Interfaith relationships

Today is where I finally give in to another “cosmic conspiracy.” For those who may not be familiar with such things, a “cosmic conspiracy” is where a topic or train of thought keeps coming up in my daily life to the degree that I begin to suspect that the very universe is conspiring against me to force me to face and grapple with that particular topic or train of thought. Today’s “cosmic conspiracy” (I use the quotes because I refuse to accept the idea that the universe really conspires against people) has to do with the topics of interfaith relations and interfaith dialogue. Actually, I’m just going to use the word interfaith relationships because I believe that dialogue is just a natural part of relationships, so it makes sense to roll the latter into the former.

A lot of people are talking about interfaith relationships right now. And I think that’s a great thing. I’m all for interfaith relationships, myself. It’s a good thing, too, because there are a lot of them in my life.

For this post, I’d like to try and focus on what interfaith relationships are really all about and why they’re important. Obviously, any answers I give will be my personal answers. Other people may see things differently and therefore may disagree with me in part or entirely. But as someone who engages in interfaith relationships regularly and seeks to increase my involvement in them, I think it’s important to explore my answers to these questions.

First, I would like to point out that faith traditions do not have relationships. Faith traditions are abstract concepts. Abstract concepts do not have relationships. Relationships require actors with personality. So people have relationships. Those people’s faith traditions just come along for the ride. Certainly, those faith traditions may influence and otherwise become reflected in the relationships, but in the end, the relationships are really about the people. No relationship — interfaith or not — works out unless those involved really grasp the truth of that statement. Because anything that isn’t about the people involved isn’t a relationship at all.

People surround us every day of our lives. Some of those people are going to be of different faith traditions. When we come into contact with those people, we have to make a choice. We can ignore them and pretend they’re not there. While such a choice may make sense in isolated cases, the effort of ignoring someone we see regularly can be inconvenient and even quite difficult. This is especially true of this person is a coworker, a friend’s significant other, or otherwise has any sort connection to us that would make avoiding any relationship altogether nearly impossible.

We can treat a person with hostility, keeping them at arms length. Again, this is rarely an effective strategy. In addition to being problematic if the person is someone we might be forced to have some sort of relationship with for other reasons, it takes a lot of energy to maintain and live in a state of hostility. That sort of thing tends to take its toll on us.

Our final option is to engage the person and establish a relationship. That relationship can be casual or intimate, depending on numerous factors. But in the long run, this choice is usually the healthiest and most convenient one.

I will also admit that on personal level, I enjoy building relationships. I love people and I love interacting with them. So I’m certainly biased in favor of this last option anyway. However, I will note that my bias does not necessarily negate the accuracy of my analysis of the other options.

Once we’ve accepted that engaging people in relationships is the best option, we are faced with another choice. We must decide whether we will allow our individual faith traditions to come into the picture. There’s certainly no rule that states that we must discuss our faith traditions into every relationship we have. In some cases, avoiding the subject makes perfect sense. For example, it’s not relevant in my relationship with my coworkers, so I generally don’t bring it up.

However, our faith traditions are usually important to us as people. As such, not discussing them with the people we relate to creates and maintains a certain amount of distance in our relationships. After all, it creates a part of us that is “off limits” and closed off to the other person. While this is acceptable in casual relationships where other factors are more important, it will not work with close friendships and other intimate relationships.

Similarly, the other person’s faith tradition is important to them. If we refuse to discuss and engage with their faith tradition, we have created an impediment for close relationship. I might as well change the subject abruptly every time a close friend brings up the topic of his children. I have no doubt that the net result would be similar.

There are other reasons why I find interfaith relationships both necessary and important, and I hope to share them in a future post. I also hope to discuss some of the pitfalls common in interfaith relationships. But for now, I would like to close by reiterating that like any relationship, interfaith relationships are about people. They are important because people are important. At least that’s the understanding I choose to live by.

This post has been submitted to the October 2008 Interfaith Dialogue synchroblog. The following is a list of other participants in the synchroblog.

Be sure to check out my fellow synchrobloggers!

9 thoughts on “Interfaith relationships”

  1. Amen! (Can I say that on your blog?)

    Seriously, it’s all about the people, and as a person who was raised in her tradition to believe that people of another tradition were scary and evil, I can speak from experience…in the end everyone is a person, regardless of who, or what, they pray to, or what they believe. Once I was able to get over this issue, I have had a number of great relationships become available to me that I would have avoided in the past. I wouldn’t go back for anything.

