It’s a truism that there’s two topics that polite people should avoid discussing — religion and politics. 

Why so? Conversations on these delicate subjects often lead to sharp disagreements or even conflict. 

Religion is a highly-charged topic of conversation since religion deals with “what counts most in life.” Religion also raises questions like, “Does God exist?” “Is there life after death?” “Is there one and only one correct religion?” Correspondingly, politics can also lead to heated discussions as we see today in the differing political perspectives between Fox News and MSNBC or CNN.

Growing up in Bayonne, New Jersey, I was aware, even as an 8-year-old, that there were many different houses of worship. There were seven Roman Catholic churches, a Greek and Ukrainian Orthodox church, several Protestant churches and a Jewish synagogue. All of this religious diversity in a town with a population back then of about 76,000 people.

Although there are many commonalities among the various religious traditions, there are huge differences that cannot be reconciled easily. This holds true not only in regard to their diverse teachings, but also in terms of religious practices, such as the question: “Is baptism necessary for salvation?” 

There were no Hindu or Buddhist temples in my hometown, nor was there a mosque. As a result, I had no experience dealing with people from these religious traditions. After studying Roman Catholic theology at Innsbruck, Würzburg and Munich, I imbibed merely a teaspoon of knowledge about Eastern religions and Islam. That was soon to change.

The main railroad station in Munich had scores of trains leaving and arriving, similar to Penn Station in New York City. Back in 1972, I observed a young Muslim unravel a towel and begin salat, or ritual prayer, precisely at noon. It blew my mind that he began this prayer where hundreds of people could see him prostate on the ground. This simple act of witnessing his faith in God influenced me profoundly. I concluded that a religion like Islam that enjoins a person to pray five time a day must have something going for it. 

It reminded me of a Hindu proverb that God is One, though the sages have various words for God, such as Adonai (Judaism), Buddha (Buddhism), Braham (Hinduism), Tao (Taoism), Allah (Islam) and Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Christianity). I also surmised that no religion has a monopoly on the truth, but all of them are surely a pathway to God.

As Simone Weil, a Jewish intellectual, pointed out, God’s grace and spiritual truth can be found not only in Judaism, but in all religious traditions. Why is this the case? No religion has a monopoly on the Holy Spirit, who moves where the Spirit wills. We, humans, cannot control what God does. 

Many people of good will today eschew interfaith dialogue. Some see other religious traditions as a threat, while others believe that other religions are the work of the devil. For example, The Rev. Franklin Graham called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion,” while the Rev. Jerry Vines, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, described Muhammad as a “demon-possessed pedophile.” One wonders whether these religious leaders ever studied Islam, since there’s zero truth to their assertions. Also, how do they square such statements with 1 Corinthians that speaks about the qualities of love or with 1 John, 2:9? 

On another note, scholars in religious studies point out that there are various forms of interfaith dialogue. First, there’s the “dialogue of life” when we relate to members of another faith, be it at a concert, a football game or at a restaurant. For example, I was seated next to a young man on a plane going from D.C. to Birmingham, and we struck up a conversation about Islam. I asked him if he prayed five times daily as prescribed by Islam. He stated that he did the ritual prayer with others only twice a day, since he travels a lot on business and cannot pray five times a day except on weekends. That made good sense to me.

Second, there’s the “dialogue of action” where people of faith join hands to deal with challenges their community faces. In some communities, people from different religious traditions run a soup kitchen for the homeless. Recently, the Muslim community paid for the funerals of the Jews who were massacred in the synagogue in Pittsburgh to show their solidarity with the Jewish community.

Third, scholars also speak of a “dialogue of discourse.” Most often this type of dialogue occurs in an academic setting. When visiting Turkey some years ago with a group of ministers and academics from the Atlanta area, we engaged in a dialogue with members of the press in Istanbul. 

Fourth, there’s the “dialogue of religious experience,” one that involves the sharing of personal experiences. This may also be called the “spiritual part” of dialogue when we raise questions like “How do you picture God,” or “What moves you to lead a virtuous life?” The dialogue of experience could involve attendance at a synagogue on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement or attending a Seder meal with my wife at the home of a Jewish friend.

Finally, the various forms of dialogue as noted above, may overlap. In Mobile, Jews, Christians and Muslims have been meeting for several years now in order to engage in interfaith dialogue about four times a year. The group consists of about 100 individuals from members of the Abrahamic religions. One bishop, rabbi or imam might give a 20-minute address to the group. Then, the audience breaks up, 10 to a round table, to have a discussion on the talk they had just heard. At each table a person familiar with group dynamics acts as a facilitator for the ensuing discussion. Then, the entire group asks questions, or reports to the entire group their thoughts on the topic in question. This might be a useful model for such a group in the Opelika-Auburn area, particularly in view of the anti-Semitism on the rise in Alabama and the U.S. as a whole.

Richard Penaskovic is an emeritus professor at Auburn University, who taught religious studies for 30 years.

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