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Trust and Openness: Essential Ingredients of Inter-Faith Dialogue: Interview with Dr. Loyd Allen

“Dialogue requires some level of trust and openness. Only living representatives of one faith in direct contact with living representatives of another can accomplish this” says Dr. Loyd Allen (McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, Atlanta, USA) to Victor Edwin SJ, who teaches at Vidyajyoti, a Jesuit seminary in Delhi and is actively engaged in dialogue promoting Muslim-Christian dialogue.

Q: Are you comfortable with the term ‘Inter-Faith’ or ‘Inter-Religious’ dialogue, or do you think the term ‘Inter-Community’ dialogue is more appropriate?

A: I am most comfortable with the term ‘Inter-Faith’ dialogue. I see faith as a commitment to something beyond our individual and institutional resources that is vital to attaining peace and harmony among all people. It is the hope upon which religions and communities are built, even if unarticulated by them. Religions are the institutional frameworks for faith's expression. Inter-community dialogue recognizes the cultural differences bound up in faith lived out between and also within various religions. Of course, in some cultures today, faith is expressed in non-religious or even anti-religious modes, making community dialogue even more important. In my recent teaching of Christian history at Aligarh Muslim University, in India, I pursued inter-religious and inter-community dialogue in order to advance inter-faith reconciliation.

Q: Can you please provide some details of your involvement in inter-faith dialogue initiatives?

A: Most of my interfaith work has been between Christians and Muslims. This spring I participated in an exchange of theology professors between my employer Mercer University in Atlanta, USA, and Aligarh Muslim University in India. I taught Christian history to various communities within Aligarh as a guest of the Aligarh theology school. In return, Mercer's McAfee School of Theology hosted Muslim Prof. Towqueer Alam from Aligarh. At Mercer, we also sponsor an interfaith conference for discussion of common interests of the Abrahamic faiths. The most recent addressed Jewish, Muslim, and Christian prayer traditions. A traditionally Baptist school, Mercer has built an interfaith prayer garden on campus named for the Muslim parents of its primary donor. My entry into interfaith work came through the invitation of the Atlantic Institute and the Istanbul Center in Atlanta, which are majority Muslim institutions with ties to Turkish Imam Fethullah Gulen. This affiliation recently gained me an invitation from Indialogue in Delhi to speak on the meeting between St. Francis and Sultan Al-Malik in 1519. There I met Delhi Jesuits and other Roman Catholics active in interfaith and gained the opportunity to have this interview. These are but a few of the many small but growing opportunities for interfaith cooperation arising all around us, creating a growing network of interfaith relationships.

Q: Can you please reflect on what you think were the positive outcomes of such initiatives?

A: The most important positive outcome of these initiatives is the personal relationships developed. Inter-faith work cannot go forward without establishing trust between persons of good will. This is necessary to eliminate the stereotypes that are so harmful to reconciliation attempts, especially between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities in this moment in history. An essential part of developing these friendships is the free flow of information, not as debate or argument, but for understanding the point of view of the other. Just as important is that this information be shared by persons of integrity and goodwill: sincere persons asking good questions of trustworthy people is the way forward. This is something not easily accomplished if adherents of different faiths have immediate political or financial concerns at stake in the conversation. Economic and political conflicts are vital matters, but the trust and understanding established in interfaith dialogue is necessary for resolving them. How different the United States/Iraq confrontation might have been, if American politicians had a better understanding of the place of religious faith in our world. At Aligarh, I taught various groups about the beliefs and practices of Christians, but beyond information sharing, I was also able to represent American and Christian reality in the flesh. I think the message that not all Christians are Islamaphobic or deaf to Muslim points of view is more valuable than any data I provided about Christian history. Obviously, I do not represent all Americans or all Christians, but my presence was at least an alternative to the stereotypes implied in some of the questions I was asked. Dialogue requires some level of trust and openness. Only living representatives of one faith in direct contact with living representatives of another can accomplish this.

