I have no clue if the Hindus are talking to the Unitarians or if Sunni Muslims are talking to the Amish, but we barely talk to anyone anymore. Interfaith dialogue has been largely forgotten by our community.
Interfaith dialogue is not the same as Arab-Jewish dialogue. Though overlapping, the latter is political – it aspires to help resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. Interfaith dialogue, by contrast, is theological. It fosters understanding of and between different religious communities.
Today, when we speak with other faith groups, the conversations are often transactional. We come together to advance common advocacy interests and fall apart when those issues fade. Fighting religious discrimination and seeking equity for religious school funding are important, but such issues simply align like-minded interfaith groups in a political dialogue with government. That is not interfaith dialogue, that is interfaith monologue.
And yet, this approach is pervasive. We cheer evangelicals because they are ardently Zionist, while wilfully ignoring the rest of their theology. Our advocacy organizations similarly partner with the Ahmadiyyas, a tiny Muslim sect, because they are friendly to Israel and share some of our concerns about Islamic extremism.
But Ahmadiyyas are hardly mainstream Muslims. Engaging with them is vaguely like Palestinian engagement with the radically anti-Zionist Neturei Karta: it enables the appearance of dialogue but is really an exercise in bias confirmation with peripheral members of another group. It also supplies great photo-ops with seemingly oppositional peoples in their traditional religious garb.
Other communities also confuse dialogue with monologue. Several years ago, I was involved in a World Religions Summit that fed into what was then the G8/G20 conferences. Our final communique appealed for global leaders to fight poverty, care for the earth and so forth. These motherhood calls to action were ostensibly rooted in shared religious values, but really aligned like-minded religious groups for political ends, only on a global scale.
In that case, a group of left-wing Canadian Christians shaped an agenda that ironically reflected its position of comfort and security – that’s what enabled them to branch into secondary issues like poverty and the environment. Meanwhile, less privileged religious groups had bigger fish to fry, like how to care for their communities’ immediate religious needs.
I don’t recall a single moment of true interfaith dialogue in that process, which is probably why I was there. Other communities typically send clergy to represent them, but ours often sends lay leaders, like me. With clerics on one side and lay people on the other, real interfaith dialogue seldom succeeds.
Today there are semi-organized, poorly funded interfaith dialogue groups scattered pell-mell across Canada, but there was a time when interfaith dialogue was a booming business. The Canadian Council of Christians and Jews (CCCJ) once had offices in six Canadian cities and was led by Canada’s ablest practitioner of interfaith dialogue, Victor Goldbloom. Founded in 1947 largely to fight Christian anti-Semitism, things improved so much that, over time, there seemed nothing left to discuss.
But, of course, there is plenty still to discuss. The interlocutors may have changed, but the promise of interfaith dialogue remains as strong as ever.
Today, the opportunity lies with the Muslim community. Things said about us from parts of that community can be incredibly troubling, but perhaps some Muslim Canadians feel the same way about some of us. Who knows? We barely speak with them. And, like us, the Muslim community is large and diverse.
When the CCCJ was established, many probably thought it was a waste of time. It took 63 years, but its interfaith dialogue was so successful in correcting Christian misperceptions of Jews that the organization closed up shop.
What a joy it would be if we could establish a Canadian Council of Muslims and Jews, give it some time and then shutter it too.