Panel Discussion: interView with Dr. Sarah Sayeed

Posted on April 15th, 2010 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit, InterViews, Video

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interView with Dr. Sarah Sayeed

Response by Jen Bailey

"Does interfaith dialogue require us to be open to transformation?" Yes.  Meaningful dialogue is born out of willingness to be vulnerable and share that which many of us hold to be most sacred—our relationship to our faith. In my experience, this transformation is most often an internal process facilitated through the development of personal relationships.

When I first became involved in the interfaith movement through a youth council in high school, a series of questions ran through my mind: How would my peers of different faith traditions accept me? Would it be possible for me to open about my faith without offending anyone else? Did I even believe in my faith enough to articulate its values to others?

My first day on the council one of the first people to greet me was a young Jewish woman from a rival high school. A veteran of the youth council, what immediately struck me was her passion for this interfaith work that was brand new to me. She spoke excitedly about the work the Council had done the year. In her genuineness, I found comfort. In her excitement, I found idealism. In her enthusiasm, I found hope.

Over the next few months we shared a lot--- days of service, conversations about life after high school, graduation parties. She became my teacher. She taught me about the meaning of Shabbat and why it was so important to her to travel to Israel after graduation in June. She became my role model. Through observing her dedication to her own faith tradition, I was strengthened in my own convictions about my faith and my desire to pursue deeper study of biblical texts. She became my friend. For four years in my college dorm room sat a picture of us from the youth council’s farewell dinner. Embracing with red eyes, each tear is a testament to the strength of the bond we created.

It is safe to say I was never the same after I met her and for that I will be forever grateful.

Response by Stephanie Lin

"Does participation in interfaith dialogue require us to be open to transformation and ultimately to change our religious commitment, why or why not?"

Dr. Sarah Sayeed poses a very interesting question, which I see as two-fold. I think that the state of being open to transformation on the one hand, and the act of changing one’s religious commitment on the other, are quite different things, and the latter need not logically follow the former. There is clearly a difference between open dialogue and closed dialogue, and most of us engage in both on a daily basis. In my eyes, closed dialogue doesn’t really serve any purpose but to enhance both parties’ individual sense of righteousness. During such encounters, no one has any intention of changing his view, but rather each party uses the opportunity of pushing against an opposing opinion in order to strengthen his own resolve, and perhaps even strategically, to see what weaknesses his rival uncovers so as to be ready to defend against such “attacks” in the future. It is interesting that the notion of closed dialogue conjures up images of warfare, for war simply cannot take place without an unwavering sense of self-righteousness on both sides. Those committed to promoting peace and stemming and preventing religious conflict have no use for such closed dialogue, and so I assume that interfaith leaders encourage open dialogue. Open dialogue indeed seems to require an openness to transformation; however, transformation takes place in numberless different forms and in large and small ways. It does not necessarily lead to the changing of one’s religious commitment, though such a change is undoubtedly possible.

Response by C Nikole Saulsberry

“Does participation in interfaith dialogue require us to be open to transformation and ultimately to change our religious commitment, why or why not?”

Inter-religious dialogue does not require us to be open to transformation. It does however require us to be respectful and reverent of the process. I say that not to be cliché, but because I truly believe that for inter-religious dialogue to be effective, you must have everyone at the table. Sarah Sayeed mentions the Interfaith Center of New York bringing not just the Abrahamic traditions and not just religious communities, but secular, civic, governmental, and non-profit organizations together to work for social justice. I believe that is the crucial way we need to be doing inter-religious dialogue.

If interreligious dialogue means you have to be open to transformation, that is going to limit the people who can come to the table. In fact, my most incredible interfaith experiences have not happened with my fellow interfaith believers; they happened with people who are staunchly against religion, they happened with people who firmly believe they hold an exclusive truth, they happen when I myself am at an impasse with someone else who has a deeply held belief against something I believe in, and I am unwilling to budge.  The beauty of inter-religious dialogue is that you do not have to come with preconceived notions of transformation, you just have come realizing that you are going to engage in the conversation, trust and respect its participants, and what happens, happens.

It might not be theology, but at the very least, everyone should walk away with a positive, more profound view of the other. And if that does not spark a transformation or change in religious commitment, I am not sure what will.

Response by Hafsa Kanjwal

I was interested in Sarah Sayeed’s emphasis on a trialogue (between religious groups and then between religious groups and the secular public sphere) when it comes to inter-religious dialogue. Part of me wants to support the idea of engaging in dialogue with secular institutions, and I understand the incentives that religious groups have in doing so (promoting their values, goals, ideals, in the secular public sphere---bringing about awareness, etc). However, I’m still a bit skeptical about the aims or motivations of secular institutions that seek to engage religious organizations on that level.  So many of them, it seems, view religion as a “problem” and want to engage with these groups in order to “mediate the problem” or “moderate the problem.”  What can really serve as a genuine, mutual foundation for this engagement? Social justice is always given as an example, and it certainly is a strong one. Yet, I feel that many times social justice is a safe, obvious niche for religious groups. It is taken for granted that religious groups would want to of course promote social justice as it is in some ways less controversial than other issues. What about other areas?

It reminds me of times of tragedy (local, national, international). It always seems like religious groups are called upon—for reflection, meditation, and prayer. How can inter-religious dialogue actually transform the secular public space, and not simply be there in targeted moments?

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