Hand in hand: Engaging in interfaith dialogue at the College

Finding common ground among people who fundamentally disagree about something is very difficult. Imagine, then, how difficult it must be to find common ground among people of different religions. How can individuals from different religious traditions, which sometimes mean completely different world views, engage with each other in a meaningful way? I am not talking about merely intellectual or moral disagreements, but radically different systems of thought about how humans relate to the transcendent and to each other.

Can there be any bridge for people of different religions to walk along together? As the Holy Father Pope Francis said at an ecumenical and interreligious meeting during his apostolic journey to Kenya in November, “To be honest, this relationship is challenging; it makes demands of us. Yet ecumenical and interreligious dialogue is not a luxury. It is not something extra or optional, but essential, something which our world, wounded by conflict and division, increasingly needs.”

It may come as a surprise to some that interfaith dialogue is not only possible, but is already happening on our campus.

Frankly, when I first came to the College, I did not expect to get involved with any sort of interfaith activities. I knew for sure that I wanted to get involved in the Williams Catholic community and I have indeed found a home there. But could I, confident in my Catholic faith, take a step out of that home to see what lay beyond my religious bubble?

Naturally, I am inclined to approach the issue of interfaith dialogue from my Catholic perspective. However, coming to terms with approaching other religions meant struggling to understand what I at first perceived to be a tension in Catholic teaching. On the one hand, the missionary nature of Christianity compels me to want to bring others closer to Jesus and his Church. Evangelization (not the same as proselytism) means following Jesus’ commission to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). On the other hand, how could I not recognize the goodness of other religions and respect their integrity? In 1965, the Second Vatican Council affirmed that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” Is it right for me to want to draw people as convicted in their own faiths as I was away from their religion?

Enter, interfaith at the College. Already in my two short years here, but especially this past year, engaging with people from different religions has become one of my favorite parts of being here.  Three experiences in particular come to mind.

I felt called earlier this year to register for a Spring Break-Out Trip to Tuscaloosa, Ala., led by the Chaplains’ Office. The deliberately interfaith component of the trip meant that students got to attend various religious services as well as learn from one another about our different faiths. The conversations that took place brought different religious traditions into dialogue with one another, opening my eyes to new ways of connecting with other people, not in spite of our differences, but allowing our unique perspectives to engage one another.  All of this took place alongside our efforts to work on houses with Habitat for Humanity in an area that had been devastated by a tornado in 2011.

Secondly, I think of the Interfaith Conference hosted at the College last month. Besides the series of discussions and lectures that made up the conference, the interfaith prayer service in particular reminded me that interfaith dialogue can be prayerful. Additionally, I was reminded that interfaith dialogue does not mean watering down our specific religious traditions to the lowest common denominator. Each component of that service reflected one unique voice joining, but not blending, with others to share something special. After all, what good would it be if we all brought something identical to the table? Pretending that all religions are slightly different ver-sions of one another using different symbolism and language, ignoring the elements that distinguish religions from one another severely undermines the integrity of each religious tradition and does a great disservice to interfaith dialogue.

Finally, I think of the kind of organic dialogue that takes place often in the most causal way in the basement of Thompson Memorial Chapel. Can midnight games of fishbowl contribute to the  task of bringing religious traditions into dialogue? Actually, I think that friendship engendered among individuals of different faiths is one of the most powerful forms of dialogue. There are still places in our world where associating with someone of a different religion may be taboo or forbidden. Here at the College, such interactions are fortunately common and do so much good to bridge the divisions among us.

During his visit to Kenya, Pope Francis told the Catholic bishops of that country to “strengthen your commitment to working with Christian and non-Christian leaders alike, in promoting peace and justice in your country through dialogue, fraternity and friendship.”

Dialogue, fraternity and friendship: The three-part recipe for justice, peace and reconciliation should motivate all of our efforts to bring individuals of different religious traditions into conversation and help us together to build a better, more compassionate society where diversity and pluralism are respected and love is shared among all.

David Vascones ’18 is a history and Spanish double major from Queens, N.Y. He lives in Mark Hopkins House.

One comment

  1. It is very important to recognize that growth in faith takes time, take maturity, takes suffering. Nearly all of the students at the College are only in the very beginning stages of spiritual development. Many won’t even begin to recognize their need for faith until the very end of their lives, when they are experiencing suffering, even abandonment: loss of friends, health, abilities, even seemingly their very identity. Most of the students are so consumed by lust, greed, pride and envy, and ceaseless self-promotion and competition, there is not even a sense of faith’s primacy in the journey of life. We live in a profoundly dark time. Those who view themselves as “faith leaders” on campus are even more vulnerable to these things.

    Students are being made in the image of the professors and administrators, who themselves are consumed with every degree of selfishness, self-promotion, and seeking to construct a life apart from true Love. Professors and administrators who believe they know many things, but in fact, no nothing and have nothing to give that is of lasting value.

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