Religious Literacy and the Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue

(Part 1)

Shlomo C. Pill

This is the first part of a three-part series exploring some of the methods, possibilities, and skills needed to effectively engage in interfaith dialogue and activity.

History of Interfaith Engagement

Interfaith engagement is hardly a new phenomenon. The most basic kind of interfaith activity—what is often referred to as “the dialogue of everyday life”—has been taking place ever since people figured out how to live civilly without killing each other over religious differences. While this sort of basic interfaith engagement has certainly had its ups and downs, on some level, it has been the largely unstated norm of human civilization for thousands of years. Without discounting bursts of destructive intolerance, people have always lived in religiously diverse societies, and have bought and sold goods, cooked food, run governments, fought wars, explored new lands, farmed, and learned with others of different religious persuasions.

Beyond such basic notions of what it means to engage in interfaith dialogue, we find many records of interfaith discussions about theology, ethics, eschatology, and much more in the foundational texts of each of the Abrahamic traditions. The Torah and Talmud, Gospels, Qur’an and Hadith all include accounts of important religious figures of different faiths teaching, debating, and engaging with each other about religion. Sometimes these encounters are polemical, such as the criticism of rabbinic law in Galatians, where Paul engages not with Jewish scholars, but with the ideas underlying Jewish religious legalism in order to demonstrate Christian notions of justification by faith in Christ alone. In other cases, dialogue with other faith-traditions is used as a foil to explicate new religious concepts and understandings. The Talmud, for example, includes numerous dialogues between the rabbis and practitioners of other faiths. These include a series of conversations between the 2nd century sage, Rabbi Akivah, and Quintus Tineius Rufus, the Roman consular legate of Judea, during which the two debate various issues of theology and religious practice. (Jewish tradition maintains that eventually Rufus orders Rabbi Akivah executed for violating some of the religiously repressive hadrianic Decrees; so that early foray into interfaith dialogue, at least, ended rather poorly.) Likewise, the Prophetic Hadith of the Islamic tradtion contain many instances of Muhammad interacting with both Jews and Chrisitians about religious matters. Indeed, in one case, Muhammad directs his own followers to fast on Ashurah (the tenth day of the first month of the Islamic religious calendar) because the Jews treat this day—which at the time likely coincided with Yom Kippur—as a holy fast day.

In the middle ages, at times, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian students studied side by side in the great universities of the Muslim world, and they shared and borrowed concepts, teachings, and symbols from each other in order to make their own parochial religious points. To be sure, life for religious minorities in the medieval Muslim world was not always pleasant, and religious coexistence did not really arise from interests in pluralism, religious universalism, and the blending of religious differences. These interfaith actors were typically deeply committed to the truth of their own traditions but still saw the value in engaging the religious other. Interfaith dialogue was often somewhat less felicitous in medieval Catholic Europe, where Jews were compelled to engage in public theological debates where at times the penalty of losing the match was expulsion, and where Jewish congregations were regularly subjected to listen to proselytizing sermons delivered in their own synagogues by zealous clergyman. Still, engagement and dialogue between faiths was taking place, and Jewish, Muslim, and Christian literary works from this period attest to the value that at least some saw in putting different faith traditions in conversation with each other.

Parliament of the World’s Religions, Chicago, United States, 1893. Wikimedia.

In the modern era, interfaith dialogue is often traced to the 1893 meeting of the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, an event that has been repeated several more times since it was revived in 1993. Interfaith dialogue has grown exponentially over the last century aided by the possibility of easier global communication and travel; the modern appreciation for the need to pragmatically resolve conflict, especially when conflict is fueled by differences of conscience rather than competing material interests; and a general decline in the urgency with which many people relate to their own religious traditions as the exclusive bearer of universal truth. Particularly following the Second World War and the Holocaust, and more recently in response to anti-Muslim sentiments and a general turn towards secularism as the fundamental organizing principle of law, justice, and policy in many Western countries, interfaith dialogue has only grown more important.

Devil’s Advocate — Some Cause for Caution About Interfaith Engagement

Of course, not everyone is enthusiastic about the prospect and possibilities of extensive interfaith dialogue and cooperation. Some critics question the possibility of meaningful interfaith dialogue given the embedded biases of those situated in particular religious traditions and the consequent challenge of accurately translating concepts and doctrines from one tradition into language and ideas that can be fully appreciated by another.

Others are suspicious of the tendency inherent in many forms of interfaith dialogue to create pressure on religious traditions to minimize differences, in part by changing or compromising important doctrinal commitments. This has been the position of some Catholic groups, including Sedevacantists and the Society of St. Pius X, which have opposed the Vatican’s concerted efforts at interfaith dialogue beginning with the Second Vatican Council on the grounds that these efforts have led the Church to change critical Catholic teachings for the sake of interfaith peace and tolerance. Similar concerns were expressed by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who in the mid-20th century opposed Jewish-Christian dialogues on all but matters of mutual secular concern due to his concerns that engaging in eccumentical exchanges would induce Jewish participants to adjust Jewish practice and doctrine to accommodate the concerns of a newly and thankfully congenial Catholic Church.

Relatedly, some worry that many of the current methods and goals of interfaith dialogue contain an inherent asymmetry. For some, interfaith dialgoue, and especially dialogue between Western Chrisitanity and Islam is a concerning practice through which—intentionally or not—Western or Christian priorities and modes of viewing the world and the human condition impose themselves on Muslim and other non-Western perspectives. On this view, interfaith work can be a form of soft colonization of non-Christian and non-Western traditions, and this concern remains in many other cases in which there are power imbalances between interfaith dialogue participants.

Finally, some question the efficacy of interfaith dialogue. These critics claim that those willing to engage in interfaith dialogue are the religious leaders and practitioners that are already committed to mutual tolerance and understanding; the ones in the room are not the ones that need to be there, and the ones that need to be there are not willing to be present. Often, interfaith dialogues take place between more liberal elements within each respective tradition. Not only are liberal religious leaders and communities least likely to come into serious conflict with each other in the first place, but the dominance of interfaith efforts by liberal religious groups is often understood by conservative leaders and congregations to preclude their participation. According to others, interfaith dialogue is largely ineffectual because the real roots of conflict are not religious at all but political, economic, ethnic, and nationalistic. Even if such arguments attempt to provide too much by seriously underestimating the significant role that religion plays in determining people’s principle commitments and preferences, it nevertheless highlights the risks of interfaith dialogues that try to elide real points of political conflict by trying to focus only on ecumencial concerns. As Omid Safi has pointed out, this has a tendency to produce a breakdown in interfaith discourse over time. 

In the following installments of this essay, I will outline several different forms of interfaith dialogue, highlighting some of the benefits and limitations of each, and we will explore the relevance of religious and interfaith literacy as an important tool for effective interfaith dialogue.

Shlomo C. Pill is a Senior Lecturer at Emory Law School and a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. His teaching, research, lecturing and consulting work focuses on church-state issues, as well as religious law in both Judaism and Islam.