The Experience of Interfaith Dialogue

By Fiona Johnson

photo courtesy of Linh_rOm via C.C. License at FlickrHere in Australia we wait with anticipation for the world's largest interfaith event -- the Council for a Parliament of World Religions -- to take place in Melbourne, 3-6 December 2009.  I personally look forward to this, as my experience at the 2004 CPWR in Spain was positively memorable.

It began at the three-day assembly that took place at Montserrat Monastery just outside of Barcelona, where selected international spiritual leaders from all the world's religions congregated for a period of 2-3 days. The aim of this assembly was to have these eminent leaders converse and focus on solutions for four global issues: the plight of refugees, lack of safe drinking water, overcoming religiously motivated violence, and eliminating international debt in poor countries. What impressed me most about the gathering was the location (spiritually historic, magnificent views, peaceful); the hosts (I'll never forget the warm welcome extended by the monastery's Benedictine Monks); and the goodwill and open dialogue that transpired between the leaders from all faiths. Perspectives were shared and then respected. Witnessing the assembly participants trying to fit themselves into the frame of the official group photo at the end of the three days was like watching a large, extended family organise themselves! There was a sense of unity even in that activity.

Later in Barcelona, that sense of being with one's extended family was truly amplified, as the number of participants had increased to 3,000 people from 75 countries! Of course as the diversity increased, so did the opportunity to participate in a variety of discussions with people from different faiths, not only within the diverse array of workshops, but also inadvertently whilst standing in a queue, browsing a stall, or sitting in a cafe. I met with people from other faiths from the USA, Hungary, India, Slovenia, and Czech Republic, and held meaningful discussions that I still remember today. Why? Because in this non-threatening environment I could engage in dialogue whilst staying true to my belief, whilst respecting the other person, without either one of us feeling the need to demean the other's faith.

The theme of CPWR 2004 was the Wisdom of Listening and the Power of Commitment, and daily there was the opportunity to listen and share. I believe this is one of the most significant aspects of interfaith dialogue.

Also daily there was an obvious and most magnanimous demonstration of the ‘power of commitment' displayed by the Sikh community, who made the commitment to provide a traditional ‘Langar' (traditional distribution of blessed food) for the entire week, providing a freshly cooked meal to the entire congregation of CPWR. Eating a meal, cooked with devotion and served with care, whilst seated with hundreds of one's extended family, next to and across from people of other faiths, is another experience I shall cherish from Barcelona CPWR 2004. Why? Because we all require nourishment, no matter our faith, and the simple act of eating together removes all barriers of difference and speaks to all: there is no difference in our humanity.

The biggest challenge to interfaith dialogue would be the limited significance this is given and the limited opportunities for such to take place.

 

Fiona Johnson is the National Coordinator for Australian Association of Yoga in Daily Life.