand as a general truth. The teaching of St Augustine on Original Sin developed in a particular historical and theological context, and though it did indeed play an important role in Christian theology for a long time, for most Christians today it is no longer really relevant.

This example shows that members of a religious minority tend to have a rather static picture of Christianity, and what Christians believe. And they often find it difficult to give up their familiar ideas or to ask whether they are actually valid – especially when these ideas are convenient to support their own arguments.

Even when we do have some knowledge beforehand, it is important to enter a situation of dialogue with the attitude that we do not really know, and need to learn. It is helpful if participants define themselves as “beginners”, and ask each other questions. On this basis, a discussion of similarities and differences can develop and be carried on with respect on all sides.

For example, during an interfaith event, an Imam wanted to talk to the Jewish woman speaker about the similarities and differences between Muslim and Jewish prayers. He showed so much genuine interest and so much openness that it was simple for them to look together at the different prayers, and to recognise their common history.

The example shows that if we encounter each other as learners, with open hearts and an enquiring spirit, we can discover much that is new.

2.6   Seeing things from a different perspective takes practice

Try to see the world through other people’s eyes and to understand other religious concepts from the inside out.

To understand other people – and, as far this is possible, to understand them in the same way as they understand themselves – it is essential to be able to change one’s perspective. For Christians in relationship to Islam for example, this means trying to understand the Koran and its significance within the religion in the same way as Muslims see it and not just from the perspective of Christian theology. Often, people try to interpret the Koran using Biblical concepts or the complex history of the literary forms which have influenced the Biblical text. With this approach anything in the Koran which does not correspond to such ideas tends to be quite simply ignored or considered as being corrupt. The Bible and the Koran, however, come from different origins and have different histories; the significance and the influence and impact they have had over time differ as well. The Koran is to Islam what – expressed in a very simplified manner – Jesus is to Christianity. Both are the Word of God; made flesh in one case and made speech in the other. The Koran is therefore so to speak the “Inverbation” of God as opposed to the “Incarnation” of God in Jesus Christ.

For Jews also, the Torah – part of what Christians call the Old Testament – is the word of God that was given to Moses on Mount Sinai and it is often interpreted and understood differently from the way the same texts are interpreted in Christianity.

Christians for their part should be able to expect Jews and Muslims not just to dismiss the Trinity as Pseudo-Monotheism, but to do their best to understand Christian thinking on this subject and the tenets of faith which underpin it.

The “Other” can only be understood – and even then perhaps only within limits – if we try to put ourselves into the other person’s shoes, understand their perspective and see their religious tradition with their eyes. We must be aware at the same time, that we can never completely grasp the perspective of another person, another religion, or another culture seen from the inside out. The important thing is to understand the ‘Other’ and the ‘Different’ as an extension and a widening out of our own experience and viewpoints.

For example, during a Theology course for women there was an inter-religious podium discussion on the subject: “God has no gender – does God have a gender?” The Christian speaker demonstrated in her input how the almost exclusively masculine images and names for God in the Christian tradition have led to God being male in the consciousness of most believers, despite the fact that Christian theology teaches that God has no gender. For the speaker and for many other Christian women, it is important to rediscover female images and names for God in the Bible and in Christian traditions to counteract the suggestion that God must be male, and to enable images from the world of women’s experience to represent God and the divine. The Muslim co-speaker explained in her contribution that the question of God’s gender is not an issue for her as a Muslim woman as God has no gender in Islam and there is therefore no need for female images of God. The Christian speaker struggled to understand this – surely in Islam, too, the 99 Names of God are articulated in the male form: The All Merciful 27 etc.

Both speakers then tried to explain further why, within their religious framework of reference, the question of God’s gender is – or is not – an important question. On the Christian side themes such as man and woman being created in God’s image, male forms of address for God, images of God the father, the son and the Holy Ghost are mentioned as points of reference whereas on the Muslim side it is the transcendence of God which matters, and the rule that no images are permitted of God. Through making the effort to enter into the other person’s world and see things through their perspective, both sides were able to learn from each other and, despite differing points of view, mutual comprehension and respect became possible.

As this example shows, to gain understanding of other people, it is important when entering into dialogue with them, to engage deeply with their perspective and views – even when these are strange to us – trying to comprehend them from the inside and seeking to reflect on our own views in the light of other people’s thoughts and perspectives. If this discussion had ended after the initial phase, no real dialogue would have taken place. The two differing positions would simply have been established in parallel without any connections being found between the two and without further questions and explanations. If the Muslim speaker had insisted on her position saying “That is your problem as Christian women we don’t share it” and if the Christian speaker had implied that her Muslim colleague was simply blind to gender issues, neither of them would have truly understood why the issue is important for one group and less so for the other.

To practise seeing things from a different perspective is not just important when it comes to theological questions, but also necessary with regard to the formal aspects of conducting a dialogue. For example, who is in the majority and who is in the minority within a dialogue situation generally defines who is going to ask the questions and who will be expected to answer them. To be aware of this and perhaps sometimes intentionally turn the situation around can lead to what we call, in German “Aha! Experiences”. In English you might well say “moments of revelation”.

