Putting Faith in Interfaith Dialogue by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonWhy do it?  Sit around a table with people who profess a faith tradition different from our own, drink coffee, nibble on snacks, and talk.  What’s the point?  No doubt the reasons vary depending on the particular people getting together.  Nevertheless, there is the sense that if we “sit down together and talk together about our faiths,” we’ll “break down barriers,” and….then what?  Do we think (or hope) that those on the other side of the table will eventually “come around?”  Is conversion a goal?  Or, perhaps we just want to become more “tolerant” of other faiths.

So, for example, if Muslims share facts with Christians about the history of Prophet Muhammad, the Sunni/Shi’a division, and Shari’a law, will that help Christians tolerate Muslims?  Books on the history of religions abound.  Yet, religion-based violence flares around our globe.  Would learning about doctrinal beliefs–“truths” based on (usually male) interpretation of scriptural narrative–be helpful?  Christians understand Jesus to be God incarnate.  Muslims reject any doctrine that compromises the oneness of God.  Now what?  Are barriers broken down?  Are we more tolerant?

Certainly tolerance is preferable to intolerance, but is that all there is?  If I tolerate somebody, for example, am I not then setting the terms of dialogue?  It’s up to me to decide just how much I will “put up with.”  Diana Eck (b. 1945), founder of The Pluralism Project, notes that mere tolerance does not require us to really know anything about one another.  She suggests that we pursue “the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference,” not by eradicating the differences in our faith traditions, but understanding our faiths in relationship to each other.  What, then, is faith?  What does it mean to engage one another while crossing lines of difference?

For years, I’ve puzzled over the statement, “I am a person of faith” when somebody identifies as such.  What does that mean?  The word “faith” seems nebulous, soft, not particular rigorous–perhaps even “believing something you know ain’t true” (Mark Twain, 1835-1910).  Sometimes, Christians might back up the statement with verses from the Bible such as “…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  Or, “…if you have the faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it shall move…” (Matthew 17:20).  I don’t think that sheds light on what it means to be “a person of faith.”

A dictionary definition of faith is: “A system of religious beliefs.”  What, then, is religion?  What are beliefs and what does it mean to believe?  Is it possible to exercise faith outside of a systematic, religious framework?  These questions (and more) come to the forefront when one engages in an intelligent discussion on faith.  Unfortunately, most interfaith dialogue begins with assertions of “truth,” not exploration of ideas “across lines of difference.”  Often the goal is to find “common ground.”  For instance, both Christians and Muslims believe Jesus is a prophet.  O.K., now what do we do with this discovery?

Most human beings, in their quest to find meaning, struggle.  Who am I?  Where did I come from?  Where am I going?  What do I do while I’m here?  Faith traditions (religions) can (and often do) offer a way to find that meaning.  Finding authentic meaning, though, cannot be achieved mechanically.  I’ve seen people drape themselves in a garment, spun and crafted by another (usually a religious person), without realizing how ill-fitting that raiment is.  Are faith and belief individual matters, then?  Certainly, faith needs to be appropriated individually.  But what is it?  Where does it come from?  If we claim to be “people of faith,” gathered around the interfaith table, what are we claiming to have that others who make no such claim don’t have?

Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), an American anthropologist, wrote: “A religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men [Geertz, no doubt, believed the generic “men” included women] by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence….”  Symbols and “conceptions of a general order of existence” (worldview), then, are vital ingredients that form “a person of faith.”

Symbols are objects that point to something beyond themselves.  The American flag, for example, is a rectangular piece of cloth (usually), decorated with white stars on a blue background placed in the upper left section.  The remaining space is filled with broad red and white horizontal stripes.  For many, the American flag is a symbol, representing freedom and justice.  Why?  Because people have given those values to a piece of cloth, decorated in a particular way.  Symbols get their power from the meaning we (humans) inculcate into them.  Is the American flag a religious symbol?  Most people say no.  A country’s flag generally represents civic, not religious, values.  However, people do find meaning for their lives “believing in” the American flag.  Could a case be made that we are all “people of faith” inasmuch as human beings are symbol-making creatures?  Some, who claim no religious affiliation, “believe in” the American flag.

I often hear people say, “Yes, I believe in God,” expecting that statement to “say it all.”  I’m never sure what to make of their confession.  What is God?  God is a word.  Words are symbols.  Faith communities inculcate particular meaning(s) onto God (symbol), based on how the community has experienced the holy–those objects (Scripture) or events (Ramadan, Sabbath) they’ve “set apart” from the mundane–and thus create a worldview.  They “believe in” and “stand for” the meaning attributed to the symbol.  “A person of faith” has peered through the lens of a faith tradition and “believes in” the worldview created by the community.  The garment she appropriates then fits well and looks elegant because she’s found the faith tradition meaningful to her–right here, right now.

