Religious Literacy and the Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue

(Part 2)

Shlomo C. Pill

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


Part two of this three-part series on interfaith dialogue explains several different forms of interfaith dialogue, highlighting some of the benefits and limitations of each, and explores the relevance of religious and interfaith literacy as an important tool for effective interfaith dialogue. [Read Part I here]


Types of Interfaith Dialogue

The wide variety of interfaith activities routinely taking place today can be categorized into four types, following the typology outlined in Paragraph 42 of the Vatican’s 1991 Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflections and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ:  (1) the dialogue of everyday life; (2) the dialogue of religious experience; (3) the dialogue of theological exchange; and (4) the dialogue of action. Each of these unique modes of interfaith engagement have a variety of benefits and limitations that make them more or less suited to different kinds of participants and different kinds of objectives.

1. The Dialogue of Everyday Life

The dialogue of everyday life is simply the way we respect people who identify with and belong to a different faith community from our own. It is less purposeful than the other kinds of interfaith dialogue and is nothing more than the way we coexist in pluralistic societies without permitting religious differences to fray the basic fabric of civil society.

Oftentimes, the dialogue of everyday life is grounded in a particular religious outlook that distinguishes somewhat sharply between public and private life and views faith as a private affair that has little to do with how one interacts with friends, neighbors, and business associates. At the very least, the dialogue of everyday life is rooted in a distinction between thought and action—even if not between public and private life—such that regardless of one’s own faith-driven attitudes and thoughts about the teachings and practices of other religions, the way one relates to the “other” in practice builds upon principles of comity, reciprocity, and religious neutrality in civic life.  

On some level, the dialogue of everyday life may seem trite, almost unimportant. The dialogue of everyday life inheres, most fundamentally, in our ability to not, for lack of a better term, kill each other over our different and competing religious commitments and faith-group identities and affiliations–and this is a pretty low bar. We should remember, however, that in the long historical view, this cannot be taken for granted; religiously-motivated civil strife has often been the norm, is common in some parts of the world even today, and as recent events highlight, is not entirely absent in our own country. It is not an insignificant achievement that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and the members of the broad range of other faith communities outside the Abrahamic umbrella tend not to view their religious differences—even to where those differences are not confined merely to the realm of private religious conscience—as significant practical bars to amenable relations in civil society. 

Also worth noting in connection to the dialogue of everyday life, and with relevance to how one may think about and approach other kinds of interfaith dialogue, is the well-known distinction between tolerance and pluralism. Many have noted that while a commitment to religious tolerance entails merely the absence of religious persecution, and perhaps even the genuinely equal treatment of religions in civil society, religious pluralism demands more than this. Pluralism entails accepting the normative legitimacy of the “otherness of the other.” In an extreme instantiation, normative religious pluralism might view religions as different flavors of ice cream; one cannot really speak about better or worse flavors, only about different flavors with distinct characteristics that have different kinds of appeals to different people with different tastes. 

2. The Dialogue of Religious Experience

The dialogue of religious experience involves attempting to, on the one hand, place one’s self within the thought and practice of a different faith group by participating in or experiencing its rituals, worship, and religious practices from within. Rather than studying about other traditions and practices from the outside, participants in the dialogue of religious experience aim to actually experience such modes of religious behavior from within the perspective of another faith. On the other hand, the dialogue of religious experience seeks to share one’s religious practices with others to provide outsiders not just with knowledge, but with an innate sense of one’s religious ethos and way of being that is born only of actual religious experience. Often, the dialogue of religious experience takes the form of interfaith prayer services, communal interfaith Passover Seders, iftar-breakfasts, and similar programs where religious outsiders are invited to join a religious community as it worships or practices its rituals. Often, facilitating the dialogue of religious experience means tailoring and adjusting one’s own religious observances to make them more accessible and relatable to the uninitiated.

The dialogue of religious experience is complicated by two chief concerns. First, there is a concern that shared religious experience muddles what many believe strongly should be a sharp line between interfaith dialogue and proselytization.  Different religious traditions and faith communities, even as they successfully navigate the dialogue of everyday life, are different; and for many these differences of belief and practice matter. For some, religious differences matter in terms of parochial particularism: “My traditions, teachings, and practices are True, with a capital ‘T.’ While I am tolerant and accepting of other faith communities when it comes to the dialogue of everyday life, I am also committed to the Truth of my tradition, and to my sense that other faiths ultimately miss the mark.”  This perspective may lead to substantial wariness or even a religious restriction on participating in the rituals of other faiths. It may also urge caution when it comes to sharing one’s own True rituals, teachings, and traditions with those outside the fold. Some religious communities have a distinctly evangelical bend, but for many others, the particularistic worship practices and observances of their own faith are believed to be specially reserved for the faithful; sharing them too widely or too indiscriminately, especially with religious outsiders who will almost surely fail to fully appreciate the nuance and pregnant meaning of these practices, risks diluting their significance and distorting their meaning. The dialogue of religious experience risks blending these distinctions, and to the extent to which participants in interfaith dialogues are, for religious or historical reasons particularly wary of interfaith engagement on such terms, engagement along such lines may be stillborn and perhaps counterproductive as less universalistic religious communities respond defensively, undermining efforts at even some less concerning forms of interfaith engagement.  