Q: What, in your view, are the limitations/drawbacks of such initiatives?

A: One drawback to such initiatives is the expectation that friendly encounter will produce deep and lasting reconciliation. Such encounters are necessary, but they are only a first step. This work is long and hard. It takes persistence. A few nice dinners together do not produce lasting reconciliation. Another limitation is the frequent failure to address the complexity of the tensions between religions and their respective cultural contexts. An Aligarh student asked me if all Christian women in America were “shameless.” He assumed dress codes that allowed bared shoulders (a cultural matter) in the United States was synonymous with sexual promiscuity (a moral and religious issue). Conversely, members of my congregation identified women's face coverings with oppression of women. Other questions, such as “if America is Christian why . . . ? required me to point out the difference between Christianity and America's separation of church and state principle. Reconciliation at deep levels is not to be found solely in academic expositions or cooperative social ministries or political negotiations, but in a combination of all of these. Interfaith dialogue has its place, but it is part of a larger context.

Q: Often, inter-religious dialogue initiatives take the form of religious ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ coming together for a few hours and saying good things about each other’s religions. They often don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings, so they keep silent on the beliefs and practices of other communities that they find problematic. Their ‘dialogue’ generally takes place in a seminar hall or in a fancy hotel. They just present their views, read their papers, share a meal together, and that is the end of it! Often such functions cost a lot of money, too. What do you think is the outcome of such efforts? What purpose or use do they serve?

A: The main purpose these rather formal meetings of specialists serves is making introductions between persons with similar interests. Of course, academic dialogue furthers intellectual clarity, which if vital for good communication. They are, however, of little use in interfaith reconciliation if the contacts stop at this level. They can even be detrimental if the participants leave with the mistaken notion that deep, substantive change has occurred.

Q: Who do you think should be the partners in dialogue? Just religious ‘experts? Or others, too?

A: I believe it is absolutely essential for the partners in dialogue to include more than religious 'experts.' Most of the religious experts are already sensitive to the issues of interfaith reconciliation. If interfaith work does not address larger and more diverse constituencies, it is elitist and mostly ineffective. This is why my sponsors and I during my stay at Aligarh made every effort for me to have contact with the student body as well as faculty during my stay. The theology faculty sent contingents of four or five students to eat with me at every meal. I gave a standing invitation for anyone who wished to visit me in my room at certain times of day. We provided forty-five minutes at the end of every formal presentation for open dialogue about any subject the audience chose to address. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we constantly urged students to form diverse interfaith dialogue groups on their own, independent of university sponsorship. If that happens, it will probably be the most influential consequence of our efforts there.

Q: In your view, should the focus of such dialogue be on religious beliefs, tenets etc., or should it also include exploring ways in which people of different faiths can work together to deal with issues of common concern—such as war and peace, communal conflict, poverty and environmental destruction etc.?

A: Without question, interfaith dialogue must include exploring ways different faiths can work together on issues of common concern. A serious limitation of much interfaith work is the temptation to assume that doctrinal clarity can produce reconciliation. I am convinced by my experiences that intellectual debate about the truth or falsehood of religious doctrines should be preceded by affirming the common ground between faiths on social issues. If one begins any relationship with a discussion of the most controversial areas of disagreement, reconciliation is doomed from the start. No relationship is successful that asks new acquaintances to begin conversation with the areas of deepest disagreement between them. At Aligarh, I began every session with the acknowledgment that there are real differences between Islam and Christianity, but that we should begin our friendship with an emphasis on the things that both Jesus and Mohammed held dear: seeking peace, non-violence, and compassion for those without the basic resources for a decent life.

Q: Often, inter-religious dialogue efforts remain stuck in seminar halls and become a mere academic issue. How, in your view, can this sort of dialogue be brought out of the confines of the seminar hall and be made more broad-based and socially-engaged?

