I spent the past year interacting within a cohort of 18 Fellows from a variety of religious backgrounds and communities, as we tugged and prodded at the issue of “water justice in Baltimore.” The cohort was brought together and shepherded by ICJS, the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies, as an expression of its mission to “build learning communities where religious difference becomes a powerful force for good.” Instead of the tidier goal of finding the common ground between religions (and there is plenty within the three represented by the Institute), ICJS seeks to build spaces in which people of varied religious backgrounds can “engage the differences” and “not be afraid.”
Despite the stated value and focus on religious difference, I detected significant agreement and commonality within the group discussions, and the experience, together with my own religious background, caused me to reflect on how difference and commonality interact with each other in propelling a diverse group toward the achievement of an objective.
In this reflection, I suggest four distinct patterns (or motivations) that might characterize interreligious dialogue (or perhaps dialogue across other forms of difference). I then suggest three factors likely to influence which of the patterns emerges. Because certain patterns of dialogue are more likely to achieve specific goals like “engaging difference” and “reducing fear,” the degree to which those goals are accomplished will be affected by factors like topic selection, participant selection, and logistics. Finally, I apply these ideas to the 2020 water justice dialogue to consider the degree to which the dialogue accomplished ICJS’ goals.
First, what sorts of motivations might cause religiously diverse people to commit to dialogue on a topic of shared interest? Stated differently, along what paths (regardless of initial motivations) might dialogues tend to run, once started?
Dialogue could be motivated by…
The specific pattern emerging within (or motivation behind) any particular dialogue is likely to be influenced by three factors: the controversiality of the topic across the religions; the centrality or importance of the topic within the religions; and the degree of adherence of the dialogue participants to the positions of their religions.1
Where a topic is religiously uncontroversial or of only secondary importance (either within the religious community generally, or for the participants specifically), the dialogue is likely to fall into pattern 1. It may serve as a rallying point for interreligious coalitions or it may serve as an occasion for getting to know those we would be otherwise unlikely to meet, but it likely won’t make a lasting impact on anyone’s understanding of truth.
The task of dialogue is presumably at its most challenging (and most difference-engaging) when the topic under discussion is one on which the religions would naturally take contradictory positions; when the topic is of central importance to one or more of the religions; and when those in dialogue hold closely to the majority position within their respective religions. On the other hand, less controversial topics may contain “safer” differences that can serve as useful starting points in developing the relationships and confidence required to engage tougher topics and deeper differences.
Within the water justice cohort, we had this in common: We were all people who lived and worked in the Baltimore area; and we all had an interest in justice and a willingness to explore its application to the need for water shared by all living things. Our religious differences could be summarized fairly simply: most of us identified as Muslim, Christian, or Jewish—related but different religions with certain mutually incompatible commitments (and each broad enough to encompass its own significant diversity).
But as we discussed water justice, did our differences operate as “a powerful force for good?” And did the dialogue (or the participants) do what ICJS hoped? Did we engage our differences and transcend fear?
Water justice, it turns out, is not particularly controversial across religions, at least based on the statements of the participants. The differences that surfaced were interesting, but perhaps not challenging.
For example, I come at the question of water justice as a Christian. In my understanding, God created the universe and humans and gave to humans a special responsibility for the care of creation and a duty of love for God and neighbor. It appears that thoughts like this are available within Judaism and Islam as well. We have that in common. Where deeper differences between the religions emerge are in other arenas (outside the scope of water justice), and in less central specifics within the scope of the topic. As relates to water justice, I may have come away from the program with the hint that Judaism has a much higher view of the substance of water than I ever suspected, and that Islam has a more textured understanding of the relationship between everyday physical realities and spiritual realities than I understood. Neither of these differences, though, present an obvious obstacle to a common seeking of water justice in the sense of working together to see that human needs are met.
Because the topic was relatively uncontroversial, the dialogue tended toward pattern 1. Participants were not challenged to reevaluate or refine the fundamentals of their initial positions, ruling out patterns 2, 3, and 4. Participants gained new insights through the differences they encountered, but those insights generally bolstered existing commitments more than they confronted or rebuilt them.
In light of this assessment, the water justice dialogue may have acted as a powerful first step toward ICJS’ goals of difference engagement and fear reduction. The thoughtful engagement of any real differences across religions seems uncommon, and is classically proscribed in polite society. The fact that the differences engaged during the water justice dialogue were minor in scope should not cause us to minimize the significance of the fact we broke through walls.
However, it remains only a first step. One level of fear, surrounding the completely unknown other, has perhaps been conquered, but others remain. Differences have been explored and indeed appreciated, but deeper existential differences remain for another day, and another dialogue.
The most effective strategy for promoting deep interreligious dialogue will involve multiple stages. Earlier stages will likely involve less controversial dialogue topics and more progressive participants, but later stages must include more controversial topics and more conservative participants. The groundwork involved in the earlier stages will likely be necessary to reach the later stages, and particular attention should be given to articulating the full range of benefits arising from the hard work of serious dialogue across difference.
1 Regardless of a religion’s official position on a topic, religious individuals hold views with a wide range of tightness. The specific individuals engaging in dialogue can be as influential to the pattern of the dialogue as the religions within which they find their home and which they may be taken to represent.
The city of Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. In the initiative Imagining Justice in Baltimore, ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians, and Muslims to the public conversation about (in)justice in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome this diversity of perspective and are not seeking a single definition of justice between traditions, nor denying the multivocal nature of justice within traditions.