Ask the Religion Experts: How can we improve interfaith dialogue?


Rev. RAY INNEN PARCHELO is a novice Tendai priest and founder of the Red Maple Sangha, the first lay Buddhist community in Eastern Ontario.

It hasn’t always been fashionable to consider seriously faiths other than one’s own. My co-worker remembers telling a friend and church-mate that she was soon to marry but not in their small-town church. In total surprise, the friend asked of the groom, “Well, what is he then?” In their one-church community, it seemed unimaginable that someone might worship elsewhere. Now, in our increasingly diverse nation, we are all usually members of one or another minority faith, and “What is he?” is more often the default question.

The Christian-Buddhist dialogue movement has grown over the past few decades, as these different faiths recognize the benefit of learning from each other. In Buddhism and Christianity in Dialogue, Perry Schmidt-Leukel proposes three phases of interfaith engagement. At the lowest and least useful level, the one most like adolescent high-school debates, each side presents their faith. They analyse, criticize and challenge (even mock or condemn) the other, trying to prove how their faith is vastly superior. Claims of superior logic on one hand or supreme power of one’s “book” on the other, keeps both sides from really learning much. The next level is where the mocking or combative element disappears and there is some attempt to learn, but always from the safe assumption that “my faith is the true one.” This is mere tolerance. The third and most useful kind of interfaith dialogue is open to gaining new insights about one`s own faith by practising and studying with others in their faith. This Schmidt-Leukel describes as “the challenge of mutual transformation.”

Interfaith dialogue will improve when the participants in that dialogue move beyond self-promotion and self-defence. The entire project of faith activity is one of opening ourselves up to new and deeper understandings, and in that there can be little room for the kind of smug defensiveness or bitter attacks that hobble too many contemporary interfaith endeavours. Doubt, risk, open investigation at the intellectual level and sincere, respectful sharing at the spiritual level belong in religious dialogue. A closed mind and a closed heart are signs of spiritual stagnation, not vitality.

Rev. GEOFFREY KERSLAKE is a priest of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Ottawa.

Genuine interfaith dialogue hinges on respecting the freedom of the participants to hold their respective beliefs. It is not about trying to synthesize a “common religion” out of the beliefs of different communities because to have a genuine dialogue everyone must be prepared to respect each community’s teachings. Interfaith dialogue fails when participants try to use it as an opportunity to “convert” their dialogue partners. In 1984, Professor Leonard Swidler of Temple University wrote an article in which he outlined “Ten Commandments” of


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