By Jalees Rehman
All true living is encounter (Alles wirkliche Leben ist Begegnung).
—Martin Buber, I and Thou (Ich und Du)
Last year, our local masjid (mosque) organized an interfaith dinner and invited clergy and lay members of various faith communities during the month of Ramadan. As in preceding years, the goal was for Muslims and non-Muslims to meet each other and foster an interfaith dialogue within the neighborhood. The event began with an introductory lecture about Islam, followed by presentations relating to fasting and spirituality given by a Muslim and a Christian speaker. During the dinner, I was seated next to some members of a Protestant congregation. We had a very pleasant conversation, covering a wide range of topics, from the concept of fasting to the importance of regularly going to church. However, I realized that many of my sentences began with “As Muslims, we . . .” or “In Islam, it is important . . . ,” and my conversation partners used similar phrases, such as “In our Christian faith, we. . . .” We were not speaking as individuals who were sharing our own personal approaches to our faith, but instead, we were trying to act as representatives for our respective faiths. At the conclusion of the evening, I felt that we had engaged in a very pleasant interfaith conversation, but not in an authentic interfaith dialogue.
Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (I and Thou)1 has been instrumental in defining the characteristics of spiritual dialogue. Buber suggests that the prevailing approach by which humans interact with each other is the Ich-Es (I-It) approach, during which we perceive our partners as objects (Es) and avoid a true dialogue with the Du. Ich-Es interactions tend to be unidirectional and primarily confirm preconceived notions or achieve specific utilitarian goals of the individual. These interactions do not constitute an authentic dialogue, according to Buber, because the preconceived ideas and goals of the individual lie at the core of the interaction. Buber also discusses the very different Ich-Du encounter, which is characterized by an open dialogue without formal structure and without specific expectations. This allows for bidirectional communication such that the individual and the partner engage in an authentic dialogue that forms the basis of a personal relationship that transforms both, the Ich and the Du. Importantly, Buber says: “The You encounters me through grace—it cannot be found by seeking” (Das Du begegnet mir von Gnaden—durch Suchen wird es nicht gefunden). At formal interfaith events, we often search for ways to initiate dialogue, but this searching comes with a set of expectations that, paradoxically, may undermine the goal to achieve dialogue.
Another key obstacle to an authentic dialogue at formal interfaith events is what Marcia Hermansen has described as the “performative mode.”2 We all tend to play roles in our daily lives, but during a formal event we are exposed to an “audience,” so that, according to Hermansen, the event becomes a performance in which members of a faith try to present or “perform” their faith in front of members of another faith. Whether the intent is to impress, teach, or just share ideas with members of another faith, the “performance” represents a depersonalization which, in the sense of Martin Buber, would actually objectify both the “performers” and the “audience.”
When I think back to the numerous transforming Ich-Du encounters with which I have been blessed when meeting members of other faiths, they have nearly always occurred in an informal setting, such as in a home, in a café, or even at work. But I do remember at least one example of such an encounter that took place during a formal interfaith event. A number of years ago, I had been invited to a Trappist monastery to give a talk about the basic aspects of Muslim belief and practice. Before my talk, I sat down and met many of the monks, and we discussed and compared prayer schedules in our faiths. I was intrigued by the fact that the monastery had scheduled prayers occurring all throughout the day and even at night, bearing tremendous resemblance to the Muslim prayer schedule. We were talking about how keeping the prayer schedule can be quite difficult, but at one point I said to one of the brothers, “Keeping the regular prayer schedule can be difficult, but I think the hardest thing is to actually believe in God.” The brother looked at me, smiled, and said “Yes, it is.” I felt that he had really understood me. I had not intended to make that comment, but it was sincere and reflected a struggle that I was having as a believer. The response the brother gave me allowed me to feel that we were not speaking to each other as Muslim and Trappist monk, but simply as two believers, each with his own struggles. Even though we had met in the setting of a formal event, we had been graced by an opportunity to really encounter each other, at a moment when we were neither “searching” nor “performing.”
When planning formal interfaith events, we have to realize that authentic dialogue occurs as grace during unpredictable moments, especially when we step out of our planned roles.
With the potential obstacles to dialogue during formal interfaith events in mind, I volunteered to help organize this year’s Ramadan interfaith dinner. I wanted to minimize the number of formal lectures and so helped to create a special “Meet and Greet” session during which attendees were randomly assigned to groups of five to ten people. These groups contained lay practitioners as well as clergy members and scholars. The masjid volunteers moderated the discussion in each group. We purposefully tried to discuss nonconfrontational topics, such as our favorite movies, and hoped that by avoiding directly discussing faith, we could create a personalized atmosphere and avoid “performances.” As a moderator, I also tried to shy away from anything that would offend members of the group. My group contained members from various denominations and I tried to engage them all in the conversation. However, as I was moderating my group, I realized that I was again slipping into a role. This time, I was not playing the role of the representative of the Muslim faith, but one of the moderator who wanted to engage all members of the group in the discussion. And I could sense that while members of my group were curious about many aspects of our faith, they were also trying to avoid any topics that might appear controversial.
At the end of the session, everyone in the group seemed to have enjoyed our informal conversation, but I was again left with a feeling of emptiness. I had wanted to experience a transforming Ich-Du encounter, similar to the one I had had when I visited the monastery many years before. As much as I had tried to talk to and engage everyone during this year’s Ramadan event, and as much as they all seemed to have enjoyed the meeting, I did not feel that I had achieved my personal goal.
While I was walking down the hallway, however, one of the other masjid volunteers came up to me. She seemed extraordinarily happy and said that an elderly Protestant gentleman whom she had met for the first time that evening came up to her after the group discussion and asked for permission to give her a hug. They had grown up on different continents, had different ethnic and faith backgrounds, and were at least one generation apart, but he had felt such a strong connection after talking to her that evening that he wanted to express his gratitude with a hug. She had also felt the same spiritual closeness during their conversation and the unscripted hug. Listening to her, my own feeling of emptiness vanished. This evening, she had been graced with an authentic Ich-Du encounter and knowing this filled me with joy, too.
Our attempts to create authentic interfaith dialogue may need to be reconsidered. Dialogue does not occur between faiths, as the expression “interfaith dialogue” implies, but occurs between individuals when the Ich encounters the Du. In the interfaith setting, it involves a dialogue between individuals who see each other as fellow travelers on a spiritual journey and who share their experiences, thoughts, or feelings. During formal interfaith events, we often search for ways to initiate dialogue and resort to performing roles, such as those of hosts and guests, or of representatives of our faiths. When planning formal interfaith events with the aim of fostering authentic dialogue, we have to realize that authentic dialogue occurs as grace during unpredictable moments, especially when we step out of our planned roles and stop actively trying to initiate dialogue. We cannot demand or expect authentic dialogue during interfaith events. What we can do is try to create opportunities for these transforming interfaith moments to occur.
Jalees Rehman is a graduate of the Technische Universität München (Munich, Germany) and is currently Associate Professor of Medicine and Pharmacology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a cell biologist and cardiologist, and his research is focused on the biology of stem cells.