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Interfaith Guidelines

See also our Eight Interfaith Primers 

For an overview of world religions,
visit The Three Families of Faith.

Also see Bud Heckman's 2008 InterActive Faith: 
The Essential Interreligious Community-Building Handbook.

1. Why encounter folks from other faiths? 

We get to know interesting people , enlarge ourselves by exploring our own faiths from fresh perspectives, understand what is happening in the world more keenly, and participate in healing the crises of secularism — environmental, personal, and social (how we govern ourselves as communities and nations). See the chart at for a schematic summary.

2. Why focus on experiences and stories rather than beliefs? 

Religion begins with stories about encountering the sacred, defined as that on which our lives depend. Such an awesome experience leads to what some scholars call the four C’s — Creed (beliefs about the sacred), Cultus (ritual forms of acknowledging the sacred), Code (morality), and Community (organization). Some religions emphasize some of the C’s over the others. Interfaith understanding — why folks are devoted to their faiths — is deeper than merely an intellectual inventory, so stories that reveal how people experience the sacred (what really matters) are more fruitful for what is ultimately an affair of the heart.

     2a. Christianity is unusual among the world’s religions in the emphasis placed on doctrines and beliefs. For example, one can be a good Jew and be an atheist since being born of a Jewish mother is sufficient to qualify as a Jew. Perhaps the most commonly chanted Buddhist scripture is the Heart Sutra, which denies the fundamental teachings of the Buddha — but is a legitimate and honored expression of the faith which advises questioning all beliefs. To understand another faith in the categories of one’s own leads to failure and frustration; each faith must be granted the integrity of its own form. Assuming, for example, that every tradition worships a Creator God makes it difficult to appreciate Taoism, among several other faiths. 

     2b. “All religions are alike” is no more true than “All religions are different,” just as in a sense all people are alike and all people are also all different. To collapse this paradox closes the door to understanding. Enjoy unresolved tensions as faiths sometimes unknowingly borrow from each other or even attempt syncretism. Faiths, even our own, grow and change.

     2c. For most of us, building relationships is more important than agreeing on beliefs, and in fact we understand others’ beliefs best by learning about their experiences. Our world will not be saved by conferences on theology but more by discovering how our neighbors experience the sacred. The assumption that for all people, one religion is superior to all others or includes all others, and the assumption that all are basically alike, make discovering the deep meaning of kinship and pluralism difficult.

3. What are some questions to guide interfaith encounters?

The key to interfaith understanding is building relationships. Books and travel can help, but relationships are the key. Relationships can be furthered by asking questions designed for sharing experiences rather than argument. 

   How can you listen to others without feeling they are trying to convert you, and how can you present your own faith without appearing aggressive? Can two people with different levels of knowledge about religious matters have a discussion on an equal basis? 

  Yes — if the conversation focuses on not who is right and who is wrong but rather on personal stories. You cannot dispute someone’s own life experiences.

   A structured exercise can get the process going. In a conversation between you and your friend, start with five minutes each to speak without interruption as the other listens. It is sometimes helpful to begin with question. Here are some examples:

a. Can you tell me a story when the universe seemed to make sense to you or when you were overcome with a sense of awe? What experiences have you had that point to the ultimate source of life’s meaning for you? Have you ever seen a painting or heard music or walked on the beach or in a forest or played sports or seen a sunrise or learned about science or worked a math problem or held a child or made love when you felt lifted out beyond your ordinary sense of self? 

b. How did you become an adherent of your faith? How do you view other traditions? What would you like others to know about your faith?

c. Was there a turning point in your life as you considered spiritual questions that helped shape who you have become? Can you tell a story or describe a situation when your faith was especially meaningful to you? 

d. When have you felt closest to God /or/ when has life or the universe made the most sense to you? How has your faith shaped your views about peace? about the environment? 

e. What assumptions do people make about you that give you pause? What is it like to be different or part of an assumed minority/majority? What do you like and dislike about your tradition? Who are people in your tradition of whom you are proud? 

f. What holidays and practices of your faith do you especially like or dislike? Are particular foods or dietary practice meaningful to you? Do members of your faith have a distinctive dress code? How does your faith affect your family life? 

g. Has your faith ever guided you in dealing with a problem or opportunity in a personal relationship? Does it guide you in getting along with others? Has it ever inspired you to help or intervene on behalf of others? 

h. When does your faith help you feel close to others and when does it make you feel distant? 

i. How does your faith help you deal with suffering, your own and of others who have done nothing to deserve their agony or misfortune? 

   Such questions welcome atheists, agnostics and humanists as well as believers into the conversation. In listening to someone answering such questions, it is important just to listen. It is not useful, even in your head, to criticize your friend’s choice of words or theological framework. What you want is to understand the experience as a genuine expression of what is precious or even sacred to your friend. 

