Interfaith Dialogue and the Need for Resemblance (@theTable: Intersecting Islamophobia)
A few months ago in Cambridge, Mass., Mona Haydar and her spouse had the creative idea of setting up a stand offering free coffee, doughnuts, and the opportunity to “Ask a Muslim.” The NPR story covering the occasion is largely dedicated to describing her apprehensions before the event and her reflections, afterwards, on the goodwill it generated.
Of the event itself, Haydar reports, “Honestly, most of the people didn’t ask questions. To be totally frank with you, people just wanted to say hey and connect.” She recalls, “Specifically, there was this one gay couple that came up, and we ended up just talking about what any two couples talk about. They’ve been married 22 years. Me and my husband, we’ve only been together four. … They just had a lot of advice for us.”
This outcome—the realization that, if we just get to know one another, we’ll learn that we’re not so different after all—is the goal of many interfaith activities. The Interfaith Youth Core and other interfaith organizations use storytelling, education, dialogue, and service to foster a sense of a common humanity that might undergird a more peaceful world.
This heartwarming story gives me hope as a response to the escalating Islamophobia of the current election cycle; and indeed, interfaith events are often considered successful if people emerge proclaiming, “They’re just like us!”
I find myself dissatisfied, however, with mere proclamations of similarity. Intersectional feminism seeks a better world through better attempts to think difference among women, including differences in religious practice and belief. An increasing number of feminist scholars—including the other contributors to this series and the scholars from the Christian theological tradition listed as resources below—are drawing interfaith relations into intersectional analysis, showing how gender, race, nationality, and other factors are entwined with perceptions of religious difference.
If such analysis is becoming more prominent, why is it, then, that well-intended folks—lay and clergy alike—continue to orient their dialogue around similarity? What theological roadblocks prevent people, even well intentioned people in interreligious dialogue, from talking about difference within and between faith traditions? Why are the roles of race, gender, and power so difficult to surface when people of different faiths meet for dialogue?
Interreligious study itself can shine a light on the obstacles. “We need continuity, resemblance, reciprocity as we need fresh bread,” I was recently startled to read in a musing by Jewish poet Edmond Jabès (180). This need, it would seem, shows up in dialogue’s tendency to return to what is shared—and even in feminist coalitions, which form around shared interests.
Such a deep need carries theological import, Jabès suggests. A truism tells us that like begets like. Could the need for resemblance be rooted in humanity’s common creation in the image of God? “All creation is an achievement of likeness … What we create resembles us. Only across likeness—as across an ocean—could God create [humans]” (157). Accordingly the human mind, unable to “think otherness … can only draw our idea of it” (187).
For Jabès, the need for resemblance throws us back from genuine dialogue. As in the NPR story, dialogue occurs primarily in the mind, with an absent partner either anticipated or recalled. The “actual dialogue … alas, does not take place”: any words spoken in dialogue are mere apprentices to the echo chamber that “begins the very moment we take leave of one another and return to our solitudes” (192).
The inability to “think otherness” is the source of varying shades of violence against religious neighbors. When Christians ask Hindus how they understand “salvation” or ask Buddhists about their experience of “God,” they might satisfy their own need for resemblance, but this satisfaction comes at the expense of learning from another tradition on its own terms.
As a constructive Christian theologian, I hold out hope that this habit of thought can be revised. A theology of difference would explain “why [difference] exists, why it matters, why it is constitutive of our humanity, why it represents the will of God,” according to Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s Emeritus Chief Rabbi (21). In such a theology, creation would be based not in the divine quest for likeness but in the delight of particularity:
God no more wants all faiths and cultures to be the same than a loving parent wants his or her children to be the same. That is the conceptual link between love, creation and difference. We serve God, author of diversity, by respecting diversity. (56)
Sacks goes even further, picking up on the biblical theme of the stranger as “the Hebrew Bible’s single greatest and counterintuitive contribution to ethics. God creates difference; therefore it is in one-who-is-different that we meet God” (59). Accordingly, interfaith dialogue must go beyond universals—familial love, the search for meaning—and seek out the stranger, qua stranger.
Jabès imagines the following encounter:
“I have come to ask you some questions,” said the disciple.
“Do not expect any lesson from me,” replied the master. “We have both received our share of the same light: our humble knowledge.”
“Must I then leave you already?” said the disciple.
“Be patient. I shall do my best to help you. I shall teach you, by and by, to unlearn. Such is the virtue of dialogue,” replied the master. (196)
Although many participants in interreligious dialogue will leave Haydar once they believe they have identified her share of the same light, the heart of interfaith work is to unlearn sameness. Resistance to this unlearning is high. Liberal Christian goodwill carries deep fears, not only of offending new acquaintances, but also of revising its core assumptions. Feminists from every tradition, however, can bring the virtue of patience to the important work of interfaith understanding—the patience to ask questions, to stay long enough to unlearn the same, and to love the stranger.
References and Resources for a Theology of Difference
Mara Brecht. Virtue in Dialogue: Belief, Religious Diversity, and Women’s Interreligious Encounter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.
Jeannine Hill Fletcher. Motherhood as Metaphor: Engendering Interreligious Dialogue. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.
Edmond Jabès. From the Book to the Book” an Edmond Jabès Reader, trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1991.
Aimée Upjohn Light. God at the Margins: Making Sense of Religious Plurality. Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2014.
Jonathan Sacks. The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. New York: Continuum, 2002.
Michele Saracino. Being About Borders: A Christian Anthropology of Difference. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011.
Laurel C. Schneider. Beyond Monotheism: A Theology of Multiplicity. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.
Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. Divinity and Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism. Nashville: Abingdon, 2003.
Next: Najeeba Syeed, “The Politics of Gender and Representation in Interfaith Dialogue and Scholarship” (Part 4)