By Joshua Heath
Interfaith dialogue: the phrase brings to mind an egalitarian meeting of members of a multitude of faith groups and traditions. You may envision a Rabbi happily engaged in a discussion with a Catholic priest, and a Methodist preacher listening intently to the story an Imam is sharing about the needs of his Mosque. Such a vision is fairly accurate, but one has to wonder if it is missing something that might be useful to the overall mission of interfaith dialogue. Where are those that believe in a multiplicity of divine entities? Where are the animistic faithful that see the natural world as including and birthing the divine?
The Religion Communicators Council states: “The purpose of interfaith dialogue is to increase our understanding of and respect for other religious systems and institutions, thereby increasing our appreciation of their values. Dialogue should enhance our sensitivity to the feelings of all professing religious people in their relationship with God.” This statement includes a part of the problem with the large majority of interfaith councils, organizations, and dialogue groups. The default assumption is that the divine is singular, and from that worldview it is certainly easier for the Abrahamic faiths to dialogue with one another. From their view, they are each seeking to understand the same divinity, even if they have a different interpretation of that being and their own religious systems.
Many Buddhists and Hindu’s have accepted the language of divine singularity to make their interaction in these types of events more seamless. Though there are some traditional reasons for this view of divine singularity, there are as many examples in each faith of a more dynamic understanding of divinity. However, when dealing with the dominant authority of a monotheistic worldview, it seems easier to explain one’s faith through that paradigm. Even some researchers have taken this attitude toward African traditional religious customs, “They recognize the fact that the God which Islam and Christianity proclaimed is the same God which the traditional people are worshipping and so when they encountered Islam and Christianity, to dialogue with and tolerate these new religions is not difficult.” This disregards the cultural and spiritual basis for the beliefs of these non-Monotheistic faith traditions by assuming they are pale reflections of the more dominant faiths.
Even atheists that are welcome at the interfaith table do so from the assumption of a truth to the monotheistic point of view. At a recent interfaith event an atheist speaker stated this oft repeated anecdote, “No one believes in Zeus or other gods anymore, so in effect, I simply believe in one less god than you.” Sadly, this disregarded the few polytheists in attendance who had quickly been swept into irrelevancy. It seems like there must be a more effective way of including non-Abrahamic, non-monotheistic faiths in interfaith dialogue without asking them to subsume their conceptualization of the divine into a system that is acceptable to the monotheist.
Though there are many possible ways to encourage this sort of integration and interaction, what follows is one framework that would work quickly and efficiently:
- Don’t define the divine
The purpose of Inter-faith dialogue should not be about defining the divine through one system or another. Instead, we should seek a holistic approach that accepts that each group and individual has a reason for their view of divinity. We should be listening to understand and respect, and in doing so we should attempt to refrain from translating other beliefs into a more palatable understanding through our own worldviews. For example, instead of seeing a local god as a reflection of a singular divine entity, recognize that specific deity has history and relevance to the people and may have no connection to a larger divine force in the eyes of worshippers.
- Refrain from needing to agree.
Some see the purpose of dialogue as a long and round-about attempt to reach a place of agreement. That should not always be the goal of dialogue. Interfaith dialogue, in particular, should not be about agreeing with one another but instead be focused on accepting and knowing one another as people first. Take the time to see each other as people, understanding that you do not agree on this topic and that agreeing is not a requirement to accepting the humanity of those around you.
- Open the door, and let all come
When building interfaith dialogues, many groups reach out to leaders of well placed and public organizations. This is an excellent plan if these groups are public and welcome to being invited, but often, polytheistic groups and traditional belief groups tend to keep a lower profile. It may be difficult as a Wiccan, Hindu, Heathen, or a traditional leader of an indigenous religion to believe you will be welcome at a dialogue event. An open door policy, and perhaps even an active recruitment of non-Abrahamic believers will allow for these voices to be included in the dialogue.
This basic set of guidelines can be utilized in encouraging dialogue in a multiplicity of contexts. Whether you are discussing integrating African Traditional Religions in a peacebuilding dialogue in Sierra Leone, or trying to include polytheistic viewpoints in a dialogue in Washington D.C., this framework can help to offer a few basic tips. My own experiences as a Heathen involved in dialogue work have been valuable to my overall interest in peacebuilding and community engagement. Some of my interactions have been positive and a few have been negative, but overall I have been able to bring my perspective in a way that is different than those with a monotheistic worldview. If our goal in dialogue is to encourage understanding, respect, and compassion for others, why would we fail to bring all voices to the table?
 The InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington (IFC). “Guidelines for Interfaith Dialogue.” Religion Communicators Council. Religion Communicators Council (RCC), n.d. Web.
 Olagunju, Olugbenga. “Globalization and Inter – Religious Dialogue in African Cultural Context.” Journal of Studies in Social Sciences 2.1 (2013): 31-52. Infinity Press. Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary , Ogbomoso, Nigeria, 2013. Web.
Conteh, Prince Sorie. Traditionalists, Muslims, and Christians in Africa: Interreligious Encounters and Dialogue. Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2009.
Josh Heath is a graduate student at American University where he studies International Peace and Conflict Resolution. He also co-directs an organization called The Open Halls Project which advocates for the religious rights of Heathens in the US Military. He was a recent contributor to Interfaith Ramadan: http://www.interfaithramadan.com/2015/06/a-heathens-suggestions-for-helping.html