Interfaith as Personal Encounter: An Opportunity for Growth

Published September 05, 2018 by Celia Gould

Interfaith Dialogue, Council Of Christians And Jews, Religion, Dogma, Speed-Faithing, Encounter, Faith

Celia Gould reflects on the enriching power of interfaith encounter and the importance of interfaith dialogue that goes beyond matters of dogma and denominational difference.

In his book The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks sheds light on the power of interfaith encounter in enabling individuals to grow in their respective faiths:

'In a debate one side wins, the other loses, but both are the same as they were before. In a conversation, neither side loses and both are changed, because they now know what reality looks like from a different perspective.'

We live in a society where difference is increasingly viewed with suspicion; political rhetoric of "them and us" pervades, yet faiths offer an alternative. The notion of being changed through encounter with others is not viewed as a sign of weakness and compromise, but rather that of personal growth and deeper relationships within communities. In the same book, Rabbi Lord Sacks suggests that 'those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others'.

From a Christian scriptural perspective, Paul suggests that the Church is strengthened by the diversity of its members through the concept of "the Body of Christ", which is made up of members with different gifts and attributes. Thus, I would suggest, individuals can be enriched through interaction with people of different beliefs, faiths, backgrounds and experiences. Whilst Christ's sacrificial death for the salvation of the world lies at the heart of Christianity, there are numerous perspectives on what it means to be saved and how one attains salvation within the Christian faith; differences such as these can be divisive.

In his address at the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel confronts humanity's tendency to 'worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love'. Dialogue on the facts of religion and dogma alone is not enough; interfaith dialogue needs to tap into personal experience in order to effect a powerful conversation. This notion of personal experience at the heart of faith and human interaction is illustrated in the extensive use of stories and parables within scriptures, in order that they might resonate with us in today's world.

The "Speed-Faithing" event held at the University of Birmingham last year

Indeed, in my own experiences of interfaith encounter amongst teenagers and young adults, the fear of misrepresenting one's denomination and faith can be a barrier to conversations. University students are often at a crossroads in their lives where, on leaving home and meeting people of different faiths and cultures, a process of questioning beliefs and identities takes place. The "Speed-Faithing" event at University of Birmingham I co-ran as a CCJ Student Leader illustrated this situation. Each conversation was a conversation first and foremost between two individuals, rather than between, for example, a Catholic and a Reform Jew. Through encouraging conversations to transcend denominational differences, one on one conversations about faith often become personal very quickly. I was struck by the power of students of different faiths sharing their journeys, with their challenges, in an honest and trustful manner with one another. In these conversations, students find common ground, not in the lowest common denominator, but in the shared experiences of being a student of faith, including fasting and observing Holy Days in periods of deadlines and exams.

Thus, through sharing our personal journeys of faith, we can develop friendships that cross religious and denominational boundaries, and grow in community together, changed by interfaith encounter.

This article is written by Celia Gould, a recent Intern with the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ). As a Student Leader with CCJ for 2017-2018, she organised interfaith events on the campus of the University of Birmingham including "Speed-Faithing".

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