Preparing for Interfaith Dialogue 2018
Faculty: Ted Brownstein, JoAnn Borovicka, Anne Pearson
Lisa Kelly, a Bahá’í living in Madison, Wisconsin, signed up the 2018 course on Preparing for Interfaith Dialogue, thinking it “would have more focus on specific religions, in order to gain enough understanding about other faiths so that, in an interfaith situation, one might be less prone to make a misstep but was pleasantly surprised that it was really a ‘how-to’ class that provided lots of ‘tools’ to use in interfaith dialogue.” Here is her list of how-to’s that could prepare and prompt almost anyone to step in to the arena of interfaith dialogue:
Spaces set aside for dialogue are a means for an individual to deepen in their own spiritual traditions, not a means to try to convert others to one’s own religion or to have debates about the merits of one tradition over another.
Interfaith activities, in a sense, create a type of “safe place” for persons of all faiths, as everyone there is a person with deep spiritual convictions, which is really something special to share, to be in a room full of people for whom religion matters and guides their life. There is beauty in such a place.
From one of the videos, I learned that, in an interfaith setting, it is okay for the participants to discuss their differences, that it is okay to not agree about everything from a theological perspective, that it was all right to acknowledge that the goal was not to get everyone to “agree” but to just talk and learn the commonalities—as well as the differences—and to celebrate the joy of being people of faith. Very freeing: the idea of building friendships with people of other faiths, of supporting them in their time of need. Engaging in dialogue doesn’t have to be complicated.
I started this course thinking that only the most deepened people in our Bahá’í community should be involved in interfaith activities in order to provide the most accurate information about the Faith and to have the most understanding of other religious in order to show knowledge and not offend someone with a lack of understanding or too many questions. After this course, that view has changed. I think that any Bahá’í with a sincere interest in learning and sharing could be an effective representative of the Faith, someone with a true curiosity to learn more about another person’s religion. I know that I will look for more interfaith opportunities, no longer hesitant to participate in case someone asks a question about Bahá’í beliefs that I can’t answer, much more confident and understanding about the concept of “dialogue” than before I took this course.
But I have a caveat to my previous point: There are times when consultation with your Spiritual Assembly may be appropriate. I have a link to an invite to an upcoming interfaith potluck and have not sent it to our Bahá’í list as “open for anyone.” I think I have also learned from this class that it may be a good idea for the Spiritual Assembly to perhaps identify some people in the community with a bit of experience in interfaith activities to attend. I guess I have a bit of concern that some Bahá’ís may mistake an interfaith event as a chance to teach the Faith and not understand, as I have learned more deeply in this class, that an inter-religious event is a sharing place and that attendees need to have a level of respect and a willingness to learn.
I have more of a sense of freedom to talk to someone about their religion, to show that I am truly interested in their faith and them as an adherent and that I am glad to learn more about a person’s faith. Before this course, I felt more hesitant, thinking the discussion had to be more formal, learned, but now I have a better sense that dialogue can be just talking, asking questions, with respect.
For example, I attended an interfaith service in December, and now wish that I had reached out more to the other participants, shown curiosity and interest in the readings they shared at the event. Next year, if I am able to join, I will be much more comfortable talking with them about their religions—in fact, even eager to hear more about their experiences as a person of faith (I know it sounds silly for me to have attended an interfaith event and not felt comfortable talking about “religion,” but I may have been raised by too many mid-Western Methodists who felt that religion was not discussed in polite company).
Now, you may be wondering, how is Lisa putting to use what she has learned in the interfaith-dialogue course. One thing she has in mind is this:
I have an opportunity to be part of an interfaith group and have much more confidence in joining. Some of the fear of “saying something wrong” is diminished, as I have gained a better understanding of inter-religious dialogue from this course. If nothing else, I can start a conversation with someone by referencing the materials in this course: “I was taking an online class on interfaith dialogue and read an article about . . . or watched a video that . . .”. I also feel more committed to strengthening our community’s interfaith dialogue. As a city, we need a group to serve as a role model, to show that groups with foundational differences can work together and enjoy each other’s company.
Lisa also has “a potential opportunity at work to introduce the concept of inter-religious dialogue.” She explains that she works for the “Wisconsin Division of Public Health, which is creating a health equity work group” and that she is “considering approaching the group to ask if they plan to include the role of one’s religion in obtaining health equity.” She is also considering a personal interaction, including some ideas from the interfaith-dialogue class: “My neighbor is a choral director and included some beautiful music in his last performance. I want to share with him, in the spirit of an interfaith conversation, how much the music meant to me and that I shared it at a recent devotions at our Bahá’í Center.”
As a postscript, Lisa adds that she “also really enjoyed Robert Stockman’s article on the history of the Bahá’í Faith and interfaith dialogue, which is very interesting and perhaps a good starting point for a mini-deepening or fireside.”