3. The Dialogue of Theological Exchange

The dialogue of theological exchange entails participation in religiously-focused debate, teaching, and learning in an effort to better understand others’ religious traditions and practices, ways of life, and spiritual values.  Often, this sort of interfaith dialogue is less democratic and more elitist than many of the other models; by its nature, it typically engages scholars, academics, religious leaders and clergy who engage with each other as experts in the same general field, albeit with very different answers to the same questions—and sometimes with entirely different questions. One prominent and increasingly popular form of the dialogue of theological exchange is the practice of Scriptural Reasoning, which involves people of different faiths reading and reflecting on their respective canonical texts together. 

The dialogue of theological exchange can take place in a variety of different models. One relatively modest approach aims merely to educate and inform; the dialogue of theological exchange can helpfully demystify the religious “other” in such a way as to minimize interfaith tensions and conflicts born of suspicion rooted in a lack of knowledge about other faith traditions and communities. People fear that which they do not understand, and dialogues that help one understand the practices, beliefs, and lifestyles of religious others can contribute to a more robust dialogue of everyday life and dialogue of action—even as participants in such exchanges may continue to view alternative faiths as genuinely different and perhaps even theologically unacceptable. A more ambitious approach to the dialogue of theological exchange involves seeking to minimize religious differences and find commonality of religious roots, even as the particular branches of individual faith communities may be understood to manifest in very distinct ways. The dialogue of theological exchange may also take a more adversarial form—still a form of interfaith exchange—whereby different faith communities actively debate the merits and demerits of their respective traditions and teaching on a given issue.

4. The Dialogue of Action

The dialogue of action is in one sense the easiest and most impactful mode of interfaith engagement, while in another sense can be difficult—even divisive.  In truth, the dialogue of action is not even necessarily particularly religious; it is less a matter of interfaith engagement, and more a function of what many mid-twentieth century political scientists referred to as “cross cutting cleavages,” albeit playing out in this context on a religious field. The phenomenon of cross cutting political cleavages was both empirically observed and qualitatively explored in the 1950s and 60s as many political scientists sought to better understand the kinds of characteristics and mechanisms that help democratic societies remain moderate, civil, and balanced. What these scholars found was that healthy democratic societies include numerous interest and identity groups with many cross-cutting interests and allegiances across religious, ethnic, racial, party, class, professional, educational, and other affiliations and markers. In one sense, one might think of this as intersectionality but geared towards identifying and working towards shared positive interests. The dialogue of action is often built on the idea that diverse religious communities have many material interests and concerns in common despite their ecumenical disagreements, and that these groups can and should engage and cooperate with each other in order to promote and protect these shared interests in the public sphere. 

Diverse religious communities have many material interests and concerns in common despite their ecumenical disagreements

Importantly, the religious stakes or risks at play in the dialogue of action are typically quite low, certainly in comparison to some other models of interfaith engagement. Members of faith communities can engage heavily in the dialogue of action without ever discussing, sharing, debating, or compromising on their religious convictions and practices, and this is true for even relatively parochial, even isolationist religious groups. Additionally, the dialogue of action need not require the involvement of religious leaders or scholars; indeed, in some cases, action can best be coordinated by lay professionals. Perhaps most importantly, the dialogue of action offers a low-stakes way of creating a foundation of trust, mutual identification, and working relationships that can be used as a springboard for more substantive ecumenically-oriented engagement. It can often inadvertently do much of the “demystifying the other” work of the dialogue of theological exchange and the civil-society building of the dialogue of everyday life. It can do these things, moreover, largely without any real regard for preferences for religious toleration or pluralism.  

Perhaps most importantly, the dialogue of action often operates in a space that draws in those individuals and communities not already predisposed to view interfaith engagement in a positive light. This is a general risk—and a very common pitfall—of much of the interfaith engagement that takes place today.  It too often amounts to so much preaching to the choir and already like-minded people giving themselves collective pats on the back for embracing religious tolerance and pluralism. Often, the spaces in which interfaith engagement is taking place—especially the engagement of theological exchange, religious experience, and everyday life—are precisely the spaces in which it is least needed. The dialogue of action offers a mechanism—and a fairly effective, self-interested one at that—for drawing in those who would otherwise be wary of interfaith exchange. Using classic community organizing tactics and strategies, religious communities, organizations, and leaders who would otherwise never speak to each other can be brought together by common self-interest to cooperate in legal and political advocacy, community development, social projects, etc.


The third installment of this series will explore the kinds of religious and interreligious literacy that may be necessary to facilitate 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.