Mutual Dialogue on Religious Differences

“The longest journey is the journey inward.”
Dag Hammerskjold, Markings.

Fr. Brad in Owens Valley near Olancha

A clue to encounters with the spiritualities of the world can be found in Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddartha. “One can only pass on knowledge, but not wisdom,” Siddartha explains at the end of the novel. “One can find wisdom, one can live it, one can be supported by it, one can work wonders with it, but one cannot speak it or teach it.” Only by looking inward can we come to terms with the world.

“There is a price to be paid for any genuine pluralism. It is that there is no longer a center. There are many. The others must become genuine others to us—not projections of our fears and desires.”
David Tracy.

The first class of a new semester is always magical for me: a clean slate, tabula rasa, and new beginning. As I gaze at the students filling the large lecture hall in the Science Math Building at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, my stomach rumbles with nervous energy: my 40th year of teaching, but it seems like I am just beginning.

Years ago, the make-up of the class was mostly Anglo and Christian. In the last few years, I have seen all the world religions here. Over there is a woman in a sari. In the front row sits a veiled Muslim woman. Over there a Hopi Native American. And over here sits a grey-bearded Orthodox Jew.

World Religions, Philosophy 10. A three-hour lecture on Thursday nights. I begin the lecture with this invitation/advisory/caveat: “The subject we will be studying together is the most important subject you will explore in college and it will change your life. You and I will be different persons seventeen weeks from now.”
I wonder if they believe me?

I push on. For some of you our work together will involve a significant personal challenge. For those of you who come from a religious tradition in which you see your beliefs as THE true religion, explorations of other religions may cause you apprehension. Will this study weaken my faith? Will reading about these “pagan” religions expose me to temptation and dilution of my commitment to my God? Those of you who are agnostic, atheist or reactive to religion/spirituality have another challenge. You may have had a negative personal experience with religion or you have an intellectual position that religion/spirituality is for neurotic people. This may blind and inhibit you from seeing the treasure and gifts in the various spiritualities we will study.

I push on further. I share with my students that I have been a philosophy professor at Saddleback Community College since 1973 and a full time parish priest in Orange County since 1970. That last part, the “priest part”, will push buttons. Some students will withdraw from the class at the first break. They do not believe that the teacher/priest combination will provide an objective learning experience. I counter this reaction by reminding my students that as a state licensed instructor I am not permitted to proselytize my religion. However, I can teach the subject with a deep passion, which I do.

I begin by reflecting on Diana Eck’s seminal book, Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras.

She presents three places from which we can engage the other world religions.
The Exclusivist: my religion is the exclusive and only revealed truth. I may study other religions as a subject, but my religion is the one, true path.

The Inclusivist: my religion is one among many.

The Pluralist: there are many voices that speak

Here is a YouTube video with Dr. Diana Eck:

Dr. Eck asks us: how are we to live with one another in a climate of mutuality and understanding? She develops the orientation of pluralism for us. Be careful here as you read this: this is not a process that will transform a believer into an inclusivist. It’s complicated, but she is a good guide:

1. Pluralism is not the sheer fact of plurality alone, but is active engagement with plurality. I can observe and celebrate diversity, but I have to participate in pluralism. I can’t stand by and watch. I am involved in active participation with the claims of religion and facts of religious diversity.

2. Pluralism is not simple tolerance, but also the seeking of understanding. If as a Christian I tolerate my Muslim neighbor, I am not therefore required to understand her, to seek out what she has to say, to hear about her hopes and dreams, to hear what it meant to her when the words, “In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate” were whispered into the ear of her newborn child. Tolerance alone does nothing to remove our ignorance of one another by building bridges of exchange and dialogue.

3. Pluralism is not simply relativism, but assumes real commitment. Relativism assumes a stance of openness; pluralism assumes both openness AND commitment. Relativism for me becomes a problem when it means the lack of commitment to any particular community of faith. One becomes a perpetual shopper. The pluralist stands in a particular community and is willing to be committed to the struggles of that community.

4. Pluralism is not syncretism, but is based on respect for differences. Syncretism is the creation of a new religion by fusing the elements of different traditions. A pluralistic culture will not flatten out difference, but has respect for differences. The aim of pluralism is not to create a world temple of all faiths. It is rather to find a way to be distinctively ourselves and yet to be in relation to one another.

