A common objection raised to those who engage in interfaith work is that we are abandoning the truth and purity of our religious traditions for relativism and syncretism. Somehow, it seems, if we feel there is something valuable in another religious tradition, or that we might have something to learn from others, we are diluting the validity of our own.

Religious traditions are always “syncretistic,” in that human beings will adapt and adopt whatever they find in their environment that enriches their lives. The Greek root of the word simply means “to combine.”

Most likely, the suspicion of borrowing from others is rooted in the way that religion is so closely intertwined with a sense of identity. “Who I am not” is often as important to a person as “who I am.” Ironically, it is in a genuine encounter with another religious tradition that we have the opportunity to understand our own identity more clearly. In knowing “what I am not,” and having to wonder why I chose this way of being rather than that serves to make me more aware that I have chosen.

In an interview earlier this year, Roman Catholic theologian Carmen Aparicio spoke about how it is precisely the way that interreligious dialogue requires both a sense of identity and openness that challenge relativism and syncretism.

Interreligious dialogue is not based in some fuzzy notion that “all religious traditions are the same;” it is rooted in the genuine identity that each of us bears, our willingness to listen to one another, and the simple fact that we are in this world together and must find ways to live in peace.

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