Interfaith dialogue can be tricky in two ways. In everything we say and in everything we don’t.
To put it another way, should we focus on what we have in common and attempt to build bonds based on our similarities? Or do we focus on what divides us and attempt to navigate those aspects of our traditions that stand in irreconcilable difference with one another?
Answering these questions became the core of my summer 2015 experience, when I served as one of the Abrahamic Coordinators in the Chautauqua Institution’s Abrahamic Program for Young Adults (APYA). The APYA program gathers four young religious leaders—a Christian, a Jew, a Sunni Muslim and a Shiite Muslim—and gives them the opportunity to work together for a summer. The coordinators live on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution with their counterparts, plan programs for young adults, speak at denominational houses, assist the organization of various faith traditions, spread awareness of religious pluralism, and serve as a presence of inter-religious activity on the grounds.
My roommate was our Shiite Muslim coordinator, Taha El-Nil. Taha, an aspiring Air Force Chaplain, and I spent a significant amount of time together in our modest living quarters doing what clergy do: talking about religion. My initial goal, with both Taha and the program in general, was to focus on the positive—to focus on what united us. After all, the program is designated “Abrahamic,” in order to focus on that uniting element: Christian, Muslim, and Jew all are the children of Abraham.
I mentioned this to Taha one evening, as we discussed the differences between the midrashic accounts of Abraham, such as smashing the idols or the fiery furnace, and the accounts which can be found in the book of Genesis, such as the Akeidah or Sodom and Gomorrah. Taha politely informed me that, in Islam, it is unclear who is the son Abraham brings up the mountain during the Akedah. In the Muslim tradition, he told me, this child is Ishmael. I responded that, in the Torah, this was not a matter for debate: the child is clearly Isaac. We looked at each other, and I suddenly realized that the two of us had stepped into a debate that had stretched back into antiquity. And I knew also in this moment, from the quickening of my pulse and the objections rising in my throat, that this had not always been a friendly discussion between roommates in an idyllic lakeside town in New York.
The conversations that followed were some of the most enlightening of the summer. They came from deep respect, a desire for openness, and the urge to explore. But they also came from a place of deep strength and quiet faith. For both of us it was a moment when axiomatic beliefs, which had never before been openly examined, came into conflict with an equal and opposite force. Neither of us was able to move from our position, but in the stillness of our struggles we realized something: neither of us had to.
It was possible, even productive, for both of us to hold onto our fundamental truth. It did not negate the truth of the other, nor did it wound the work in which we had engaged that summer. Our differences, in fact, united us in our goal: to be betters teachers about the source of that truth. I’ve taken this lesson with me into my work this year for Xavier University as part of my fellowship, attempting to bring faith groups together, enabling them so that they can explore the things which are said, the things which are unsaid, and the truth which lies at the core of both.