Interfaith Dialogue in a Complicated World
James Paul Old

On November 13, 2015, our television screens were once again filled with images of violence. In Paris on that evening, terrorists detonated bombs outside a soccer match; they attacked diners in cafés and concertgoers inside a music venue. One hundred thirty people died. When we see images like these—of people very much like us going about their everyday lives and being killed by religious extremists who seem very much not like us—we are painfully reminded of the uncertainties of life in our age. Events like the Paris attacks—or the San Bernardino shootings of December 2 or any of the countless attacks before or since—make us feel vulnerable and afraid, which is of course exactly what they are intended to do.

We live in an age of global instability; the relative simplicity of the Cold War conflict has given way to a world of shifting alliances among multiple powers, the chaos left behind by failed states, and the violence of religious movements prepared to use terrorism to achieve their ends. When attacks happen, even those of us fortunate enough to live in relatively safe and secure societies sometimes wish that the world were simple again; we want to know exactly who our enemies are and how to protect ourselves from them. A week after the San Bernardino attack, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, in front of a cheering crowd, called for a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Trump is exploiting a genuine fear among voters, but the world we live in today remains too complicated for such knee-jerk solutions.

A better option than avoidance and exclusion is engagement and dialogue. Acts of religious terrorism are intended to create not only fear but hatred, and the more we hate others, the more they will hate us back. But if we respond instead by learning what adherents of other faiths actually believe, it will be harder to make the mistake of assuming that everyone who seems different from us supports violence done in the name of their faith. All Muslims are not terrorists, just as all Christians are not crusaders. Interfaith dialogue will not stop terrorism from happening, but it can enable more realistic and level-headed responses to terrorism when it does happen.

Several of the articles in this issue explore the possibilities of interfaith dialogue. In “Protestants, Catholics, and Christian-Muslim Dialogue on the Church-Related Campus,” Anthony Minnema investigates why this kind of engagement is more common at Catholic than at Protestant universities. Richard Ray’s essay “In Their Own Language” advocates for a model of “receptive ecumenism,” a form of dialogue in which all participants remain firmly rooted in their own first principles while engaging in practices of hospitality and listening that allow for an exchange of gifts through honest conversation. Thomas Albert Howard reviews Jonathan Sacks’s recent book Not in God’s Name, which considers how religious faith can lead to unspeakable acts of violence but also how religious traditions contain antidotes to the violence they sometimes inspire. And in “U2, the Paris Terrorist Attacks, and the Power of Grownup Rock and Roll,” Christian Scharen describes a concert given after the Paris attacks as a kind of healing liturgy, an offering of music itself as a form of defiance against violence and terror in our world.

We will continue to encounter people who hold to other faiths, and some of these encounters, sadly, will be violent; these are inescapable realities in our world today, and we cannot build a wall tall enough to change that. We cannot choose to disengage from people who are different from us, and to try to avoid these encounters would be contrary to the example of Jesus who did not ask others if they knew him as the Son of God before embracing them with love and mercy. What we can choose is how we will engage with others; we can choose the path of peaceful dialogue that leads to ending our own ignorance and to the creation of mutual understanding and empathy. And when we make this choice, we choose to make ourselves instruments of God’s peace in this complicated and frightening world.


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