For example, a Jewish and a Christian colleague held a joint reading with texts from the First and the Second testaments – the books traditionally called, among Christians, the Old and New Testaments. The Christian read texts from the First Testament and the Jewish woman read texts from the Gospels. They had chosen texts from the First Testament which speak of a merciful God and the well-known reading from the Second Testament where Jesus says: “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34). Despite the actual origin of the texts, the listeners were under the impression that the Gospel reading must have been that actually taken from the First Testament and that the First Testament texts which speak of a merciful God must have been from the Gospels …

As this example shows, changes of perspective and mixing things up can be very helpful in obtaining a clearer perception of your opposite number’s situation in a dialogue encounter, and can help to overcome deeply rooted stereotypes. And how interesting and informative it would be, if members of minority groups were to lead discussions about our understanding of God and the interpretation of texts, rather than always being in the position of reacting to the views and perspectives of the majority!

2.7   Learn to see ourselves as others see us

Be open for new insights about your own tradition – and see it from a new angle.

Interfaith dialogue means learning to see our own religion reflected in the mirror of another religion. Indeed, the “comparative mirror” which we must learn to use “reflects” not only the other religion, but also our own. In the comparative mirror we see ourselves with the eyes of other religious traditions – and this invites us to reflect seriously on our own religious and cultural systems.28

In the comparative mirror we begin to see more clearly the treasures of our own religious tradition – those things which are important to us and which we value highly. But we also see the dark sides of our tradition. Dialogue, in other words, leads us to think new thoughts about our own religious tradition.

For example, in an interfaith course the subject for discussion was “The concept of God and the concept of the human being” from the Jewish, Muslim and Christian points of view. The lecturer speaking from the Christian side introduced the Christian Trinitarian idea of God. She went on to explain how the teaching of the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost came about.

In the following discussion a young Muslim woman said that she had now, at last, understood why and how the Trinitarian concept of God had been developed, and this was very helpful for her. Nevertheless, for her, the idea of the Trinity was incompatible with the monotheistic belief in One God.

The Christian lecturer responded that Jesus’ divinity and his position within the Trinity are still subjects of debate among Christians. Both questions have led to innumerable controversies in Christian history, and in present-day Christianity too. Right from the beginning of their history Christians have struggled to understand the position of Jesus of Nazareth. Whole councils of the Church have been devoted to working on the question of his human and divine nature. Different official theological statements have been formulated about this, and many dissident groups have had their own views on the subject. Even today, there is theological research on Jesus from many angles, and there are a wide range of different positions on Christology.

This example demonstrates that asking questions of their own traditions and being conscious of the development of different theologies not only helps people to a deeper understanding of their own faith. As in the example quoted, such discussions can “defuse”, relativise and clarify the critique of the Trinity in the Koran,29 and can deconstruct the clearly-defined boundaries many people see between the “Islamic” and the “Christian” points of view. The mystery of God cannot be finally plumbed by the doctrine of the Trinity – or by any other human concept.

2.8   Make your own basic assumptions clear, and suspend judgement on what others may say

We may believe we are motivated by an entirely objective interpretation of the reality around us, but in dialogue we need to be critically conscious of how subjective such judgements really are.

We need to become conscious that our interpretation of reality is influenced by our culture and our personal history. Accepting this is not easy. But it is necessary, to stop us judging people by our pre-existing ideas when we enter into dialogue-encounters with them. Every one of us has pre-existing ideas and assumptions, and often we are not conscious of them ourselves. So our partner in dialogue may also not realise what is going on when we pose a question or make a statement based on them.

For instance, a participant in a panel discussion stated that “Islam knows no separation between church and state.” The Muslims present pointed out that behind this statement lay the assumption that in Islam there is something you can compare to the institution known as church in the West. But that is precisely not the case in Islam.

This example shows that often in interfaith conversation a person’s understanding of his or her own religion is applied unthinkingly and as yardstick to the religion of his or her opposite number. So if dialogue is going to be fruitful and productive, it is good if people are prepared to explain the background to their questions. Or, as the American poet Charles Olson expresses it very pointedly:

“These days / whatever you have to say, leave the roots on, let them dangle. / And the dirt / Just to make clear where they come from.” (Archaeologist of Morning)30

This means, in this particular case, remembering the historical processes and dynamics which have stamped the relations between churches and the powers-that-be in Switzerland and in Europe – and realising how complicated and entwined these relations were. Many people in these countries are now engaged in the political process of untangling “church” and “state”. This process of political change embodies a chance to achieve a new and more egalitarian regulation of the relations between the state and religious communities other than the historic Christian ones.

There is a particularly strong tendency for non-Muslims in the West to feel that their widespread Western assumptions about Islam – its way of expressing itself, and its development – are based on objective thinking.

For instance, during an interfaith dialogue, one well-meaning participant produced the idea that due to the fact that Islam appeared 600 years after Christianity its current state of development corresponds to where the West was in the first half of the 15th century, saying that if you look at what Christianity was like then it helps you to understand the stage of development at which Islam stands now, and why in Islam you find “mediaeval” attitudes and “mediaeval” practices. It follows that developments on the Christian side like the Enlightenment, and what that would imply for a historical-critical reading of the Koran, still have to happen in Islam.

This example shows the way in which apparently objective comparisons can be made, whose assumptions and conclusions are both highly problematic and completely unfounded. Specifically here history shows quite clearly that for centuries the achievements of Islamic civilisations in almost every area, including science, were more advanced than those of Europe, so assumptions that Islam is “backward” in a process of linear development are very misleading.

