Dialogue Commandment #1: Dialogue is for Learning

FIRST COMMANDMENT: The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn, that is, to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality, and then to act accordingly. Minimally, the very fact that I learn that my dialogue partner believes “this” rather than “that” proportionally changes my attitude toward her; and a change in my attitude is a significant change in me. We enter into dialogue so that we can learn, change, and grow, not so we can force change on the other, as one hopes to do in debate–a hope realized in inverse proportion to the frequency and ferocity with which debate is entered into. On the other hand, because in dialogue each partner comes with the intention of learning and changing herself, one”s partner in fact will also change. Thus the goal of debate, and much more, is accomplished far more effectively by dialogue.

It may seem odd to say that the purpose of dialogue is for learning, but it reminds us that not every encounter between religious traditions qualifies as a dialogue. As our society becomes increasingly diverse, we are ever more likely to encounter the “other”– someone whose religious faith, experience, practice and identity are different from our own. So much of religious discussion in our history has been wedded to apologetics (proving that my religion is better than your religion), or to mission (getting you to convert to my religion). Neither of these attitudes is appropriate or helpful in interfaith dialogue.At the outset, interfaith dialogue requires of each of us a certain humility. However true we may believe our religion to be, we must acknowledge that we do not have the whole truth. And that leaves us open to the possibility that we may be changed by what we have learned from one another. In fact, there”s no way to enter into a real relationship with any human being without being changed. Interfaith dialogue challenges us to bring the same willingness to learn and to see things differently that are the hallmarks of any encounter in which we respect the other as a living human being apart from ourselves.

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