5. Pluralism is based on interreligious dialogue. The language of dialogue is the two-way language of real encounter. “Mutual transformation” is the way in which dialogue goes beyond mutual understanding to a new level of mutual self-understanding.

I remind my students that within their family or life circles there is a least one person who is from a different religion than the student’s. In this class, I will help the student understand basic beliefs, vocabulary, similarities and differences among the world religions. These will be tools to help them in this work of “mutual transformation.” We will model dialogue in the class to invite the students to go back into their world and seek opportunities to talk, share, listen and learn in the exchange with others. Nevertheless, here is a challenge: the student must have a sense of what they believe. They need to be able to articulate those beliefs. If they are Christian, they may find that the Muslim, Jew or Buddhist may know more about Christianity than the student does.

Pluralism means I come from the integrity of my deeply held spiritual beliefs and values and I enter into dialogue with the Other. We have to watch ourselves here that this does not become a debate. If you begin mentally with the goal of changing the Other, the process will be stunted. But if you are open to listening, and will have the courage to express what you believe, you and the Other will be transformed.

You can see that one of my key goals in teaching is peacemaking. If the main cause of world conflicts has been religious differences, I can help my students understand the Other, know themselves, and take a hard look at their own prejudice and ignorance about the Other.

I am a committed Christian. The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius have really helped me to seek communion with the Jesus expressed in the Gospels, to invite his presence and guidance throughout my daily life. I know that my True Self is found in him. For me, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. And I see helpful treasures in the other religious traditions that help me to be a better Christian. William Johnston SJ, in his book Silent Music, tells us how his life-long study of Zen meditation has helped him to pray to Jesus. Thomas Merton reveals in his study of Taoism and Zen Buddhism how this has helped him to be a more faithful Christian disciple and monk.

I share with my students that a common connection about world spiritualities is mysticism. The desert experience is a common location for mystical encounters with the Holy.

Father Ron Rolheiser, shares “The Major Points of Convergence within the Great Spiritual Traditions”:
The aim is the same: union with God and union with everyone and everything else.
The path to union is understood as coming through compassion.
The route to compassion and union with God requires that we lose ourselves to find ourselves.
Spiritual progress requires hard discipline and some painful renunciations.
The spiritual quest is a life-long journey with no short-cuts.
Religious fervor and dark nights of the soul both have an important role within the spiritual journey.
Downplay the importance of extraordinary phenomena within the spiritual journey.
Affirm that while we are on the spiritual path we will meet great temptations and powerful demons and that these need to be recognized and taken seriously
The spiritual journey will always partly be mystery.
The road is narrow and hard and there are no short cuts.

I imagine this: there is this large dark room (similar to my lecture hall). Several people spend a long time in deep meditation in the darkness, unaware that there are others there in the same space. One is Thomas Merton, the Christian monk; another is the Dali Lama, others are Sufi Muslim, Hassidic Jews, a Hindu Sadhu, a Paiute Shaman, and persons from other religions. After a very long time, the lights go on. As these persons stand up and walk toward the center of the room. There are no words. They gaze into each other’s eyes and see that they have been in the same spiritual space in their encounters with the Holy.

As you read this, are you aware that you are an exclusivist? An Inclusivist? A Pluralist?

Every day we encounter persons from other religions. Every day we have the opportunity for dialogue and mutual transformation. The desert gives us the spiritual ballast for this great work.

Here is a terrific resource for you to explore other religious traditions:


About fatherbrad1971

Professor of Philosophy and World Religions at Saddleback Community College, Mission Viejo, CA. Episcopal priest since 1971 in Diocese of Los Angeles (retired). Owner of Desert Spirit Press, publishers of books on desert spirituality. Author, "The Spirit in the Desert: PIlgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley." and "Encounters with the World's Religions: the Numinous on Highway 395". Memberships: Nevada Archaeological Association, Western Writers of America, California Cattlemen's Association, American Association of University Professors, Outdoor Writers of California, American Academy of Religion, Western Folklore Association.
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1 Response to Mutual Dialogue on Religious Differences

  1. Felix Labinjo says:

    Thank you so much. I would have loved to attend one of your lectures.

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