Secondly, this kind of thinking simply reinforces the preconceived idea that Islam has always been inferior to Christianity and will remain backward in comparison with Christianity for all eternity.

2.9   Respond to problems and disruptions in discussion as soon as they occur

Getting to the bottom of the beliefs and attitudes of which we are often not conscious, but which determine how we behave and how we interact with others.

Responding to problems and disruptions as they occur in discussion means taking seriously the objections which people voice and the misunderstandings which occur. We need to respond, when discussions become blocked, by trying to discuss the critical issues which are causing the problem and to re-integrate the people raising these points into the general process of exchange. We also need to get to the bottom of the beliefs and attitudes which unconsciously determine our interactions and behaviour, and pay careful attention to how we react to each other.

For example: A Muslim woman who took part in an inter-religious educational/ learning project stated in her written feedback that she strongly objected to the obligatory morning times of meditation. She experienced them as something that was forced on the group, and was too Christian in character. Her comment was very explicit and clearly stated, yet it was quietly ignored.

As the two-year project continued, she became more and more critical, and this became important for the way the discussions developed. She gained support from other participants – both Christian and Muslim. In the end two of the other participants wrote their diploma-essays on this theme.

This example shows that it can take time before an important theme really surfaces in discussions and is understood for what it is. And it takes a particularly long time when the theme is being launched by a member of a minority group.

2.10 Speak from the heart!

Talk about the things which are really important for you. And pay attention to other people in such a way that they feel able to open up and be frank when you are listening.

Speaking from the heart means using the pronoun “I” – “I think”, “I do”, “I wonder”. It means speaking about your feelings. It means refraining from wrapping yourself comfortably in the pronoun “we” and not using comfortably familiar clichés, prejudices and common accusations.

For instance a Jewish mother with a child in primary school suggested that during a musical evening in Advent, which was going to take place in a church, the children should also sing Jewish and Muslim songs, and should also be told about the Jewish Festival of Lights. She hoped that if Jewish and Muslim songs were included, the evening would have an inclusive touch and speak more to the Jewish and Muslim children. The situation was already complicated for Jewish and Muslim children, since the celebration was taking place on a Friday, the evening before the Sabbath, and in a Church.

The Jewish mother received a letter from the Headmistress which turned down her proposal. She was really distressed and angry about it, and asked to speak to the Headmistress on the phone. The Headmistress sensed the mother’s anger from her tone of voice, and immediately began to defend herself, accusing the mother of wanting to stop Christian children celebrating a Christian tradition. The mother, in her turn, accused the Headmistress of not wanting to allow something to develop which would correspond to the multi-religious character of her school.

The telephone call ended with bitterness on both sides. Both women felt frustrated, unhappy and misunderstood.

Thinking about this example, we see that if, perhaps, the Jewish mother had spoken from her heart – that is, if she had begun by talking about her feelings, how much the Headmistress’s letter had distressed her, and how worried she was about the integration of her son in the school, it is quite likely that the Headmistress would have been able to listen to her properly. And if the Headmistress had spoken from her heart and explained to the Jewish mother that she was afraid that this Christian tradition would be lost if she did not hold to it, the two women could have had a quite a different level of contact. Both would have been more open, more able to understand the feelings and intentions of the other – and more able to understand the needs each felt. If both had spoken from the heart, and listened to each other in such a way that this encouraged further confidence and more openness, it would have been possible to speak about touchy emotional matters with understanding.

2.11 Remember, each language is different!

Learn to understand the different cultural and religious forms of expression you encounter.

Every culture has developed its own special forms of discussion and argument. When people from the West are involved in a discussion they concentrate on presenting a subject clearly and logically. They value “realistic”, i.e. factual presentations of a standpoint. Their aim is to convince.

Not all cultures depend so exclusively on words in communication. In many Asian cultures, for instance, things are often said indirectly, perhaps using pictures, parables, or some other way of communicating by hints. The listener has the task of decoding what is being communicated, and must be conscious that such communication may well – at a superficial level – be ambiguous. People with this background may well feel that the way we Westerners communicate, with our clarity and unambiguous expression, is somewhat crude and even brazen.

For instance, a Hindu priest was participating in a seminar entitled “Violence – what does my religion say about it?”

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were represented by people who were verbally very eloquent. The Hindu priest, however, showed the group a picture, and told a story about it. The other participants thought that he had not really understood what the seminar was about, and that he had not spoken to the point. But when he was asked what the picture and story meant for him (and the whole thing was rooted in his cultural tradition) it became clear what he intended to say, and his simple words turned out to hit the nail on the head.

This example demonstrates the way that different religions and cultures express similar religious experiences in different languages and different ways – and being sensitive to such differences is something we can learn by being involved in intercultural and interfaith dialogue. Even when communication is carried on in words, misunderstandings can arise because we naturally tend to understand familiar words in the way we are accustomed to using them31. We need to be aware that the speaker may be using them with a different implication.

In an interfaith discussion, it is very probable that there will be people with different professional backgrounds. Many “everyday” words have acquired special meanings when used by professionals among themselves, and this can confuse those from different backgrounds. For example, when a statistician talks about the “risk” of something happening it does not necessarily imply that the event is undesirable.

