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Deepak Sarma Headshot

Interfaith Dialogue or Delusion?

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In recent events, vigils and prayer meetings following, marking and responding to the horrific murders at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin there were many who beat the inter-religious/interfaith dialogue drum. One often hears worn out and trite mantras: "We need to learn about, and from, one another's 'faiths' and/or religions!"; "We need to promote understanding"; and "We need to build bridges among our faiths." And these were chanted with sincerity and in earnest since that terrible day on Aug. 5.

While these intentions and desires seem superficially desirable (and remind me of a theological version of Barney's "I love you" song), do they really mean anything? And do they ever have a long-term impact? Or are they merely the right thing to say, an obligatory condolence, a self-serving and temporary panacea?

Perhaps, more importantly, what do potential participants mean by this "inter-religious dialogue" in which they purportedly intend to engage? Do they mean that they will accept as true the claims of others, even if they are at odds with their own? What, for example, is a Protestant who believes only in one God to think of claims of a Buddhist, who denies the existence of any god, or the claims of some Hindus, who proclaim the existence of many gods? Surely all of these claims cannot be true. And if one thinks that all of these claims are or can be true, then surely this problematizes and belittles the traditions from which they derive! Or do some participants think that the claims of others are patently false and that inter-religious dialogues are ideal opportunities for conversion? Or are such inter-religious dialogues merely fodder for pleasant and provocative conversations at suburban cocktail parties, akin to jet set, dilettante, amateur anthropologists who become experts of the culture/religion/faith au courant?

Though inter-religious dialogue seems, prima facie, to be a good idea, there is a great deal of difficult philosophical/theological work that participants need to do before they can have a fruitful one. In this connection, I would challenge all of those who chanted the inter-religious dialogue mantras to follow through with their promises, and to work out these preliminary and essential details, lest their promises become empty ones.

And let it never be forgotten that proposing inter-religious dialogue to sympathetic audiences is preaching to the proverbial choir. The biggest, and perhaps insurmountable, challenge is to engage and entice those who are isolated and seek no conversations whatsoever.