Find commonalities, then go deeper and understand our differences

By Nadine L. Monn

Dr. Deanna Ferree Womack leads plenary (photo by George Conklin)

Reflect for a moment on the term “interreligious communication.” What role does a communicator play in these efforts: promoting religious literacy? Perhaps fostering understanding of various faith traditions? Or is it cultivating relationships between people of different faiths?

In Friday’s plenary, “Interreligious Communication: How Does It Look, How Should It Look – Models from the 19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries,” Dr. Deanna Ferree Womack of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University invited convention attendees to examine these questions while highlighting positive and negative examples from the last three centuries.

Initially, Womack distinguished between interfaith relations and interfaith dialogue.

  • Interfaith relations: the positive and negative ways members of different faiths have interacted with each other throughout history and/or interact in the contemporary world

  • Interfaith dialogue: the practice of positive interfaith relations through face-to-face interaction and formal or informal conversation

She also defined four principle reasons why deep, meaningful interfaith conversations are not the norm for more people in the U.S.A.: lack of opportunity; fear and distrust of differences; perceived threat to their own religious convictions; and the conversionary orientations of several major faith traditions.

The 19th century Ottoman Empire posed a juxtaposition of negative and positive interreligious communication examples. Missionaries, perhaps feeling a need to justify their placement to leaders back home, criticized the local cultural and religious landscape as being inferior and needing saving. Womack countered these characterizations with examples from Syrian Christian, Jewish, and Muslim women writers who embraced their society’s mixed religious and cultural heritage to authentically narrate their reality.

In the 20th century, a variety of changes – missionary experiences, emerging voices of global Christians, the perceived failure of western civilization from WWI, post-colonial movements, and immigration – helped to shift some Americans toward interreligious communication and partnerships. While portions of society remained suspicious of religious differences, others saw the opportunity for greater understanding to promote peace rather than violence and war. By the 1990s, interfaith programs were more common and contributed to dialogue centered on matters of life, common action, theological exchange, and religious experiences.

In the 21st century, interfaith organizations continued to grow, with many being organic, neighborhood-based groups. Interfaith or interreligious studies programs have seen growth as well because interfaith experiences have become an everyday reality for some Americans.

While Womack encouraged religion communicators to continue finding commonalities with their neighbors from other faith traditions, she also challenged the attendees to go deeper and have respectful dialogue about their differences – to move from a monocultural mindset, to a multicultural one. At a time when it is tempting to listen only to our own group, and honesty is up for grabs, we have the tools now to become more knowledgeable and adapted individuals.

Speaker's slides: Interreligious Communication: How Does It Look, How Should It Look – Models from the 19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries

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