The problem is particularly acute when the form of communication is unfamiliar to some of the participants. As we saw in the example given above, Asian religions communicate many things in pictures, and we in the West can only understand what is being said with the help of commentaries and hints about cultural interpretation. The example given above also shows that it can be helpful to plan to have episodes of non-verbal communication in longer programmes of interfaith dialogue. This could take the form of a workshop offering a hands-on experience of the religions represented, through meditation, or chanting, or calligraphy, or dance and movement.

2.12 Slow down!

Give each other time, take time for yourself, and listen carefully to each other.

If you want to understand one another properly in dialogue, you will need a lot of time for listening carefully, for reflection on what you have heard and experienced, and for clarifying points which have disturbed one or another of the participants.

For example, in an inter-religious educational project in which Christian and Muslim women participated, each group usually invited the other to prayer and a religious service. On Friday, the participants were guests of the Muslims, and on Sunday, they were guests of the Christians. The week-long seminar was held in Sarajevo, and so, on the Sunday, everyone was invited to attend a Serbian Orthodox liturgy. After a short time, several of the Muslim women left the church. The Christians thought that this behaviour was disrespectful, and felt hurt. After a long conversation afterwards about what happened it became clear that some of the women had left because being in a service in a Serbian church called up too many memories of the suffering of their fellow-Bosnians during the war. Others had simply copied the behaviour of the many of the Christian worshippers, who had also been casually coming and going during the liturgy.

This example shows that it takes time and many conversations and a change in our inner perspectives if we are going to understand different patterns of behaviour rather than interpret them according to ideas we already have.

A further example: in a seminar for multipliers (community leaders, journalists, teachers in schools and in adult education) who were keen to learn from each other, participants were invited to be present during prayers conducted by each of the traditions represented. That was never a problem – until the women were requested to wear a headscarf during prayers. At this point a group of women walked out and went off to town together. They explained afterwards that they were not going to let themselves be instrumentalised for the sake of ideas of patriarchal authority. When they came back they were told they had missed something really good! And they listened to the others, who explained that it was really only a question of wearing a headscarf for prayers, and that the scarf was a sign of respect before God and for each other.

This was the start of an intensive discussion about fears, about faith – and about old injuries some had experienced in their own Christian tradition, and so on.

This example shows that it is important to stay in contact, in spite of things which may irritate us – to take time to ask questions about what has been said, or what has happened, and to make an effort to understand what the others really meant.

“Giving it time” and “taking time” include actively looking for new forms of contact, so that discussion and conversation can continue and develop. Spending two hours one evening on “dialogue” is simply not enough. But even during one evening there are various different possibilities for contact – there will be an interval, for example, and perhaps refreshments – and it is important to use these to the full.

Two of the Muslim participants in the European Project for Inter-religious Learning (EPIL) in 2011-13 (both from Bosnia-Herzegovina) wrote their diploma essays about the coffee breaks. They pointed to the importance of informal encounters. The coffee breaks provided an informal setting in which people could ask questions that they did not dare to ask in the formal sessions. In the context of a coffee break you also find matters of everyday life being discussed. Conversation can become personal, and your perception of the person you are talking to can become much less dominated by your preconceived ideas, and much more responsive to the reality of the individual with whom you are sharing thoughts – and refreshments.

This new understanding can feed back into the discussions in a formal setting. Seated round a table or in a classroom participants will be better able to see each other as individuals, and not simply as representatives of cultures, nations or religions.

2.13 Recognise what you have in common, and acknowledge where you differ

We must be careful not only to respect other people’s views when they coincide with ours, but also to appreciate the distinctive features of beliefs that are different from ours.

Interfaith dialogue is about recognising what is common to both or all sides, but it is also about acknowledging real differences. Acknowledging differences, however, does not mean going out of your way to construct points of difference, or to raise barriers. It does not mean leaving your opposite number trapped in his or her “otherness”.

For instance, a Muslim mother and a Roman Catholic teacher were talking to each other. The teacher gave Religious Instruction in lessons which were also attended by Muslim children, and in which Islam was presented and discussed.

The Muslim mother felt that it would be important to tell the children that Arab Christians, as well as Muslims, call God Allah. In this time in which enmity is growing up between Christians and Muslims it would be well worth emphasising this important common point.

But the Roman Catholic teacher vehemently opposed this suggestion. He asserted that it was quite obvious that if Arab Christians and Muslims both use the same name, they would nevertheless think about Allah in quite different ways.

This example shows a difference being constructed between a Christian “We” and a Muslim “You”. The teacher wanted to demonstrate that his own religion is quite different from that of the others, and cannot be compared with it. He was cementing a difference that cannot be bridged. Of course, this attitude also exists in other religious groups. For example, in some Islamic countries there are debates about whether non-Muslims can be permitted to use the word “Allah” for God. Many people who take this attitude insist that the name “Allah” belongs exclusively to Muslims.

It is important not to build barriers – but of course it is also important to acknowledge that there are differences, and not try to construct similarities where they do not really exist. A stress on similarity can result in one group apparently trying to swallow up another. In any case there is the question “How different are people allowed to be in a specific cultural context, and still enjoy equal respect?” The ability to live with differences without wanting to overturn them is a key competence in interfaith dialogue. The differences are often the most important thing! That means that we learn to respect others not only in terms of what we hold in common and all agree on, but also for their special characteristics, which are different from our own. Learning this demands mindfulness and watchful self-examination, so that we become conscious of our own reactions to beliefs we do not hold ourselves.

