I don’t know how many of you saw this picture that was on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. It shows all the different Islamic denominations and groups – and of course there could be an even more complicated diagram for Christianity. If you saw it I don’t know how you felt – it made me feel guilty because while my colleagues can confidently discuss the details of one group or another my brain just does not retain that kind of information.
Feeling frustrated with myself I remembered a time while I was studying principles for interfaith dialogue when I felt the whole thing was really completely pointless. While I loved the principles – or virtues as they were called in this book – I could not see why they were principles for interfaith encounter rather than just ways human beings should treat one another when they meet someone, anyone, new.
To a degree, I still think this is true. The history of interfaith understanding, the reflections on different faiths and the insights from interfaith conversation still fascinate me but surely when we learn to engage with someone from a different faith it should be no greater or lesser a challenge than meeting any other person. Because we are all other. My husband is other to me by virtue of his gender, my children are other by virtue of their age and my friends, however close, have experienced the world in a different way from me. So how does interfaith engagement differ and does factual knowlege about another faith help us approach someone and build more trusting relationships than a genuine openess and a respect for human beings?
Sometimes I think basic factual knowlege can make things worse. I have met people who come out of ‘diversity courses’ with no understanding of how faith is lived but simplified factual information leads them to make assumptions like all Muslim women wear a veil or no-one should shake hands with a Muslim. Many people don’t realise there is a range of practice and belief in all faiths. My Muslim friends wear a wonderful variety of clothing and some choose to wear a scarf over their hair while others don’t. Equally some Muslim men may happily shake hands with a woman while others would find that uncomfortable. So our ‘simple’ facts can lead us to make assumptions that then cause misunderstandings and perhaps uneasiness.
Conversely I was once at a women’s group where one of the participants accidentally bought a quiche with bacon to the shared meal. This was not a catastrophe but opened up an interesting and lively debate about dietary laws, alcohol consumption and ended up with shared recipes. If there is respect, trust and openess a textbook disaster can turn into an opportunity for deepened understanding.
I really like it when my friends tell me about their faith, what is important to them and what bits are special to them but I know if I learn it from a text-book it is never going to stick. I also know that if such a graph existed for Christians I would not really fit any of the boxes. Also if I met someone who I had already decided that as an Anglican, catholic (ish), liberal (ish) I believed x and practiced y our conversation would be deeply frustrating and I would spend my time countering assumptions and adding nuance to their preconceptions. Guidelines for dialogue and encounter are of course helpful and might give people confidence when they begin their journey of making friendships with those society has decided are more ‘other’ than others. But if we find a good principle, virtue, guideline or practice let’s not limit it’s use but remember that all our encounters are sacred and when we meet any ‘other’ we are treading on holy ground that cannot be mapped in simple diagrams.