Religious commitment lies at the core of many of our lives. Our spiritual beliefs and practices are profoundly linked to our personal identity, our significant relationships, and our understanding of truth. How, then, are we to balance a desire to learn more about other religious traditions and to be respectful of the deeply-held beliefs of others with our desire to share what we find most meaningful and perhaps even to convince others to share our perspective?
For the sake of the wider conversation between faiths, it is a key understanding that aggressive attempts at proselytization or conversion are inappropriate. “Dialogue” that is simply a mask for conversion efforts is no dialogue at all.
On the other hand, is there no place for standing firmly on one”s own convictions and seeking to convince others to share them? Does interfaith sensitivity mean that all our relationships become little more than sharing our differences, a kind of “You say poTAYto, I say poTAHto interfaith?
In a recent discussion between Jews and Presbyterians about conversion efforts, an important distinction was made between sharing one”s faith (and even inviting another to share it), and pushing one”s faith (using coercive or deceptive means to demand that the other change his or her views).
The Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy has sponsored conferences on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution that bring together “scholars, educators, diplomats, businessmen, and clergy” to explore candid and respectful dialogue. They describe their commitment to “respectful persuasion” in this way:
We who hold different beliefs and religious allegiances make this solemn declaration, hoping all who read it will desire to join with us in this commitment.
We believe that every person has power to influence others and is responsible to use that influence in good conscience to improve the world. We acknowledge that people of integrity, intelligence, and goodwill hold substantially different religious or ideological convictions, and that these differences often lead to conflicts over what is true and good for the world.
We observe that clearer understanding often sharpens our serious differences yielding conflicts that cannot with integrity be resolved by compromise.
We affirm the perogative of people to attempt to influence others to adopt or resist different ideological or religious beliefs, provided they do so in peaceful contests of persuasion.
We declare our commitment to use only respectful means of persuasion to promote our beliefs or religious convictions and to denounce any human threats of coercion or harm used to influence another’s worldview or religious allegiance.
You may have heard the saying, “A true friend encourages you to be all you can be, but leaves you with your freedom intact.” Perhaps something similar can apply to interfaith relationships; we may urge others to share what is most meaningful to us, but only with respect for them and the freedom of their choices.