In interfaith dialogue Christians, especially, tend to “embrace” the other participants, whether the other participants want this or not. They want to make the differences disappear, and think there is a real possibility that this could happen. This problem arises because the three Abrahamic religions that trace their history back to Abraham are indeed close to each other and have many “unsettling similarities”.32

So Christians are inclined to look at other religions and construct common features, or look for (or even “find again”) features of their own faith in those religions. This embracing of one’s opposite number is well-meant. But it can be seen from the other side as a process of incorporation, and clearly not as an exercise in dialogue among equals.

For example, a Christian member of an inter-religious working group sent her Jewish and Muslim colleagues a greeting on the Day of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day (6th January). She regarded Three Kings Day as an interfaith festival because, after all, the Wise Men had come from the East to pay their respects to that prophetic child.

Extrapolating this point of view, she wrote, This day would give us an opportunity to celebrate the way in which Jesus was not born for the Christians alone. Christianity cannot claim to make the only valid interpretation of who this Jesus is and what he signifies. This child and his message belong to the whole world, in exactly the same way that, for me, the Buddha does not belong exclusively to the Buddhists, nor Rumi exclusively to the Sufis”.

This gave rise to a heated discussion.

One of the Jewish participants reacted angrily, saying From my point of view the Three Kings Day cannot be seen an as an interfaith festival. For me there is no need to feel that Jesus and his message – however it is being interpreted – belong to me. Instead I feel, as a Jewish woman, that someone is trying to patronise me or even colonise me when I hear this suggestion being made.”

A Muslim participant commented that The realisation that Jesus doesn’t belong exclusively to Christians is an important step in Christian-Muslim dialogue, and by no means self-evident to most Christian participants. But that makes no difference to the fact that Jesus’ significance is quite different for Christians and Muslims, and that this idea touches on central beliefs in Christianity and Islam in quite different ways. We cannot conceive of a Christianity that does not believe in Jesus’ divine incarnation and his resurrection. But this “Son-of-God-ness” touches on a belief that is central in Islam, namely that of the single uniqueness of God. So the idea of “Son-of-God-ness” is firmly rejected by Muslims. The purpose of interfaith dialogue can never be to discuss who is right – but it can also not be a forum in which major differences between religions are simply pushed to one side as if they are of no significance. Every Christian interpretation remains a Christian interpretation, however “open” it may be.”

The example above starts by offering a novel interpretation of the Three Kings Day, which for Christians could be emancipating in its impact. It moves the accent away from the whole world worshipping the baby, to the idea that the baby “belongs” to the whole world. But changing your point of view within your own religion does not necessarily mean that this new angle is inter-religious in character.

Dialogue makes you question your own assumptions, and when you encounter religious plurality you are compelled to develop new interpretations of your faith that correspond to the demands of the discourse in the new context in which you find yourself.

However, when you do this there is a danger that – consciously or unconsciously – you assign a particular role or function to your opposite number in your own reconstructed world-view. And we must remember, on the Christian side, that we cannot look at the birth of Christ and simply ignore the history of Christian violence and mission; the forced conversions, the pogroms, the crusades – all carried out in the name of that divine child. These things will colour the reception of any Christian “invitation” to other believers, whether Christians want that or not.

That means that interfaith dialogue fundamentally demands that Christians, as the majority religious group in Europe, learn not to try to iron out religious differences, or to incorporate them in a newly defined Christianity. Inter-religious dialogue means respecting the central beliefs of other religious communities, and accepting and valuing them as an extension of one’s own horizons.

However, we know from experience of long-term dialogue programmes that there can be no understanding of your opposite number without empathy, mutual enjoyment, and the discovery of common ground. We come together through getting to know each other better, discovering how similar we are as human beings, and how many experiences we have in common. The growth of friendship in a group that is learning together results in the gradual growth of understanding of the “otherness” of the other.

Groups which engage in interfaith dialogue long enough usually generate their own selection of themes and questions that they want to pursue. They discover that interfaith encounter is not only an activity demanded by “political correctness” – it also gives people a chance to see that “otherness” extends the possible ways of being human – and of thinking about God.

2.14 Be fair! Compare like with like

Never fall into the mistake of comparing the ‘best’ in your own religious tradition with the ‘worst’ in other religions. 

In Switzerland, whether the discussion is about the prohibition against building minarets on mosques or about religion and the rights of women, comparisons are usually made between the best side of the majority’s own Christian religion and the worst side of other religions.

Western critics in the media often present a very negative image of “Islam”. They tend to refer to it as though there is one, unified tradition, and concentrate in particular on practices which are said to be based on religion and are bad for women. It is true that such practices do prevail in some Muslim countries, but on closer examination one can see that they are not justifiable in the light of the Islamic religion in itself. In the same breath, these critics praise Christianity for its positive role for women – and completely omit its very negative approach to women in the past, which is by no means absent in the present day. In other words, they play off the most positive side of their own religion against excesses and the most negative side of other religions. They forget that in many Christian countries, including Switzerland, the emancipation of women and their political rights had to be fought for against powerful exponents in the churches of a patriarchal model of society, practising a fundamental discrimination against the female sex.