    I have so enjoyed getting to know you, Jarred, and look forward to your other thoughts on this subject.

  2. I’ll tell you what, Erin. You can say “Amen” on my blog as long as I can say “Pass the mead” on yours. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are always appreciated.

  3. Good first post on the topic. I look forward to what else you have to say.

    You hit the nail right on the head by saying that it is people and not their traditions that have relationships. We are living, breathing human beings and have our unique perspectives that we bring to any situation and relationship.

    The trouble is, of course, that sometimes our viewpoints divide us. I’ve noticed that in more intensely urbanized locations in the United States (for instance, where I live in NJ near NYC) where people are forced to interact on a daily basis with people who are very different backgrounds there tends to be more of a general consensus of “live and let live.” Oh sure, there are sometimes racial tensions and even the possibility of riots, but in general what I’ve described seems to be the case.

    Interfaith dialogue is virtually impossible for the most conservative adherents of the major faiths, but I’ve been interested to see the few tentative efforts by evangelicals of late to make genuine contact with people of other faiths.

    I wonder what you’ll have to say about Christians and evangelism in future posts. Again, looking foward to what you have to say.

  4. Thanks for reading, Adam. I’m glad you enjoyed what I had to say. In a future post, I hope to really hammer home on the idea that most instances where interfaith relationships break down is when the focus on people is lost. I’ll be particularly interested to see your thoughts on that one.

    Your observations about the trends in intensely urbanized areas don’t surprise me at all. In fact, they reaffirm my own suspicions that people are more likely to find a way to get along when they don’t have the luxury of isolating themselves from those who are different. It’s much harder to turn the neighbor who’s helped you out of a tight spot into the dangerous “other” worthy of our distrust.

    To be honest, I wonder what I’ll have to say about Christians and evangelism in future posts as well. To be honest, it’s a topic I’d prefer not to labor on more than absolutely necessary. There are various reasons for that.

    Again, thanks for reading and offering your thoughts.

  5. I think it’s very important to remember that the person you’re talking to doesn’t represent every aspect of their faith tradition, even if it is a creedal tradition.

    Also, in any interfaith dialogue, each of the parties should be prepared to see the other person’s point of view (even to the point of potential conversion) but they should not be trying to convert the other party to their point of view. A paradox, but a fruitful one. And it’s important to remember not to compare your ideals with the other tradition’s practice. Compare practice with practice and ideals with ideals.

    Dialogue with evangelicals often breaks down because they are out to convert others. But not all Christians are diehard evangelicals.

  6. Yvonne:

    Thanks for you feeback. I think you make an excellent points, including a couple I had already planned to touch upon in further posts.

    I also think it’s important to take note of the adjective you used in your last sentence. Not even all evangelical Christians are “diehard” about it. I have a handful of friends who are evangelical Christians who are still fairly adept at holding polite and meaningful conversations with people of other faiths. I’d count Adam G. among their number, to offer one example.

    Thanks again for engaging in this conversation, Yvonne.

  7. Thanks for an interesting introduction, and I look forward to seeing the next installment.

    In the circumstances you’ve talked about so far, the question turns on whether you talk about religion to people who relate to you in other ways. Some kight be family members, and some might be co-workersm, fellow students, and so on. A lot depends on whether both parties feel comfortable about discussing their religion or not. I tend not to discuss religion with people outside my faith community unless they specifically ask, and even then much depends on whether they are asking to be polite, or because they really want to know. Only the last is what I would call inter-faith dialogue.

  8. Hi Jared, you wrote, “I would like to point out that faith traditions do not have relationships. Faith traditions are abstract concepts. Abstract concepts do not have relationships. Relationships require actors with personality. So people have relationships. Those people’s faith traditions just come along for the ride. Certainly, those faith traditions may influence and otherwise become reflected in the relationships, but in the end, the relationships are really about the people. No relationship — interfaith or not — works out unless those involved really grasp the truth of that statement. Because anything that isn’t about the people involved isn’t a relationship at all.”

    I made a similar point in my post under Condition #1, but I think you phrased this much better than I did. Nice job.

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