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Interfaith Dialogue: Reflections from Korea
Sep 1, 2016

Interfaith Dialogue is critical to the future of a peaceful world. It cultivates understanding and peace between groups of people. This is no less true for believers within the Abrahamic traditions than for believers of other traditions. The recent Pacifica Institute trip to South Korea (2-10 April 2016) provided one more tangible example of the role such dialogue can play within and between diverse faith traditions. In this instance, the event was for the sake of developing concrete actions to reach out to young people who might otherwise be led down a dangerous path.

The theme of the dialogue was Countering Religious Extremism at the Grassroots Level. It was held at the Seoul National University’s Graduate School of International Studies, and was cohosted by the Korean Council of Religions for Peace (KCRP) and the Hangang Network, both organizations based in Seoul. KCRP brings together representatives from seven different religious traditions throughout Korea, ranging from Buddhism and Confucianism to Protestantism and Catholicism. Together in one place, the roundtable discussion permitted an exploration of the problems that lead some persons, especially the young, to turn to extremist, self- and other-destructive beliefs and acts. The panel also discussed how peaceable—faithful— alternatives might be supported at local faith-based organizations. The dialogue was quite fruitful, and helped generate greater appreciation of the struggles within each faith tradition and how those assembled might learn from each other how to creatively respond to those struggles.

While extremely valuable, the point of these brief notes is not to report on the discussions and resulting suggestions. Rather than providing details from those particular dialogue discussions, let’s seek to lay out the different kinds or forms of interfaith dialogue to help set a viable context and reasonable hopes that are appropriate to each. We can thus aid in advancing various forms of dialogue within and between peoples of faith. In short, the term “interfaith dialogue” is ambiguous and too often misleading, since it is used to cover a wide variety of interactions and expectations. Let’s consider the following four forms to help us unpack the term.

Interfaith Dialogue form #1: Persons from various and diverse religious traditions get together to talk, listen, and learn about other religions and groups of people. This form of dialogue typically assumes simple ignorance on the part of participants, and such dialogue becomes an important means of seeking understanding of other groups and belief systems, and thereby also of one’s own faith. This form of dialogue is represented by discussions with groups like the KCRP, where participants were encouraged to share and explain their own beliefs by responding to questions from one another (for example, what does “salvation” or “heaven” or “hell” or “justice” mean for each different faith). Such dialogue ordinarily involves a single meeting of persons who may not formally meet again.

Interfaith Dialogue form #2: Like form #1 the point of meeting in dialogue is to share a greater understanding of and appreciation for and with one another. But there is an additional commitment to continuing dialogue opportunities in order to develop and maintain personal relationships between the participants. Such regular dialogue represents more than an experience of listening and learning about each other’s faith. Rather, it is a chance to grow and mature together as persons of faith, and so requires a consistent commitment over time.

Interfaith Dialogue form #3: Like form #2, such dialogue sessions occur on a regular schedule. But the meetings are not open ended, like forms #1 & #2. Rather, these sessions are focused on reading together and seeking understanding through the sacred texts of all participants. For example, one or two sessions would be devoted to reading and discussing a selected passage from the Qur’an, while subsequent sessions would be devoted to reading and discussing a passage from the Jewish, Christian, or Hindu scriptures. By studying the different sacred texts, all participants can gain a better understanding of how the texts are being realized in daily life. As the cycle of study and engagement repeats, relationships deepen in shared narratives of faith and life.

Interfaith Dialogue form #4: Unlike forms #1-3, this form of dialogue focuses on co-commitments to specific actions of social justice, such as helping one another establish and manage schools or other educational programs of nonsectarian academic excellence; addressing the need for food, clothing, and shelter in some communities; organizing political action on key issues like refugee resettlement or reforming immigration laws; working to establish hospitals and health clinics where access is otherwise limited or nonexistent; establishing and managing summer camps for youth, especially those youth at risk. Thus, while forms #1 & #2 can lead to action (though specific actions do not necessarily follow from those dialogue forms), this form results in dialogue that necessarily flows from people working together to meet common needs. There is a certain complementarity when participating in activities for the benefit and blessing of all, while also seeking nothing in return. In such settings, learning from and committing to one another is unavoidable here, as there is reciprocity in being and doing, joining together in restorative justice. As proclaimed in several traditions, such heartfelt hospitality forms a sacred ground for “welcoming angels unawares.” The resulting experience in interactive dialogue is thus serendipitous, yet more important because of it.

These four forms are not meant to represent an exhaustive list of interfaith dialogue patterns, nor does the list mean to suggest that one can engage exclusively in only one form. Rather, the variety of forms help to clarify just what reasonable commitments and hopes are appropriate to each form, and so help prevent misunderstanding, confusion, frustration, or failure when engaging together in dialogue.

Finally, it must be understood from the start that there is one key caveat: in no form of interfaith dialogue is seeking to convert people an appropriate motivation or desire. Dialogue can never be about turning another into a copy of oneself. True understanding, the knowledge that is from above, is grounded in respect for one another, and the recognition that one is incomplete apart from each other, standing side by side—all being welcome, facing (or as in many traditions, “as if seeing”) the One with whom we all have to do.