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The Paradox of Interfaith Dialogue

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When the Religious Life Center opened in 1995 here at MIT, a Board of Chaplains was established. A Covenant of Mutual Respect was/is signed by all chaplains serving here and the document explains how divergent faith communities are to live together in the Institute. Proselyting was expressly forbidden.

In the early days of the RAC harmony was a concern as the Institute was a bit shy when it came to public conflict. It had been through the days of rage during the anti-Vietnam War protests and other demonstrations for the different causes that roiled the Cambridge community.

Some were concerned that moving all of the chaplains into shared space was an invitation to conflict. I thought better not believing that adults could not learn to live together. Within a few hours of moving in we had our first crisis. The student members of the evangelical Christian movement on campus had hung a psychedelic picture of Jesus on the door to the Christian Fellowship Lounge. The space was theirs and corresponded to the unique spaces occupied by the Muslims and the Jews, but the only folk who could see Jesus when the door closed was the staff of Hillel! The director wanted to know what we were going to do about it?

The Baptist chaplain rose to the occasion and managed to get the assorted Christians occupying the lounge to see that their gesture was not without implication. Jesus was placed on the inside of the door where he could look with compassion on the interior of the room and might even remind amorous Christian students of their personal norms. It was a minor success but laid the foundation for future interfaith responses to community crises after 9/11 and the events in Mumbai. Then we gathered as a community to express grief. The unspoken question that remained was could we yell at each other or did civility trump everything else?

The paradox of interfaith dialogue is that the differences that lead to conflict are not on the table often and overt conflict is still avoided most of the time. The reason that is true is because the differences that cause overt conflict are not religious but at the points where religion and politics converge. The aftermath of 9/11 was more easily managed because relationships had been formed that valued human life. Whether or not sinners still were held in the hand of an angry God was not the issue. The issue that divides was whether those sinners had a right to live together in Israel and on the West Bank.

We can talk about religious differences. The other day Jon Levenson from Harvard talked with the Addir Fellows about the different perceptions of Abraham held by those of the "Abrahamic Faiths." Questions were raised about how shared texts were understood, but at the end of the evening no blood was shed. Stephen Prothero in similar fashion talked about his book, "God Is Not One," and all understood the point he was making. Religious communities have differences over who/what God is that can be talked about and out of those differences come the conversations that educate strangers about the other.

The Addir Fellows, our interfaith dialogue group, has for seven years created communities of conversation that have helped small cohorts of students get to know one another. Civility reigns and this the face of our interfaith community.

When the chaplains get together for public conversations about what they hold to in their communities, they are able as well to talk about differences. Muslims are clear that there is a day of judgment even if mainline Christians are no longer sure. The Buddhists are content with "whatever" and the Catholics offer details where others accept generalities. Attitudes toward social customs can raise fierce argument when it comes to the treatment of women and those who are gay. But no one goes for the jugular.

It is dialogue of a sort and in this season of acrimony in Washington where our elected leaders can find numerous ways to call one another worthless bastards, I guess it will have to do. The test will come when MIT students graduate and take up their roles as leaders of the next generation of technocrats. Can that they have learned to value one another as human beings who draw on different religious traditions for guidance be enough to allow their leadership to be virtuous and effective?

I do know that it is not enough to pretend that there are no differences that divide and the question that remains is one that goes to the heart of our humanity: in the quest for power can we learn in the classroom the worth of the other so that in times of conflict we are able to not turn the abstract into a tool of destruction? Can those who unleash the dogs of religious difference understand that whether they are right or wrong about their theology will be less important than knowing they are accountable to the judgment of history if not to the anger of a wronged God? Or to put it more simply, when blood is about to be shed, can you move the picture of Jesus from the door?