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Conversation Without the ‘-isms’

Sometimes in private and sometimes with great fanfare, important religious leaders or teachers from various faiths gather for a formal time of inter-religious dialogue. These meetings are often important and sometimes produce statements of unity or some other tangible end-product.

The contemporary study of world religions has given us a method of labeling people based on “-isms”: exclusivism, inclusivism, relativism and pluralism. In a setting of academic inter-religious dialogue, these categories may be helpful. But when an inter-religious encounter happens with a co-worker while waiting to use the copier, formal dialogue becomes casual conversation and the “-isms” disappear.  

Most interfaith encounters today take place in very informal and personal ways. “My nephew is going to enter a Buddhist monastery in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Virginia,” a church member told me one afternoon in my office. “I’m not sure how to respond. What should I say to him?”

Waiting at an airport terminal in Chicago, a family of Sikhs sat down beside me, and I wanted to ask a hundred questions. I wanted to let them know that I did not suspect them of being terrorists just because they were wearing turbans. Were they frustrated that the airlines would not allow them to carry their ceremonial dagger, a religious requirement of Sikhs, or did they understand that religious convictions sometimes clash with security precautions?

Increasingly, Christians in America encounter Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs at work, in our extended families, at our public schools and in the airport. And it is a pity that Christians are so poorly equipped to respond to the people of faith around us.

For too long we have been taught how to witness only by using plans of evangelism designed to make someone feel guilty, convict them of sin, tell them what they believe is totally false, and convert them to believers in the space of a four-page tract.  

This confrontational approach to people of other faiths leads evangelical Christians to fear ignorance. “Either I do not know enough about their religion, or I do not know enough about my own faith.” Since ignorance breeds ignorance, our ability to have casual yet meaningful conversations with those who are not Christian is sorely diminished.

It does not have to be this way, though. We do not have to be experts in inter-religious dialogue to have purposeful and friendly conversations with our co-workers or friends. We simply need to be interested, open and willing to listen.

Conversation happens among people, not religious traditions. The Hindu next to you is a person, not a system of beliefs. It may be easy to be critical of the theory of dharma or the Bhagavad Gita, but a real person smiling pleasantly while they talk to you requires your kindness. That’s a Christian principle! Ask him or her what it is like for them to be a Hindu, but do not expect them to represent all Hindus worldwide. And when you are asked about your beliefs, be ready to respond with confidence.

Whether we consider ourselves to favor exclusivism, inclusivism, relativism or pluralism often does not matter. What matters most is that we are willing to talk to one another and listen. Religious conversation in our culture is not dead as long as we are the ones willing to engage in it.

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Jeffrey D. Vickery is co-pastor of Cullowhee Baptist Church in Cullowhee, N.C.