In other words, these are not fair comparisons. Like must be compared with like.

This problem comes up in other fields, too – not just in relation to the position of women.

For example, in a discussion about conversion someone on the Christian side might make the point – which comes up regularly in such discussions – that conversion away from Christianity is no problem, but in Islam apostasy is threatened with the death penalty. The person speaking referred to the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion in Switzerland. But no mention was made of the fact that, according to the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, apostasy (lapsing away from faith and the Christian religion) is, to this day, to be punished with excommunication (Can. 1346 §1 of the Codex Juris Canonici). Nor was there any mention of the fact that freedom of religion is a result of the development of the secular state, a right – like the rest of the catalogue of human rights – which had to be fought for against the prolonged resistance of Christian institutions.

This example shows that if we confuse the levels at which comparisons are being made – if we do not compare like with like but instead compare ideals with practice – the resulting comparison is distorted. It is false, and it usually arises from the view that the speakers’ own religion is better, more enlightened and more humane – in short, it implies that his or her own religion is superior in all respects. 

2.15 Plan interfaith events in an interfaith way!

Paying attention to the religious rules and needs of other people is an indication of your seriousness in attempting dialogue on an equal footing.

When people from one religious community organise an event for interfaith dialogue, the efforts they make to find out beforehand about the rules and needs of participants from other religious communities indicate how serious they are about participating in a real dialogue between equal partners.

Most interfaith initiatives and projects in Europe are started by Christians, that is to say by members of the majority group. And usually it is Christians who decide what themes will be discussed in what way, and the events themselves are often held on church premises. This means that Christians usually take the role of the hosts.

This may not disturb the Christians. But the Christian environment and the visual presence of Christian symbols can generate a background feeling of alienation among the non-Christian participants. Furthermore, non-Christian participants mostly find themselves in the role of guests – and this means they may well feel obliged to exercise restraint in what they say and do. So, in deciding where to hold an event or a programme, it would make sense to find a neutral location, or perhaps go the premises of each community in turn.

It is important, also, to think carefully about the day of the week on which you plan to meet. Jewish people cannot be expected to attend on the Sabbath. Muslims are unlikely to want to attend an event on a Friday, and Hindus, too, choose Friday for their main prayer of the week. Many Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists use Sunday as the day for religious instruction for their children. For Christians, Sunday is the day for services of worship.

These aspects of planning show how important it is to take up contact with all the potential groups of participants at the planning stage. Indeed, a dialogue between equal partners really means that planning also has to be done by an interfaith group. This group must not only consider things like time and place, but decide on the themes to be discussed. It is not good if the subjects for discussion are decided by only one group of participants.

A team of Jewish, Muslim and Christian women were planning an interfaith theology course for women. During the detailed planning it became clear that it was not easy to find theological concepts and themes which were of significance for the religions of all the participants. It also became clear that central concepts from one religion were not always understood by members of the other religious groups. This shows that planning can become an intensive inter-religious process in itself.

The result of having an interfaith group to plan a dialogue project may well be that planning takes longer – but the people involved will find themselves involved in a process of learning which is productive for all of them. The planning group must also take care to know about the duties, rules and needs of the people practising each of the different religions involved. This effort will provide an indication that the various groups are seriously interested in participating in a dialogue between truly equal partners. It will mean, above all, thinking about prescribed times for prayer, the time-structure which can be adopted for a dialogue programme, and the food and refreshments on offer.

Mistakes can easily be made. For example, at an interfaith event a buffet was provided which included sandwiches containing pork or bacon, and they were not labelled to make this clear. A Jewish participant pointed this out to the person in charge, who arranged for a small card saying “pork” to be put on the table. The choice of food, and how it was presented, said clearly to Jewish and Muslim participants that the event had been organised by the Christians.

It is a help for everyone when the members of the planning group take the initiative to make it quite clear beforehand what dietary rules need to be observed. That saves the people who attend the event itself from the worrying feeling of not being sure about the food on offer, or from the embarrassment of needing to ask. If there is any doubt about whether the planning group can speak for all the potential participants, it is good to be in close contact well before the event itself with the people one hopes will participate, and to talk to them about their religious practice, its requirements and their specific wishes.

In planning discussions about catering, the participants should, of course, formulate their desires clearly – and if it is necessary to make some compromises, each group should make it clear what is the minimum they must insist on, as well as the maximum they would like to have. In this way everyone can be spared having to face unpleasant surprises. Offering vegetarian food is usually a safe bet.

If someone asks for kosher food, or foodstuffs with a Halal certificate, the possibility of agreeing to these requests needs to be clarified. The Jewish participants should be asked beforehand how strictly they want to follow the Jewish dietary laws (Kashrut).33 They may say that it will be adequate if vegetarian food is on offer, but they may want to be sure that it is prepared and served and eaten with kosher utensils.

For Muslims, you need to observe various other rules. Pork and alcohol are taboo, although on the whole the prohibition on pork is observed more strictly. In Switzerland – unlike other European countries – slaughtering animals according to the halal rules is forbidden by law. However, it is often possible to find a shop selling imported halal products. Many Buddhists and Hindus fast on Fridays, and never eat meat. If Hindus do eat meat, beef and veal are prohibited.

The effort to provide for the different religious needs and rules during inter-religious events is an organisational challenge. It is also an important aspect of inter-religious communication.

