…it was a long shower. But I digress…
It occurs to me that there’s one big element to interfaith dialogue that people miss. No—not even interfaith dialogue. Human interaction.
The starting point for discussion in any context has to be humility. I don’t mean bowing and supplication, nor do I mean self-effacing nonsense which does nothing but reinforce inequalities and problematic power structures. No, I mean an acute self-knowledge and with it, a reasonable perspective of how our own existence fits in with the world at large.
Granted, this has its limitations. No one knows everything or everyone in existence, and so we can’t have a very accurate picture of where we fit or how and what our influences may be. But it is a respect for the immensity of existence, concomitant with a respect for the dignity of all life, that we mean when we say “humility.” Id est, we must recognize that all living things have an influence in our world and we are bound to acknowledge as much.
Let me put this, more specifically, in the context of a conversation. If I start talking to a gentleman on the street about how absolutely awful the politics of the Middle East is these days, largely championing Israel’s point of view, and I carry on about how victimized they have been, etc., etc., then I fail to consider the possibility that he 1) generally disagrees with Israeli foreign policy, 2) has good arguments supporting the Palestinian agenda, and 3) is, in fact, of Middle Eastern heritage and knows far more about the day-to-day situation there than I ever will, then I will have made an ass of myself. I have failed to be in any way humble.
Now it matters not at all if this gentleman is narrow-minded, bigoted, politically closeted, one-dimensionally religious, or otherwise closed off to various points of view. If I enter into a discussion with a narrow frame of mind that opposes his own, it will only put him on the defense. This inevitably reinforces his position and might even cause him to become aggressive. Contrarily, if I spout out my opinions without considering what his may be and they happen to coincide with his own, then I have just supported the existing for/against structure which is so unporously dichotomous as to further incentivize railing against the “other.” Is it any wonder international relations are so often a mess?
The arrogance of assuming 1) we know what the hell we’re talking about, certainly more than anyone else and that 2) someone else truly cares what we have to say in our intensely narrow perspective is what throws real conversation right out the window. Call it, if you will, the defenestration of progress.
Which is how we come around to humility. There are diplomatic codes by the thousands which tell the professional corps how to carry themselves and what should be said, etc. But these are so often designed to reach an end which profits one specific person or entity. When I speak of humility, I don’t mean to suggest that we can profit ourselves infinitely if we only employ a modicum of it; I mean to say that humility is the only way to UNDERSTAND the other. The understanding is both the end and the journey. In most other cases, when we talk about diplomatic engagements or mediated discussions, we are aiming for something very specific. There is nothing more specific to the humility I speak of than the goal of understanding.
And, also unlike the strategies of many a government or organization, humility is not merely a tool that gets us to the end. Humility is both the key to the door of progress and its reward. Because, as you will find out when you authentically engage another in humble conversation, the only way to broaden our horizons, sharpen our vision, and widen our perspective is with humility. It becomes both the way by which we find these things and the product of the end—humility speaks of greater understanding.
If you consider it for a moment, it’s quite logical. The lack of humility suggests you believe you know more than others, as much as you need to, or more important information than whatever anyone else is privy to. You have just shut out an immense part of existence which you will never know so long as you maintain that the understanding you possess is superior, self-sufficient, and complete. But if you humble yourself to acknowledge a lack, a need for more understanding, and a want for more experience, then you open yourself up to the social graces and tendencies of an entire race. Nothing is more pleasing to a human being than to share the sum and substance of their existence with another. The more you immerse yourself in it, the more question you have, the more you see how it differs from your own life and understanding. And yet, at some point, you also begin to see where the two worlds collide. This is the seed of fruitful conversation—indeed, the seed of fruitful communion.
Which is precisely where interfaith dialogue begins. And however much we desire to be in control of important knowledge, we must content ourselves to know that we will always possess a unique perspective that the world would not be complete without. And, when the time comes that others realize this, we, too, will be the ones sought after for new and invigorated understanding.