Terms of Engagement

How can we eliminate our secret prejudices against those of differing faiths and cultures?

Let us assume with the Psalmist that “God knows the secrets of the heart.” How indeed can we eliminate unacknowledged and secret prejudices against those of differing faiths and cultures? How can we become more trustworthy and trusting of each other?

In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T. S. Eliot wrote, "We put on the face to meet the faces that we meet." Jean Paul Sartre described much of life as dancing a "dance of respectability." Howard Thurman said that often, when we come together, "our shoulders touch but our hearts cry out" because they are far apart. The criticism against "political correctness" is not that it is incorrect, but that it is inauthentic. If we live correctly but without authenticity, our shoulders may touch but our hearts will not. We will not challenge old prejudices or discover new truths.

We must first ask ourselves if the prejudices we wish to eliminate are incidental or essential to our worldview. Do they result merely from our ignorance or perhaps an imperfect understanding of other traditions and cultures? If so, the remedy will be to increase the opportunities for mutual learning, sharing and cooperation.

Or do our prejudices follow inevitably from the core assertions of our faith? Do I believe in my heart that my faith is superior to yours? If so, a different kind of dialogue may be required. Nevertheless, what follows will be helpful in both situations.

Before we seek more complete knowledge of one another, or more intimate communion with each other, or more peaceful relations with each other, it behooves us to encourage and facilitate experiences of the transcendent within our own traditions first. If we have not experienced that which is holy, sacred or unitive in our own lives and faith, we will be hard pressed to converse about it with others. Even if we are skeptical or claim no faith, it will be helpful to be in touch with the ah-hah moments we have experienced through the arts, sciences or in nature.

Yes, but how can I talk to someone with a completely different orientation?

Since we are dealing with questions of diversity and prejudice, let me share a few principles that I have tried to follow in recent years. My first principle comes from the first word in the Rule of Saint Benedict: Listen. Listen to others. Cultivate "deep listening" as Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and Howard Thurman advised - a listening that is compassionate and non-judgmental. Listen to the words of others. Listen to the breath. Listen to the silences. Listen for the "still small voice" that also may be speaking in this encounter.

I learned my second principle when I was a draft counselor with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. We often had to deal with people who were, shall we say, less than receptive to conscientious objectors. I was taught a simple lesson that has stood me in good stead in many situations ever since: Never posit malice. Never assume the worse. Assume the best possible motivation and interpretation of the words and deeds of the other.

The third principle I learned from my friend, Wayne Smith, who founded the Friendship Force and World Pilgrims. Pay attention to what is in my neighbor's heart more than what is in my neighbor's head. Both head and heart are vital, but I concur with Pascal that "the heart hath reasons that reason knows not of."

Francisco Dokushô Villalba, a Spanish Soto Zen Buddhist, distinguishes between Horizontal Religions and Vertical Religion. Horizontal religions are systems of beliefs, rituals, practices and socio-cultural norms that strengthen individual and cultural identities. They exist in space and endure through time. They offer cohesion, consolation and coherence to the people who live within them. Sometimes they encode ethnic and cultural norms. They often are organized and energized by particular agreed-upon beliefs.

Horizontal religions occasionally push against one another in soft or fierce competition. When we speak of "communities of faith" this is often what we mean. Many interfaith dialogues and programs simply bring horizontal religions into conversations and cooperative ventures. In today's world, this is terribly important to do. Such occasions provide information and education. They teach us civility. They promote an understanding that counters many of the naive prejudices we harbor. But in such settings it also is possible to "hide" our prejudices behind faces that we put on to meet the faces that we meet.

Vertical religion, on the other hand, is experiential. It offers access to a special consciousness of what Villalba calls "la Unidad" - unity, union, henosis or similar mystical states. This provides the stimulation and the consolation of an experience of transcendence. People who practice vertical spirituality open their hearts to the totality of experience. This totality  includes followers of other spiritual paths. Therefore Villalba believes that all encounters with the Transcendent in vertical religion lead to unity. It cannot be otherwise. Prejudices are not so much refuted as they are dispelled.

Horizontal world religions gather around vertical religious experiences. These vertical and unitive experiences in all religion are encounters with the one and the same "Unidad." If I fill my glass with water from the ocean, then all of the water in my glass will be ocean water, but not all the ocean is in my glass.

My fourth principle comes from the Guidelines for Inter-faith Dialogue of the Interfaith Network of the United Kingdom. Keeping in mind that all of us at times fall short of the ideals of our own traditions, never compare my own ideals with other people's practices. Don't compare the best of my tradition with the worse of yours.

Finally: Embrace paradox. Honor the tension between the particular and the universal, the horizontal and the vertical. "I cannot be at home everywhere until I am at home somewhere," said Howard Thurman. "I cannot speak without using a particular language," said the rabbis. Celebrate the particular but embrace the universal. Do not flee these contradictions nor attempt to resolve them simplistically. When differences emerge, avoid "either / or". As much as possible, seek "both / and”. Stay with the tension and allow it to have a voice.

There is an Asian proverb to the effect that when a finger points to the moon, a dog sees only the finger. At their best, I believe that all religions are fingers pointing to something which can never be adequately described or captured with words: "Those who know don't say," said Lao Tzu, "and those who say, don't know," At the core of many traditions is the ultimate affirmation that, after we have expressed everything we know and all that has been revealed, nevertheless, "God is greater." "Why do you call me good?" said Jesus, pointing. "There is none good but God."

Adapted from Faith in a Minor Key by Budd Friend-Jones