For example, if you are running an event including Jewish people you need to be aware that Jews who observe the Sabbath strictly are not permitted to do anything that might be regarded as work on that day, which includes travelling (except on foot) or using a light switch or a telephone. It is also important to respect the feelings of Jewish participants, when, for example, they do not feel happy about being in a place where non-Jewish prayer is offered, or being present at the religious service of another group.

For Muslim participants, facilities to wash before they pray are important, and if possible also a simple room for their prayers. If the event you are planning lasts all day, or for several days, it is important to integrate the times of prayer into the programme, or perhaps to time the pauses to coincide with them.

Again, clarifying these questions during the planning process means that planning will take longer. But it will contribute to the process of a successful dialogue.

Finally, one thing that is common to all religious traditions is that festivals are celebrated with special foods. If one group invites others to a festival meal this is an opportunity to explain the religious customs involved, and the background to what is being served. This concept was used successfully in an event in Fluntern, a neighbourhood in Zurich. At an event entitled, “Eating and Drinking as rituals of peace in different religions” two evenings were spent by the participants not only enjoying a meal, but learning what they were eating, and why. 

2.16 Exercise care and sensitivity in the organisation of interfaith celebrations

Celebrating together can be a high point of interfaith relations, but it is also an especially delicate area of encounter, and calls for careful preparation.

Praying together or sharing common spiritual experiences can be high points in interfaith dialogue. Sharing in spirituality and rituals can open up a very fundamental approach to another religion. But spirituality and ritual are also particularly delicate areas of encounter that involve deeply rooted emotions and convictions on all sides. Differences often become more clearly perceptible in this kind of encounter, because they are made visible in symbols and behaviour.

For instance, in an interfaith educational project involving Christian and Muslim women a morning meditation was held, which was prepared each time by a group with representatives from each religious community. Elements of both traditions were taken up in these meditations, though they were never mixed with each other.

At an overarching level new forms of meditation can develop. Sometimes this was successful with this group. For example, Muslim and Christian women used a symbol to demonstrate both their attachment to one another, and their difference. They arranged themselves on each side of a rope, the Muslims on this side, the Christians on that. And then they lifted the rope up high together. Each woman gripped the rope with one hand – a strong sign of their link to one another.

But sometimes the experiments in these morning meditations were not so successful. After an impressive week of working together each participant was asked to represent a new experience in a clay model. Then each was expected to say I am made in the image of God. The Christians had thought of this as a statement that gave them strength. But many Muslims found they could not repeat these words.

This example shows that in an interfaith context it is especially difficult to find symbols and gestures which are acceptable to all sides. It is usually easier to develop them from the group’s common experience, rather than seek them in the different religious traditions.

It is essential to observe a few rules when participants are asked to come together in prayer and rituals.

First of all, the participants offer each other spiritual hospitality – Christians see themselves as guests, if they visit Muslims or Jews in a mosque or synagogue, or Buddhists or Hindus in their temples. And the same applies vice versa! Guests are called on to respect the rules of their hosts, and take their hosts’ self-definition seriously. This is especially important for representatives of a majority community, who are called upon to exercise a special degree of sensitivity.

Everyone present must refrain from adopting a missionary attitude towards the others. The aim is to achieve an attitude of mutual respect and empathy. Or, as a Jewish participant once expressed it: “We stand together before God, but we approach Him in different ways. We can pray together in a single room, but each one does this according to his or her own tradition.”

In interfaith events, prayer and religious acts should begin with what people have in common, and not with an emphasis on differences.34

In long processes of interfaith encounter people may have transreligious experiences: but these cannot be reproduced on demand, nor can they be passed on to others. However, this is something that requires reflection. What does an experience of spiritual “unity” mean concretely for our living together in a situation in which there are different religious and cultural traditions, and different groups have different levels of social power?

We all have to understand that, even when we observe the rules sketched above, from the point of view of members of religious minorities, common religious celebrations or common prayers are perhaps the most delicate issue in interfaith dialogue, so they have to be set up and planned very carefully indeed.

Above all, clarification is needed beforehand about the purpose of holding an interfaith celebration, and what the motivation behind it is. Sometimes there are concrete events which stir up deep emotions, like a natural catastrophe or an accident involving a lot of people. The distress caused by such events affects people regardless of their religion, status, race or nationality. In such situations, it is natural for people to come together for a memorial celebration, or for prayer. It is the impact of the event which stands in the foreground, so differences in religious rituals play only a subordinate role.

It is similar when a celebration takes place in the framework of a period that a number of organisations have decided to devote to a special theme. For example in Switzerland we celebrate a “Week of Religions”. This can provide the occasion for one religious group to invite members of other groups to participate in one of their services. The setting here is clear: one group – often a minority group – invites the others, who are then present as guests.

Other interfaith celebrations start with the wish and the need to have others participate in one’s own celebration, or a general wish to express what we have in common. Such initiatives are often started by members of the majority religious group. Majority groups mostly have better access to suitable venues, and the necessary resources. These are clearly well-meant invitations – but it is frequently the case that no-one asks whether there is a felt need for such an event on “the other side”.

