- by Natalie Alexander
Embarking on an Interfaith Dialogue
What kind of messages and images of God did you receive as a child? When did you decide to believe or disbelieve in a God? Do you share the same religious values as your family? Is it safe for you to express your beliefs openly in society? How have your views on faith matters changed over time? These are interesting questions to answer, especially when you fill a room with women who affiliate with Buddhism, the Baha'i faith, Christianity, Humanism, Islam, Mormonism and Paganism. This was my experience at a Griffith University Interfaith conference that I attended, which aimed to promote a culture of peace for women of diverse religions, cultures and philosophies. believingwomen.org.au Don’t talk religion, just tell your story I have to admit, when we were asked to ponder these questions and share our answers amongst the group, I didn’t know where this activity would lead. After all, how would the Pagan amongst us relate to these questions? Would there be some tension between the Christian and Muslim women in the group? And what exactly is the Baha'i faith all about?
I was keenly aware that in many ways, it seemed like a risky move to participate in this conference. After all, social etiquette reminds me to avoid uncomfortable conversations about religion. And if at any point we were going to be holding hands, coerced into singing ‘Kumbaya my Lord,’ then I would be hightailing it out of the conference by morning tea! Thankfully my initial apprehensions quickly vanished, as each woman was encouraged to share her experiences of faith or philosophy on life. My attention was held and my fears subsided because I didn’t feel like I was part of an awkward religious conversation, rather I felt drawn to each woman’s story. It was through the process of dialogue that we were able to foster a mutual respect and understanding for one another. This was very refreshing, to feel open and free as we explored the cornerstones of our personal faith journeys together. There was no fear or irritation, rather an appreciation for the diverse faiths represented in the room. We weren’t talking religion; we were simply sharing our stories. Finding commonality in diversity It became apparent that a factor driving this successful dialogical process was the ability to find commonalities between our diverse faiths, which led us to a place of peace. We shared common views and values of practicing love, expressions of goodwill, pursuing peace and hopes for eternity. We explored the creation story according to the Qur'an, the Bible and Aboriginal spirituality. We identified the common themes, the perceived strengths and possible weaknesses of each version. There was no divisiveness; our only agenda was to respectfully learn from one another. And when we disagreed (sometimes rather passionately), an attitude of curiosity was encouraged. We delved into many hot topics that may have been confronting for some, such as the impact of religion on sexuality and gender roles. Yet I was totally amazed that the tension in the room did not turn ugly or divisive. No-one prickled up when their belief system was challenged, nor did anyone swipe out with intent to attack or defend themselves. Instead, differences were respectfully explored through meaningful dialogue. How freeing it was for me to be engaging in authentic, positive and constructive faith-based conversations.
A take home message - be curious I learnt a valuable lesson during this conference - when faced with opposing spiritual worldviews that stir up strong opinions, choose to respond with genuine curiosity. Curiosity beckons us to find out more, to make meaning in a spirit of enquiry. It is my intention to adopt this approach when met with questions about other cultures or religions that I may not understand or agree with. Rather than be fearful, I choose to be curious. Curiosity equips me to be authentic and genuinely interested in the ‘other.’ Curiosity keeps me open and willing to engage in critical thought. Whereas fear has the opposite effect on people. Fear keeps us fixed in our own secure worldviews, insisting that we must be ‘right’ and everyone else is ‘wrong.’ Such a closed dualistic mindset is completely devoid of a meaningful dialogue. At the end of the day, we all have a story to tell - of how we perceive the world, life after death, spirituality and experiences of love, life and faith. Instead of being threatened by different cultures and faiths, let’s be curious. In our curiosity we may in fact discover some important commonalities that we can celebrate together.
Natalie is passionate about human rights issues, matters of the mind and interfaith insights. When not in deep thought, Natalie loves to travel, drink good coffee and keep fit where she resides on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia. See all previous articles by Natalie Alexander