How to Make Interfaith Dialogue More Productive

How to Make Interfaith Dialogue More Productive

By Dr. Bahar Bastani

In the past several years, there has been an upsurge in interfaith meetings and gatherings.  This by itself is of great significance because when people of different faiths break bread and enter into conversation with each other, they consciously or subconsciously acknowledge the spirituality of others.  This brings down the US versus THEM barrier that has traditionally separated the people of different faiths. 

I accept that someone from a different faith who sits across the table from me has the right to believe that he/she would be saved by God, the same way that I believe I would be saved.  Sitting together and breaking the proverbial bread is a significant step towards a more tolerant and inclusive society.  However, that is not enough.

If, deep inside, I genuinely believe that only people of my faith will be saved, and that all others are destined to end up in hell just because they, through no fault of their own, were born into a different religious tradition, that deep notion, prevalent at most interfaith gatherings, would force all of us to interact with people of different faiths under a pretense of social politeness and political correctness. 

What is needed is a new theological common ground which would permit us to believe that others have as much chance of being saved by God as we, and that God does not judge people based upon their geographic birthplace, ethnicity, or if they are of a certain faith, but by the sincerity in their hearts, their piety and their good deeds.  These are, in fact, the common threads that bind all major religions.

All religions first started as paths to find the ultimate and the absolute Truth.  With time, however, they have become sources of identity or a badge of distinction for their followers.  As per their very nature, identities are exclusive of others and thus deny rival identities.  This stands in stark contradiction to the concept of various paths leading to the same truth.  If we all wish to reach the ultimate truth through our own religious traditions, then we must be inclusive of others and accept that other faiths are as genuine and as noble as our own faith.  Truth, like knowledge, is not the exclusive domain of one group, and each one of us can only claim but a part of it.  It is as if God has apportioned parts of the Truth to different nations, ethnicities and faiths.  No one group can claim an exclusive right to the whole, but only a part of it.  In order to see the whole, we need not only to share our part, but learn about others, as well.

Consider this as a large jigsaw puzzle.  The only way, in my view, to get closer to the Truth and to see the larger picture, would be for all of us to adjoin our little pieces and try to see the whole.

As members of the human race we are blessed to be at the table of God.  We see many plates that represent different religious traditions that show us the paths of wisdom.  Each group, traditionally and quite naturally, considers only the plate that has been (by sheer chance) placed in front of them to be the whole offering.  We are all accustomed to enjoying the offering that has been laid in front of us.  Wouldn’t it be even more interesting and uplifting if we dared to taste what is on other plates as well?  We may find even more fulfillment in sharing and receiving.  After all, anything that helps us grow intellectually or spiritually, and helps us to evolve into better human beings, irrespective of its source, should be permissible.  We should also dare to set aside parts of the offering on our own plates if that makes us regress intellectually and spiritually. 

Let’s be reminded of what the Holy Qur’an says:

“We have given a law and a way of life to each of you.  Had God wanted, He could have made you into one nation, but he wanted to see who are the more pious ones among you.  Compete with each other in righteousness.  All of you will return to God who will tell you the truth in the matter of your differences.”  (5:48)

Bahar Bastani, M.D.
Professor of Medicine – Nephrology, Saint Louis University