No more pussy-footing

by - 22nd July 2011

By guest blogger, Richard McCallum


A rabbi, a priest and an imam are sitting in a cafe drinking coffee and smoking shisha ... And the rabbi says to the imam ...


Actually this isn’t the beginning of a joke - what's at stake is far too serious for joking.  It happened under the auspices of an invitation-only conference in Yale in July – Building Hope Together - hosted by Joseph Cumming and the Reconciliation Program.


But it was no dialogue jamboree, looking for the lowest common denominator amongst liberals who hold that all religions share the same ultimate values of truth and harmony, leading to the same pie in the sky. 


No.  This was a meeting of the passionate and the committed; the coming together of so-called ‘progressive conservatives’. 


The Yale Centre for Faith and Culture has been engaged in the controversial initiative A Common Word between Us and You and this was a continuation, bringing it closer to the grass roots. 


The idea was to draw together not the usual suspects from amongst the establishment hierarchies, but younger leaders with influence and potential to shape the future.  


And uniquely on the agenda this time were the things that divide, the most sensitive and explosive issues of our time: religious violence, freedom of conscience, proselytism and Israel-Palestine. 


That was why the conference was so long.  Most conferences end after three days, but this went on for nine.  It forced us beyond mere polite conversation.


The first three days we strutted our own stuff to each other: not so easy when even within the same faith there were different traditions: Orthodox and Reform, Catholic and Protestant, Salafi and Sufi.  No punches were pulled.  At times there was real tension: ‘Christians are not monotheists’; ‘Islam is intolerant’; ‘Jews are violent’. 


We agreed to hold off the contention until later in the conference.  It gave us time to get to know each other before entering heated argument. 


Shared meals (featuring halal and glatt kosher food), a boat cruise, time at the café and a trip to New York were crucial in creating enough security to tackle the meat and potatoes of the later encounter.


So too did visiting one another’s places of worship: not an exercise in ‘multi-faith’ either.  Attendance did not require participation.  No-one pretended that all worship is the same, but an attempt through sharing to explain our practice.  I was moved by the passion of participants.


So what about the contentious stuff?  Did we find the answers and resolve them all?  Alas, no.  Nine days is way too short.  But it was a start.  Of course we still disagreed on many things but disagreeing with a new-found friend is very different from disagreeing with a stranger. 


We listened and we understood better: expanding Israeli settler families need space for their children; not all Evangelical Christians support Western foreign policy; many Muslims affirm that there should be freedom to leave Islam; we are all embarrassed by violence and extremism in our own ranks.


The goal was not to merge our understandings of truth into one insipid, anonymous compromise that would inspire no-one.  Rather it was to begin a conversation that would point the way to how committed followers of the different faiths can live together and make the world a safer, more just place.  To that end the relationships forged at Yale do indeed ‘build hope’:  hope that when a crisis happens, instead of stereotyping and presuming on our own interpretations we may actually pick up the phone and discuss it with those we trust; hope that when controversy arises our first move will not be to the media or our own populist pulpits but an email to a friend who may be able to shed some light. 


This is surely the only way forward in our plural and increasingly 'religious' societies.


In a small way this has begun.  At Yale I acquired knowledge and friends.  We are still in touch – as much as all our busy schedules allow.  We have already discussed a controversial book published by an extremist leader and there are plans to discuss another book together. 


The proof of whether this sort of robust dialogue has lasting value will be whether our friendships persist.  At least, I know who to pick up the phone to . . . the priest, the rabbi or the imam.


Further reading:

A report

The final statement

A blog


 Dr Richard McCallum is a freelance consultant and cross-cultural trainer.