For example, in a Swiss military base it was a tradition to have a Christmas celebration for the soldiers on duty. On one occasion, when 10% of the soldiers were Muslims, the decision was taken to hold an interfaith celebration. The intentions were good, but the organisers had not asked whether the Muslims felt a need to take part in an “interfaith Christmas” celebration. The problem was solved by allowing a Muslim to read something from the Koran.

Making a small reorganisation in an event of this kind by adding something from another religion is not an adequate response to religious plurality. It means, to begin with, that you are no longer taking your own tradition seriously – you are devaluing it. A Christian Christmas celebration cannot, by definition, be an interfaith event!

It would have been better to stick to the traditional Christmas celebration for Christian soldiers, and leave it open to the Muslims to be present as guests, or not, as they wished. For the Muslim soldiers it would have been more to the point if, instead of having a passage from the Koran read in a Christmas celebration, they had been allowed to conduct their own celebration of one of the great Islamic festivals, like the end of Ramadan.

(This situation was complicated by the military Standing Orders under which the Christmas celebration took place, and which made attendance compulsory, even when in theory nobody is to be forced to take part in a religious celebration. This was, of course, a problem at another level).

An additional issue is that the people invited to participate in an interfaith celebration often do not know what is expected of them, and find the event stressful. Information given beforehand – for example being told that the organisers have specially chosen hymns which Muslims could sing, can also make matters worse.

Here is an example of how Muslims can find themselves in a difficult situation.

At the end of a conference of Protestants to which Muslim representatives had been invited, bread was broken in a ritual way and passed around in baskets for the participants to take. The Muslims were urged to participate in taking bread, because this was not a celebration of Holy Communion.

This event clearly created an unhappy situation for the Muslim participants. On the one hand they did not want to appear impolite, but on the other hand they perceived the breaking of bread as a Christian ritual in which they did not want to participate. Being told that it was not a celebration of Holy Communion did nothing to ease the situation from their point of view, because it made them feel that the Christian participants expected them to take part, and indeed they felt a subtle pressure on them to do so. Some will have regarded this as an exercise in paternalism which left them no room for independent judgement, and others will have seen themselves as simply being forced into a situation with no easy way out. Others again will have been left with the guilty feeling that for their sake the Christians had foregone something which was valuable for them. At any rate at the end of the conference a disharmony was generated, which was really not necessary. It would have been much simpler for the Muslims and Jews present if the Christians had simply carried out their ritual, without making extraordinary efforts to include non-Christians.

Nevertheless, we still wish to assert that spiritual hospitality is possible – but it needs careful planning and careful management.

For instance, a protestant congregation in Zurich invited Muslims as guests to a service on the Thursday before Easter. It was a communion service, which was celebrated with the participants sitting at tables. A member of the congregation was designated to sit at each table where there were Muslims, to explain, step by step, what was going on. There was a simple meal with soup for the participants afterwards. A conversation developed about the importance of the Thursday before Easter for Christians. Finally, the participants said Good-bye to each other, with an expression of thanks for the hospitality, and for the confidence and trust that each side had shown in the other.

This example shows that it is possible to be a guest of people practising a different religion, in a spiritual way. However, it is important that the guests must not simply be absorbed into the religious culture of the hosts. The guests must be able to retain their precise sense of identity, and clearly be free to decide how to respond to initiatives on the part of the hosts. The degree to which the guests participate in a ritual or celebration has to be decided by them, and not by the hosts. In such interfaith celebrations it is essential that the guests should be carefully “accompanied” in a sensitive way.

To sum up: celebrations which are held for the sake of bringing the adherents of different religions together must be planned and prepared very carefully indeed, if everyone is to feel relaxed and happy, and no one is to feel under pressure or that they are being manoeuvred into a situation they would rather avoid.

It is important to ensure that the preparatory team includes representatives of each of the religious groups being invited to attend, and that these representatives are on an equal level in terms of their abilities and background. That is, of course, easier said than done.

The surroundings chosen for the celebration are also an important factor. The place chosen for the celebration should be neutral, but have an appropriate atmosphere. The decoration of the venue can also be important. It is not necessary to dispense with visible religious symbols completely – but it is good to check up that those which are present do not result in anyone feeling excluded, or struggling with negative emotions.

It should be remembered that it is only possible for people to formulate their negative feelings openly if the general atmosphere is one of mutual trust – and it can take a lot of time and a lot of patience to build up that sort of trust. But serious discussions about symbols, hopes and anxieties can also be, for all participants, an important arena for mutual learning, an expression of mutual respect – and of the mutual acknowledgement that the one’s opposite number is, indeed, different.

An example: Refugee Day was coming, and an interfaith celebration was planned on the theme of hospitality. This would take place in a “stately home”, which is normally used as a museum. The planning team included Catholic and Protestant Christians, Muslims and Hindus.

Two preparatory meetings were held and the programme was talked through carefully, step by step. Were flowers acceptable? Could candles be used as decoration (also a large Easter candle)? Is music OK? Could a simple round dance be included in the programme (no problem for Muslims, providing they weren’t expected to join in!)? At the end of the ceremony, no special ritual was attempted. Everyone would say farewell with the words or actions customary in his or her religion and culture.

This example shows particularly clearly how an interfaith celebration can be prepared and carried through in such a way that it expresses a truth: we stand together before God, but our ways of approaching Him are different.

Read the previous Chapter

Part I: Fundamental reflections

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Check-list for the planning of interfaith events