A: As I said earlier, academic and religious experts meeting in seminars and conferences are valuable, but real reconciliation will only take place when the mass of adherents come fact to face with each other in a non-threatening environment. One of my students, Corey Brown, sponsored an event for the United Nations World Harmony event. At this event their were opportunities for sharing one's religious experience one-on-one with persons of another faith. We played together. A meal was shared, and children were involved in activities such as learning to make Muslim head coverings at a booth set up by a local mosque. I have twice attended an American Thanksgiving dinner at the Atlantic Institute. At the first one, I explained the history of this non-religious civil holiday, while my wife was recruited on the spot in the kitchen to show how to carve the turkeys. The laughter in the kitchen produced long lasting friendships and were probably more effective for interfaith work than my “academic” lecture. Finally, I advocate small groups of diverse faiths coming together for any purpose—from cooking to hiking to painting--where interfaith relationships can begin that may later develop into deeper dialogues on other matters.

Q: Today, all religious communities face a common problem in their own ranks—growing atheism, irreligiousness, consumerism, materialism, etc. What sort of dialogue do you think adherents of different religions can enter into to jointly tackle this issue?

A: At Aligarh, one of the most striking insights for me personally was the common nature of the threats posed to Christianity and to Islam by growing secularism. At their base these threats rise from a denial of transcendence. My first task in my particular context was to make clear that American secularism and American Christianity are not one and the same. Much more dialogue at the academic level needs to take place in this area, where Muslim and Christian communities can combine their resources to work against a common threat to their respective faiths.

Q: What do you feel about dialogue efforts that seek to ignore the very real differences between the different religions in the name of promoting harmony? Sometimes, this takes the form of claiming that all religions are one and the same, that they have the same message, that they are just different equally-acceptable paths to the same goal, etc.: is this intellectually honest and acceptable? Does such denial of differences really help promote harmony? If this is not the right way to promote better understanding between adherents of different religions, then what is?

A: It is one thing to recognize that there is one transcendent reality underlying all of creation, seen and unseen. It is quite another to suppose that this fact means that all finite religious expressions of this reality differ only in inconsequential ways or that one of those expressions actually represents the whole of that transcendent reality without corruption or incompleteness. I have little patience with interfaith dialogue that assumes religious differences either do not matter or that assumes there must be one infallible religious expression that captures God without remainder. Such denial of differences or assumption of infallible divine knowledge are doomed to failure, for they are both based on falsehood. We must begin by seeing where we agree, explaining honestly where we disagree, and seeking to move forward in cooperative friendship from this basis.

Q: Have you ever felt that dialoguing with people of other faiths can help you understand your religion better? For instance, dialoguing with a Buddhist monk might help a Muslim or a Hindu re-read his own faith and inspire him to realize the importance of compassion and peace in Islam or Hinduism, which exclusivistic and violent interpretations of Islam and Hinduism might have earlier hidden from his view? He might have woken up to discovering for the first time the importance of peace and compassion in his own religion after being impressed by the stress on peace and compassion by a Buddhist monk. Has this sort of thing happened to you? In what way, then, can this sort of dialogue help one to review and re-read one’s own religion in a better way?

A: I realized quickly during my stay at Aligarh that understanding Islam better increased my understanding of Christianity. In trying to answer the oft asked questions about the Trinity, God as Three in One and One in Three, I came to a clearer understanding of the value of personal religious experience in Christian faith. Early Christians did not set out to develop a doctrine of the Triune God, but came to that doctrinal formulation through experiencing Jesus and the Risen Christ as one with the One God. This changed my own understanding of Christianity and it changed the way I responded to rational arguments against this doctrine. By the end of my stay at Aligarh, I always introduced my presentations with: “I am not here to argue for my religion or against Islam. I am here to honestly explain what Christians believe and practice. I am not asking you to believe or disbelieve my assertions. I am asking you to better understand me and my faith. I believe that doing so will make me a better Christian and you a better Muslim. If that happens, Christianity, Islam, and the world we live in will be a better place, for we will both seek peace, justice, and compassionate action for the poor more zealously.” And this is why I believe inter-faith work is God given work.