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Whit Bodman on interfaith dialogue in Austin American Statesman
Posted 07/03/2017 08:31AM

Learn about other faiths for soul-searching dialogue about own belief

Dialogue is difficult. It is also inevitable. As we interact, as we interfaith (for interfaith is as much a verb as an adjective), we spend much of the time searching for similarity, which brings relationship, a sense of commonality. But I believe that the best parts of dialogue come when we explore difference.

Dialogue faces in two directions, the one outward, in conversation with our neighbors, and the other inward, in conversation with ourselves. In both, it is difference that inspires.

Difference is pervasive. It exists even within each person. I bring a different persona when I am speaking as a father, or a preacher, or at a pub. Which do I bring to interfaith dialogue? I am a Christian, but what kind of Christian? How do I speak about my Christianity? In terms of my personal experience? Or my knowledge of the history and the creeds? Or my own critique of the traditions? What will my dialogue partner know of my tradition after I have spoken? Sharing our traditions is a gift to others, for in it is wisdom tested by time.

When we sit down to dialogue, none of us are representative of our faith traditions. We are members of our faith traditions, but members with particular histories, particular affiliations and particular perspectives. This is not a problem. It should be something to celebrate — that our traditions are far larger and far more diverse than any one of us can encompass. There is always another angle to see, another experience to absorb.

People are different, and so are texts.

I am a Christian, a pastor, a seminary professor of comparative religion, and an active member of my church. I am also a dedicated student of Islam. As such, I spend as much time reading the Quran as I do the Bible. They are both scriptures, both central to their communities, both, in some way, holy. And they are very different. Each is meaningfully complex. As I read the text of the other, there is a dialogue within.

I read a passage in the Quran and it rings familiar, calling to mind words from the Bible. A second reading startles with something new — a different emphasis, a novel idea. That circles around to bring some new question to my own tradition. And so it continues, a dialogue in my mind, exploring new terrain in this other tradition, and thus discovering fresh gardens on my own.

When I read the Quran, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Heart Sutra, what am I doing? Is it just literature? That can’t be so. This is holy reading, heavenly wisdom. But I am not Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist, I confess. These are not my books, but are they anybody’s books? They come from a tradition, but do they belong only to those of that tradition? Are they written for a few, or for everybody? Who owns the meanings? What sort of meaning-making am I doing? Who am I to these texts and their lovers? There are no sure answers to these riddles.

I read to discover — Muslim ideas, Buddhist ideas, ultimately, Christian ideas. That is dialogue, a dialogue of the mind that is sometimes voiced, but never silent or still. We search through understandings, knowing that no single understanding is exclusively correct. Alone and together, in contemplation and conversation, we come to marvel at the many wisdoms set before us. In the end, what is most important is not comprehension but wonder, because all of it lies beyond our capacity to fully absorb. Indeed, we ourselves are beyond our comprehension, but we are not beyond the exultation of discovery.

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