While I have attended any number of interfaith events and have found them an interesting, even engrossing, experience, one could argue that these gatherings have limited value. I say this not from any lack of respect for interfaith dialogue. Indeed, the monastic order to which I belong, the Ramakrishna Order of India (whose Western branches are known as Vedanta Societies), has long been in the forefront of inter-religious dialogue. Ramakrishna, a Hindu saint of 19th-century India, practiced not only the various spiritual disciplines within the Hindu tradition, he also practiced spiritual disciplines in the Islamic and Christian traditions. He achieved mystic union with the divine by following each path, and thus it was from his own experience that he taught that every religion is a valid and true entryway to the ultimate Reality. That Reality is called by various names since it seen through different lenses, interpreted through various minds, and refracted through various cultures, but that one Reality is the same.
This outlook gained greater currency when Ramakrishna's disciple Swami Vivekananda spoke as the Hindu representative at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. The Parliament was the first genuinely representative interfaith event in Western history. Vivekananda's appearance there also marked the first real introduction of Hinduism to the Western world. In his address, presciently delivered on Sept. 11, 1893, Vivekananda noted that he was "proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true." He concluded: "I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal."
One hundred and eight years later in New York City, the significance of Vivekananda's words became more poignant than ever. Given that, why would I suggest that the importance of interfaith gatherings is overstated? One reason is that the learning that occurs in these gatherings typically flows in one direction: I speak; you listen. Then, you speak; I listen. There is no two-way traffic here, thus the knowledge that is gained, while worthy, tends to be superficial.
The deeper, more intractable problem is that those of us who attend these gatherings are those most likely to be open-minded about other religious traditions in the first place. Preaching to the choir can be a satisfying experience because we all enjoy getting positive feedback: we all get to agree, we can all get along, we pat each other on the back and we feel good about ourselves and our enlightened motives. But I do not think that these kinds of gatherings are the best way to fundamentally change anyone -- let alone the world.
Having been in the back-patting position often enough myself, I would propose that what works more effectively as far as genuine inter-religious dialogue is what I call "interfaith incognito." By this I mean interfaith dialogue that is not initiated for the sake of public consumption. It is spontaneous, unrehearsed and often completely unexpected. These kind of encounters -- chanced upon without our official garb, without our sonorous voices chanting Sanskrit chants or Quranic surahs or Psalms of David, without our made-for-the-public explanation of our traditions -- can be much more genuine, contain much more truth and can be much more transformative. There are no speeches, just real human interaction. This kind of genuine two-way traffic can effect change, but the change is quiet, incremental and without fanfare. We are not dealing with auditoriums of hundreds or thousands of people, we are addressing one human being at a time and we are also being changed as we change others who encounter us.
I may be the only Hindu nun in the world who is also an enthusiastic choral singer. I love my Sanskrit chants but I also love my Bach B-Minor Mass. I've sung in a choral group for more than 15 years and it was during a choral rehearsal that an incognito interfaith event took place. Every rehearsal during break, I have a cup of Lemon Lift tea. One of our baritones, a kindly looking gentleman by the name of Will, liked the same tea and after some time, he began saving me a teabag, knowing I'd be looking for that vocal-clearing brew. One evening as we were sipping tea, Will said: "You know, I've been singing with you so long, but I have no idea what you do for a living." The question made me smile because I knew he would be surprised by my response. I have never attended a rehearsal in the official saffron colors of my monastic order. I wore jeans and pullovers like everyone else.
In response to Will's question I said: "Of all the people in this choir, I am the one with the strangest occupation." A soft-spoken and careful man, Will said, "No, I can't believe that! What do you do?" OK, I thought, I might as well go for it. "Will, I'm a Hindu nun." I saw the color drain from his face. "You're a what?" "A Hindu nun." "I didn't know there was such a thing." He was clearly perturbed. "Yes, not only is there such a thing, I am one." He stared at me in disbelief. I reached for a tenor walking by, one who had visited our temple: "Denny, am I a Hindu nun?" "Yeah, she's a Hindu nun all right!" Looking at me seriously, Will said: "I'm in Campus Crusade for Christ. I go to India every year and do free heart surgeries."
Now I was the one who was taken aback. Will wasn't the only one with something to learn. "Will," I said, "I'm so happy to learn that. The monastic order to which I belong, the Ramakrishna Order of India, is one of India's largest social service organizations. We have many hospitals and educational facilities -- from pre-school to university level. We have schools for the blind and for the physically and mentally disabled. We do relief and rehabilitation work for victims of famine, flood, epidemics and communal disturbances. We believe that in serving humanity we are worshipping God in the same way that we worship God in the temple."
Will listened gravely then finally said: "I see that I need to learn more about your religion." The truth is, I could have said the same thing myself, although I knew well the tenets of popular Christianity. Will listened with complete attention to every word I said. You can always tell when someone isn't listening to what you say; they may be looking at you with glazed eyes, but their minds are preoccupied as they prepare their counter-response. Will was not doing that. To my surprise, he did not attempt to dissuade me from my tradition nor did he speak slightingly of it. His humility, his humane and respectful response, his willingness to listen and learn instead of preach, taught me more than I taught him. I had attended many an interfaith gathering with Christians, but no one spoke more powerfully to his faith than Will.
And, truth be told, if I had known that Will belonged to Campus Crusade for Christ before we had shared that cup of Lemon Lift tea, I doubt that I would have looked forward to a conversation with him. If he had negative preconceptions about Hinduism, I have to admit that I also had plenty of misconceptions -- and prejudices -- about evangelical Christians. It is shameful to be involved in inter-religious dialogue and still expect narrow-mindedness in others when, in fact, it is lodged in oneself. Had my own unexamined prejudices not unexpectedly been put under the light of Will's open-hearted response, I wouldn't have known they were there.
Was Will's reaction a cosmetic response? Was he merely being polite? Nothing indicates that. We spoke more often during breaks; he was always there, saving me a teabag. His kindness, his goodness, his unselfish character came through whatever he did and said, no matter what or who he was discussing.
A cardiologist, Will developed serious heart problems himself and illness compelled him to leave the choir. After some months elapsed, he called to see how I was doing. I told him that I was praying for him and he was genuinely grateful -- just as I was grateful when he told me that I was included in his prayers. In our telephone conversations today he thanks me for my prayers. I have been on various interfaith panels with high-profile Christians, but no one has broadened my mind more than Will, no one has made me appreciate Christianity more and no one else has given me a sense of how transformative evangelical Christianity can be. And for that, I can only be grateful.
Not everyone is interested in inter-religious events. By and large the world is populated by people who either don't care whose beliefs allow no place for interfaith dialogue -- attitudes we can find in every one of our faith traditions. How we reach them is our challenge. How we change ourselves and remove our own unexamined prejudices is also the challenge. Interfaith gatherings lack the means to solve these challenges. They, like wrongly prescribed drugs, often serve to mask the symptoms without curing the illness. For after our gatherings have ended, our goodbyes have been said and the kumbaya moments have dissipated, what has changed?
The only way to genuinely effect change -- change in ourselves and change in others -- is to be what each of our religions tells us that we should be. To be a Hindu in the best way possible is to be a human being in the best way possible. It works with every faith tradition. By being our religion we do much more for interfaith work than all the speeches we've ever made put together. Do it, and make it a lifetime commitment. And try doing it incognito. You may be surprised by what you discover.
This column is an excerpt from 'My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.'