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How to Succeed at Interfaith Dialogue: Act Like 10-Year-Olds

In the schoolyard behind my wife’s classroom, her 10-year-old pupils engage in a daily rite of interfaith dialogue.

Tenzin is a Tibetan Buddhist. His mom and dad emigrated to Canada four years ago.

He is playing with Mousa, an Eritrean Muslim girl who wears her hijab with pride, and with Lamiya, who fled Syria with her Yazidi parents because of persecution against their people.

And there is Josh, whose parents attend the nearby Baptist church.

Nothing unusual about their interaction; questions about dress, belief, diet and religious practice are interwoven into comments about video games, TV shows and last night’s hockey game.

Differences are noted. Sometimes, arguments arise. They get over it and learn to play fair.

Canada is a multicultural, pluralistic and ethnically diverse nation. Presently, two-thirds of Canadians self-identify as either Catholic or Protestant, but both groups have seen a sizeable erosion in their numbers (a 20-year decline from 87 percent to 64 percent), according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Recent census results show that the number of Canadians who belong to other religions – including Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity – is growing (from 4 percent to 11 percent).

This is largely driven by Canada’s hospitable immigration policy (20 percent of Canadians were born outside of North America; in Greater Metropolitan Vancouver and Toronto, the statistic is nearly 44 percent).

The largest jump, though, has been what we refer to as religiously non-affiliated (from 11 percent to 24 percent), which is generally attributed to heightened secularity. Inasmuch, Canada follows the trend of Northern Europe.

When the Parliament of the World’s Religions gathered in Toronto earlier this month, participants discovered a society that leans boldly into the principle of “Reasonable Accommodation.”

Charles Taylor, the eminent Catholic philosopher and professor at McGill University, says in the Oct. 20 issue of the Montreal Gazette that new immigrants in Canada do not experience the same level of exclusion and fear as in either American or European cities.

We did not have a colonialist heritage overseas. As a young country composed of immigrants, the majority would say that they have been well received in our country.

Canada is metaphorically described as a cultural mosaic, as opposed to a melting pot, the American model of cultural integration.

Certainly, a few pieces of the mosaic are missing, and others broken, but generally we accept and embrace “the other” among us.

We are, by and large, a welcoming society. Two exceptions must be stated.

First, our national shame is with our mistreatment of our hosts, Canada’s indigenous peoples.

It is a blight that hangs over our nation; such abuse, largely perpetrated by the settlers and their descendants, has merited the most severe of criticism and concrete calls to action, some of which are specific to the church.

Only recently, our churches have begun to engage in meaningful acts of repentance, reconciliation and constructive dialogue with First Nations people.

The second exception is a recent and disgusting anti-Muslim sentiment.

An important awakening has taken place since the massacre of six worshippers in a mosque in Quebec City. Churches responded with grief, solidarity and generosity.

From my observations, it is time for more of our churches in Canada to start acting like 10-year-olds.

In a cultural context where faith communities are being increasingly secularized, we need to learn to weave discussions of faith and practice between religions with the ease and fluidity one sees in the playground.

In a “secular age” (which is also the title of a brilliant book by Charles Taylor), we need to be reminded of the values we share with other religions: Truth-seeking, generosity, compassion, goodness.

Our struggling churches could well afford a renewed confidence in the Gospel, which allows us to engage the “other” not in disparaging and exclusionary rhetoric but in open, tolerant and mutual learning.

Emboldened with the certainty of Christ’s love, we needn’t flee such dialogue but rather enter those spaces with a spirit of hospitality, genuine inquiry and, as Ray Bakke describes, a commitment to co-belligerence.

There are, of course, some outstanding examples of pastors and church leaders in our Baptist family who demonstrate such principles.

Justin Joplin (Lorne Park Baptist Church) and Terry Atkinson (Heart Lake Baptist Church) have built wonderful relations of peer learning with local imams.

Peter Holmes (Yorkminster Park Baptist Church) has been a champion of interfaith engagement with local faith communities.

Others deserve to be commended, but as Canadian Baptists, we still need to find new ways to be the church, faithfully present and welcoming.

Or, as Don Posterski, Christian sociologist and evangelical leader called it, with a principled pluralism. Soyez tous les bienvenus! (“All are welcome!”)

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on interfaith engagement. The previous article in the series is:

Building Interfaith Relationships Furthers Religious Liberty for All by Amanda Tyler

Terry Smith

Terry Smith is executive director of Canadian Baptist Ministries.