   Spiritual ideas cannot be fully comprehended except as they are embedded in stories. Religious terms can mean one thing to you, another to your friend. By listening to how your friend uses words in the context of your friend’s experience, your own ability to use the languages of faith will be expanded. 

   Religion is really about stories. There are the stories in the sacred texts, and there are the stories of your own and your friends’ adventures in seeking to find guideposts within the overwhelming mystery of existence. 

   It can be a privilege and a treasure when you and a friend exchange intimate details of your adventures 

. --Vern Barnet
4. What are the Ten Commandments of Interfaith Dialogue?

Leonard Swidler, using the pattern of the Judeo-Christian Decalogue, developed Ten Commandments in 1983. They may be useful as a theoretical framework for the kinds of questions we suggest above. Francis Tiso, also in a somewhat academic style, proposes extensive expansions of the Decalogue on the basis of experience since 1983, and particularly since 9/11, in the Heckman book cited above. 

     The essential purpose of dialogue is to learn, which entails change. At the very least, to learn that one’s dialogue partner views the world differently is to effect a change in oneself. Reciprocally, change happens for one’s partner as s/he learns about oneself.

     Dialogue must be a two-sided project: both between religious/ideological groups, and within religious/ideological groups (Inter- and Intra-). Intra-religious/ideological dialogue is vital for moving one’s community toward an increasingly perceptive insight into reality. 

     It is imperative that each participant comes to the dialogue with complete honesty and sincerity. This means not only describing the major and minor thrusts as well as potential future shifts of one’s tradition, but also possible difficulties that s/he has with it. 

     One must compare only her/his ideals with their partner’s ideals, and her/his practice with their partner’s practice. Not their ideals with their partner’s practice.

     Each participant needs to describe her/himself. For example, only a Muslim can describe what it really means to be an authentic member of the Muslim community. At the same time, when one’s partner in dialogue attempts to describe back to them what they have understood of their partner’s self-description, then such a description must be recognizable to the described party.

     Participants must not come to the dialogue with any preconceptions as to where the points of disagreement lie. A process of agreeing with their partner as much as possible, without violating the integrity of their own tradition, will reveal where the real boundaries between the traditions lie: the point where s/he cannot agree without going against the principles of their own tradition.

     Dialogue can only take place between equals, which means that partners learn from each other—par cum pari according to the Second Vatican Council—and do not merely seek to teach one another.

     Dialogue can only take place on the basis of mutual trust. Because it is persons, and not entire communities, that enter into dialogue, it is essential for personal trust to be established. To encourage this it is important that less controversial matters are discussed before dealing with the more controversial ones.

     Participants in dialogue should have a healthy level of criticism toward their own traditions. A lack of such criticism implies that one’s tradition has all the answers, thus making dialogue not only unnecessary, but unfeasible. The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn, which is impossible if one’s tradition is seen as having all the answers. 

     To truly understand another religion or ideology one must try to experience it from within, which requires a “passing over,” even if only momentarily, into another’s religious or ideological experience.

0. What does "Interfaith" mean?

The term can mean many different things, such as

  • two or more people from two or more faiths building a house for others (like Habitat for Humanity), 
  • efforts to reach out to people of all religions to raise money for a good cause,
  • a program presented on a topic of interest to those of several faiths, 
  • organizations comprised of folks of several faiths for a specific mission (such as preserving reproductive options for women),
  • one organization providing services to folks of several faiths,
  • academic departments and studies ranging from religious phenomenology to conferences on living faiths, and
  • groups specifically designed for folks to explore the faiths of others.
Other variations cast "interfaith" in deffernt lights.  Another term, multi-faith, is sometimes used with a narrorer scope. The term "ecumenical" is usually best applied to intra-Christian contexts.

What is Pluralism?

The plurality of religious traditions and cultures has come to characterize every part of the world today. But what is pluralism? Here are four points to begin our thinking:

First, pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity. Diversity can and has meant the creation of religious ghettoes with little traffic between or among them. Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement. Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.

Second, pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference. Tolerance is a necessary public virtue, but it does not require Christians and Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and ardent secularists to know anything about one another. Tolerance is too thin a foundation for a world of religious difference and proximity. It does nothing to remove our ignorance of one another, and leaves in place the stereotype, the half-truth, the fears that underlie old patterns of division and violence. In the world in which we live today, our ignorance of one another will be increasingly costly.

Third, pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments. The new paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments. It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.

Fourth, pluralism is based on dialogue. The language of pluralism is that of dialogue and encounter, give and take, criticism and self-criticism. Dialogue means both speaking and listening, and that process reveals both common understandings and real differences. Dialogue does not mean everyone at the “table” will agree with one another. Pluralism involves the commitment to being at the table -- with one’s commitments.

—Diana L. Eck