Communities do differ considerably–within a tradition and among traditions–on both the substance and interpretation of symbols. Might an exploration of the symbols we find meaningful be a starting point when we attempt to engage one another across lines of difference?  What does it mean when an individual Christian understands Jesus as both human and divine?  Tell us.  What does tawhid (oneness of God) mean to an individual Muslim?  Let us know.  Not by spewing memorized catechism or quotes from the ulema (jurists who interpret Qur’an), but just how, exactly, have you found meaning by appropriating a faith community’s worldview?  The tired, worn-out, official “truths,” based (mainly) on men’s experience(s), just don’t cut it with many of us anymore.

This exploration of symbols with one another seems to me to be a “natural” way to reach across lines of difference as we cross paths with others during any given day–at the beach, in the grocery store, at our children’s play dates–wherever it is that humans gather–even around the interfaith table!

Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

12 thoughts on “Putting Faith in Interfaith Dialogue by Esther Nelson”

  1. Good idea to focus on the meaning of symbols in people’s lives rather than on doctrines of beliefs. Belief is pretty much a Christian and Muslim thing anyway. In my conversations with Judith Plaskow, I have been struck by the relatively minor role belief plays in Judaism. Ditto for Goddess feminism and many other religions. Faith is a word that seems to go with belief. I would not describe Goddess feminism or Judaism as faith traditions unless pressed to do so by Christians or perhaps Muslims.


  2. Wonderfully uplifting vision. Thank you for this post, Esther. I participated for many years in an inter-religious meditation group, which practiced zazen, or sitting meditation. Members of the group came from a wide variety of beliefs and traditions, along with a few who had no active religious connection at all. Meditation dates back to ancient times in the Near East, the Far East, and the West. It is practiced worldwide in the home, in cloistered communities, in churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and so forth. To realize that there is that simple bond of meditative practice uniting so many different spiritual paths throughout the world seems to me one of the best symbols, or examples, of a lasting bridge of peace.


  3. I believe that the standard-brand god probably exists, but I certain don’t worship him. I’m editing a very long and thoughtful book about what the author says Islam really is, which is not at all what Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and other extremists believe, but the book isn’t convincing me that Allah is any nicer than any other patriarchal god, including Zeus, Jupiter, or Wotan. I’m always very happy to sit down and chat with “people of faith,” but I don’t like being preached at or condescended to because they think the Goddess is merely a cult figure or the object of adoration by members of a fertility cult. I guess I’m crabby, eh? Nevertheless, thanks for writing your blog and giving us some clarity as to faith.


  4. Thanks, Barbara. I Still Think god/Goddesss Is A Human Construction. We Ascribe QualitieS To A Being WeCcreate. Appreciate Your Response. Let Us Know When The Book Is Published.


  5. In my limited work in interfaith contexts, I have found that finding human commonalities may outweigh the religious differences encountered. But there are real impediments for someone like me from a liberal tradition (Wicca and Unitarian Universalism) when they discover the one-way-ism of some faiths. Exclusivism is where interfaith interactions break down for me.


    1. I agree Nancy. I once had a discussion with a relative who was simply repeating church doctrine with absolute assurance that he was right and I was wrong.

      Esther do you think interfaith dialogue can be meaningful if there are no common agreements about the nature of revelation and authority? If you think we all create our symbols based on experience and someone else thinks God told him or her what to believe, how far can dialogue get?


      1. Yes, Carol. Revelation And AuthoritY Are HUGE. And Often People Are Sure Their Construction Of God Is Not That At All, But An Objective Reality That Demands Our Absolute Obedience. Interestingly Enough, The Islamic Scholar, Nasr Abu Zaid, With Whom I WorkeD For Several Years Before His Death Four Years Ago Thought We Humans Wrote The Koran In Conjunction WIth God. Granted He Believed In A Transcendent Deity (I Do Not), However, He Thought Human Imagination Was Essential For Us To Apprehend Divine Revelation. So, There’s Wide Variety Of Understanding Within Faith Traditions. WE Seem To Come Together Best When We Focus On Our Shared Humanity, Exploring What That All Means And Entails As Nancy Suggested. (Sorry For The Typing Layout Of My Responses. Am Away From Home This Week With Only A Smart Phone.)


    2. Yes, Exclusivism Is A Huge Impediment In My Opinion As Well. Goals Can Vary From Group to group. If The Main Goal iS “Getting To Know You,” Perhaps Sharing On A Human Level Is “Good Enough.”


      1. I didn’t mean to suggest that no “people of faith” have nuanced views of revelation. Of course they do.

        So I guess my question is whether you think it is worthwhile to dialogue with those who don’t. Those who begin with “it seems to me from my standpoint that” usually don’t get very far with those who are absolutely sure of their positions.


  6. I Think Effective Dialogue Requires One To Be Open To Seeing Differently. Those Who Are Absolutely Sure Of Their Positions Have No Interest In Movement. One’s Time, Then, Might Be BEtter Spent In More Creative Endeavors Although Am Loathe To Not Allow For Possibility When Undertaking Dialogue In Interfaith Settings.


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: