Learn what some of today’s most exciting visionaries, thinkers, advocates, and activists are doing in the field of religion. Watch exclusive interViews, and read responses from the next generation of graduate students, seminarians, and civic leaders.
interView with Rabbi Dr. Burton Visotzky
Response By Hafsa Kanjwal
An important point that Rabbi Visotzky raises is the role that religious leaders and activists involved in international interreligious dialogue often end up playing in second tier diplomacy. For me, the use of inter-religious understanding to promote certain political or policy agendas can be and has been fraught with complications. Especially given the global context surrounding the politics of Islam, Muslims have been unable to truly engage the deeper issues in interreligious dialogue without a strong eye towards improving Islam’s image. In addition, significant programming led by governments or foundations relating to Muslims in inter-religious dialogue takes on a counter-terrorism narrative.
I agree with Rabbi Visotzky that it is important to begin locally. In response to Rabbi Visotzky's question on what we are seeking to accomplish when we do inter-religious dialogue, I believe that a priority must be to build relationships that promote the common good, rather than serve narrow political or policy interests. While the translation of dialogue to diplomacy or policy is sometimes inevitable, it must be met with a critical analysis on the part of those who seek to promote mutual understanding and cooperation.
Response by Jennifer Bailey
Last Sunday, sitting on the back pew of the large Southern church that I frequent, the last thing I expected to hear from the pulpit was sermon on racial reconciliation. Call me cynical, but in my 22 years on this Earth, 21.5 have been spent in segregated worship services in which a person of a different race entering a sanctuary is viewed with fierce suspicion at worst and uneasy curiosity at best. To have a white pastor addressing issues of institutional racism to a mixed race audience in the South was truly mind blowing, but perhaps not as revolutionary as the unintended subtext of religious pluralism I heard throughout message. “Diversity,” he said, “Is not just window dressing or politically correct speech, or a contrived atmosphere to look good. It is the fruit of the root of a people that are reconciled”.
In 2 Corinthians 5:11-21, the Apostle Paul writes about the importance of humans reconciling themselves first to God and then to one another through Christ. Yet if we broaden this concept to be inclusive of those outside the Christian tradition, we hit the very essence of what we accomplish when we engage in inter-religious dialogue—the reconciliation of human beings to human beings in the face of division caused by religious intolerance and persecution. True reconciliation is a long and challenging process that requires us to move beyond the “kumbaya” of most interfaith dialogue to a frame work of justice and action. It recognizes historical injustice and institutional discrimination while holding stakeholders accountable to do the same in their faith communities. It also requires that we sacrifice the comfort we experience in our insular religious congregations in the hope of acquiring a new type of knowledge in which participants “unlearn” negative stereotypes while opening themselves to building relationships with those previously deemed “the other”. This is the promise of inter-religious dialogue: that we would come to know one another as we seek to more fully understand the deities we serve.
Response By Andrew Rosenthal
In order to enter into inter-religious dialogue we must first enter the story of the other, both the other faith and the individual believer. Just as midrash opens up Torah not so much by deconstructing its philosophical underpinning but by allowing us to enter into the narrative, working with Raymond Brown (himself an academic and Roman Catholic Priest), Rabbi Visotzky took the risk of entering into the experience of the other not only on an academic level but on a personal level. The word midrash derives from the Hebrew darash—"to inquire" or "to seek." Inter-religious dialogue is about inquiring, seeking to find a deeper meaning of the difference between religions and uncovering a deeper level of conversation. Toward the end of the interview the Rabbi brings us back to his original question, “what is it that we accomplish with inter-religious dialogue?” The answer is “action on behalf of the other.” The Rabbi says, “don’t just talk to one another do something, and work shoulder to shoulder.” This is our bottom line, this is why inter-religious work matters. We begin with the text, the reality of our diverse world, we relate it to it through entering the experience of the other and in the end we work together to bring about change for all peoples of all religions.
Response by Stephanie Lin
As a newcomer-slash-outsider to this realm of so-called “koombaiya” (it was interesting that Rabbi Visotzky did not seek to move away from this connotation), viewing this clip made me feel even more so. I cannot say what “it” is that participants of inter-religious dialogue seek when they come together – can there really exist a united vision or goal? If so it must be painfully vague. People hold the hope that more communication and openness among followers of different religions must lead to a better world – a hope that we can create a sort of antidote to the reality that many earthly horrors are related to religious conflict caused by lack of dialogue and willful intolerance. If it is indeed so that there is no lack of interfaith communication and goodwill going around, is there a way to measure its effects and benefits? Will increased inter-religious tolerance and understanding solve the world’s problems? Has it? I wonder if those long active in the sphere of inter-religious dialogue ever get the sense that perhaps we are being fooled into thinking that religious ideology – not greed, not power struggles, not flawed systems – is the stubborn root of most bloody conflicts around the globe.
Response by C. Nikole Saulsberry
I am thrilled Rabbi Visotzky addressed the “kumbaya” assumption that engulfs inter-religious dialogue, and eloquently refuted said notions. Rabbi Visotzky’s question is one that every religious pluralist must answer for their unique mission. For me, as one trying to breech the topic of inter-religious dialogue in an informal setting, the answer is three-fold. First, each individual engaging in inter-religious dialogue gains an incomparable, genuine and intimate knowledge of one of the most integral aspects of another’s humanity. This knowledge then begets a deeper and unprecedented admiration and respect for religion and its diversity. It is the respect gained from the knowledge received in dialogue that then allows you to accomplish anything.
The last part sounds like the fluff of “kumbaya,” but it has substance and weight. Inter-religious dialogue can be about similarities and making peace, but it can also be, and is often times more engaging when it is, about tough questions and understanding. I do not proclaim inter-religious dialogue to be the be-all that ends-all religious issues. Though it can and does play a significant part, the effects can span the spectrum of productive and harmful.