Listening Across the Divide

How do we work with those who believe that theirs is the Only Way?
A conversation, photo by tanakawho

Photo by tanakawho.

Rabbi Ted Falcon, Pastor Don Mackenzie, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman, known collectively as the "Interfaith Amigos," have been learning and teaching together since 2001. They blog weekly for YES! Magazine.

The question we Interfaith Amigos are most often asked is, “But how do we talk with those who believe that theirs is the Only Way (to truth, to God, to salvation, to heaven, to forgiveness, to redemption...)?”

Our responses tend to go in two directions.

First, we recognize that it helps significantly if we can establish a positive personal relationship with those whose beliefs are so different from our own. That personal connection can often allow us to engage in conversations that otherwise would not be possible.

Second, we have learned to make room for beliefs that are substantially different from our own. Rather than defending or criticizing, we attempt to greet those expressions of belief with the most expansive “Yes!” we can muster. (How appropriate that we are now writing for a magazine called YES!) And we invite fuller expression through gentle inquiry, making sure we understand the position and the experience of the other person.

It is most comfortable when that person then tries to also understand our own views—but that is not always the case. The more certain we are that we have The Way, the less interested we are in the differing beliefs of another.

We can create foundations of friendship upon which those earlier conversations might someday be revisited.

I remember a woman pastor I met at an interfaith breakfast event. Following the program, during which she held up her Bible and declared it to be The Word of God, I sought her out. “When you say that this Bible is the unerring Word of God,” I said, “I’m not exactly sure what you mean.” I had opened her well-worn leather-bound book to the page that identified it as the King James Version of the Holy Bible. “This is one of the many translations of the original Hebrew and Greek texts,” I continued.

She was singularly unimpressed. “This is the Holy Bible,” she said, and that was that.

I am reminded, too, of a parent-teacher-administrator meeting at a school where a friend used to teach. The topic under (sometimes heated) discussion related to a proposed expansion of foreign language offerings at the school. One woman, clearly upset, rose with a challenge.

“If English was good enough for Jesus," she said, "why isn’t it good enough for us?”

Rational responses to such positions would not be particularly helpful with either of these people. They would tend to experience such a discussion to be an attack on their beliefs—and they are probably quite right to think so. The insistence that the King James translation reflects the literal Word of God is simply incompatible with historical analysis. The problems of translation are likewise irrelevant to a belief that the deeply-cherished book does, indeed, contain The Word of God.

The “Yes!” response acknowledges that we have understood what the other person is saying, and that we are not about to attack their position. But if they do not reciprocate interest in our beliefs, what are the possibilities for dialogue? Does the conversation end there?

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Clearly, while there is little room for a conversation of belief—unless we are simply to encourage further elaboration of their position—it is still possible to seek a common ground for conversation. In the school meeting I mentioned, it is likely that the woman and I shared a common denominator of interest in education that best prepares students for college admission and for living in the world. And the conversation with the pastor occurred in the context of an interfaith breakfast. It proved far more appropriate to learn what brought her to that gathering, and what her hopes were for greater interfaith understanding and cooperation, than to get mired in a discussion of translations.

To meet conflicting beliefs with defensiveness—even when there are objections both rationally and historically based (in our opinion, of course)—will cut off the conversations that we need most. While it is often not easy to remain centered in such situations, if we are able to seek the greater context in efforts to cooperate on shared concerns, we can create foundations of friendship upon which those earlier conversations might someday be revisited.


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