Campus life is a bright mosaic of human diversity, as varied as the wildflowers of Manitoba. On any walk down the hallway, I may encounter a Muslim student from Nigeria, a Buddhist from China, a Hindu from India, and a Roman Catholic from Brazil. And while this has required loss for our Anglican identity as a college, I wouldn’t trade the student mosaic for the world. Students once needed to take a class to learn about Judaism, but now all they need to do is cross the hall. Taoism used to be a foreign subject reserved for the Eastern enthusiast; now we sit and discuss it with practitioners at the lunch table. But in the midst of blooming diversity across campus, I am often confronted by the question of how to be wholly Christian while wholly engaged in respectful dialogue with others. I suspect it is a question as ancient as our faith.
I’m always rather disappointed when I encounter a person who has become so committed to interfaith dialogue that he or she ceases to be rooted in any tradition at all. In fact, I find the assertion that we “pretty much believe the same thing at the end of the day” remarkably unhelpful. I once had a conversation with a man wearing a Christian/Hindu necklace and found that he could neither offer wisdom from the Christian tradition nor the Hindu one, but only a thin spirituality which had greater faith in the goodness of humanity than the power of the Holy One. I left him feeling discouraged during a difficult time in my life because during times of pain and crisis the general goodness of humanity is not enough to cling to. What I needed then was the hope of a tradition with deep roots, nourished by the waters of wisdom passed from generation to generation.
And now I am faced with the mammoth task of being a Christian chaplain to people of other faith traditions. It is my experience that I can only minister faithfully to a Muslim student by being firmly and unashamedly rooted in my Christian tradition. It is true that the Muslim student and I have a great deal in common and can have fruitful dialogue about the work of God in our lives and in the world while hardly touching the differences in our religions. But never do I set aside my commitment to the Christian story or my identity as a minister of Christ.
There are two reasons for this approach. The first is that it is out of my Christian convictions that I engage in dialogue with other traditions in the first place. It is because I believe in a creative God who values diversity and created each human individual in the divine image. Because I believe in a Trinitarian God who is communal at the very core, I am driven to value community with people of other traditions. Because I believe that in the death and resurrection of Christ death was in fact overcome by life, I am compelled to pursue life-giving relationship with students of all faiths. To “set aside” such convictions would be to pull apart the very foundation for my engagement with the other.
The second reason I will never set aside my Christian identity in engagement with others is that I genuinely believe that we have much to learn from one another. My goal in dialoguing with people of other faiths is not to learn to get along (anyone could do that), but for my own faith to be enriched by the teaching of my friends. For example, I have learned a great deal about God from conversations with traditional Indigenous peoples who do not necessarily share my Christian faith. But it is only because I bring my faith with me into the conversation that I am able to authentically grow that same faith as it engages the other. This is undoubtedly hard work, but it is the only way to maintain the integrity of my faith and that of my conversation partner. If I do not bring the fullness of my faith to a conversation with another tradition, it is not truly interfaith dialogue. It is only two people of faith pretending not to be people of faith.
When I ask a Buddhist student about her prayer practices, I do not want her to explain only the bits that I can relate to as a Christian. I want to learn and understand her prayer in as much depth as I possibly can, and that requires her to trust me enough to bring the fullness of her tradition to the conversation. I have often caught myself bringing less than that, but students do not feel respected or understood when I set my faith aside to converse with them. Respectful dialogue requires that I bring my whole self to an encounter in which I expect to go away transformed by genuine interaction with the other. Perhaps, as we learn to bring more of ourselves to such conversations, we will be freed to accept the gift of challenge and growth from our friends in other faiths.