Engaging with difference

This post originally appeared as part of the Email a Believer blog at RE Online

One of the Articles of Faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is:

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all [people] the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

This is an important part of my faith and how I interact with others. There are obviously many things within the world, including religion, that can be used to separate us from one another – but this need not be the case. Within, and between, people of all faiths and none there are commonalities and differences.

Oftentimes in inter-faith engagement we celebrate that which we share with others. As a Latter-day Saint, this may mean that I engage with others in moral and social causes. Joseph Smith suggested that “Christians should cease wrangling and contending with each other, and cultivate the principles of union and friendship in their midst.” This could be extended to discussion all faiths. Going a long way back to 1980s the World Council of Churches declared that “Doctrine divides” while ‘service unites”. There are many elements of social action that can bind people of different faiths, and none, together. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I am always striving to find projects to become involved in, indeed, ‘Helping hands’ is an initiative that seeks to help others regardless of background. The activities I usually become involved with are generally mundane – clearing a local park or cemetery, painting a school, and lots more. My eldest daughter was in the Caribbean last year during Hurricane Irma which enabled her to join with other people in relief efforts.

Sometimes, however, an overreliance on the commonalities can lead to a skewed understanding of who and what we are. Our differences are just as important as our shared values or beliefs. As someone who follows a faith, I have chosen a faith because of some of the shared beliefs, but also because of the differences- those are what make us who we are. In inter-faith encounter we must recognise and, in some ways, celebrate the differences that we have. Charles Randall Paul, the founder of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, has explored the benefits of contestational dialogue suggesting that:

The future for all useful religious interaction is mutuality (both listen carefully to gain more truth) and parity (both grant similar value to the intelligence, diligence, and good will of the other) and transparency (both acknowledge “holy envy” for the good they have not, and testify to the truth they have.) In the latter case of testifying, when their truths contradict each other, they engage in honourable contestation.

The honesty of such dialogue requires a “risk” from the participants, in the sense that they are sharing what is most sacred to them, and being open to a transformation of their own beliefs. In this way, engagement with other religions helps a Latter-day Saint “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thes. 5: 21). I often talk about a third space between people who are engaging in any kind of dialogue. John Hull has suggested a caricature of someone who refuses to engage in dialogue with others: “I am holy, the argument says, and you are holy but the ground between us is unholy ground and we will contaminate each other through harmful mingling of blood if we meet.” Geoff Teece builds on this by suggesting that “it is the space between us that constitutes holy ground, holiness being discovered through encounter.” I love the opportunity to speak with others and learn more about them, but also about myself. We are transformed through our engagement with those of other faiths: Tom Greggs has suggested that:

By engaging with the religious other, the practitioner of inter-faith engagement is in dialogue with other religious traditions, but, by engaging in the activity of dialogue with the religious other, practitioners of any individual faith are also in dialogue with the particular tradition of their own faith. In this way the transformative nature of inter-faith dialogue can become reformative for the individual communities of those who engage in it.

For a Latter-day Saint this would mean that by engaging with other religions, and the light that they have, they are open to the reformation of some of their religious practice or beliefs. As a crude example, engaging with a Muslim about the purpose and practice of fasting and listening to what that person feels and experiences, may enable a Latter-day Saint to evaluate their own attitude and motivations towards the law of the fast, recognising that other religions have light opens Latter-day Saints to this type of transformative learning. But by the same token, engaging with differences that enable us to consider why we may not accept them, and if there is anything we can learn from the ‘other’.

At the heart of this is the Article of Faith that I began with, only through religious freedom can people within communities and nations be free to learn from, and celebrate with, people with different beliefs. It also places upon every person to defend the freedom of religious and belief. I love the quote from Joseph Smith that says:

The Saints can testify whether I am willing to lay down my life for my brethren. If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a Mormon, I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denominations who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.

For me, this has found expression as people protested against the building of a mosque in my local area, or immigration policies that seem to target particular religions, or the asylum cases where people of no religion are to be returned home to face harsh treatment. The right to express and follow my beliefs cannot be just extended to me, they must be extended to people of all faiths and none.

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