Dialogue Commandment #9: Dialogue Requires Self-Criticism

NINTH COMMANDMENT: Persons entering into interreligious, interideological dialogue must be at least minimally self-critical of both themselves and their own religious or ideological traditions. A lack of such self-criticism implies that one”s own tradition already has all the correct answers. Such an attitude makes dialogue not only unnecessary, but even impossible, since we enter into dialogue primarily so we can learn–which obviously is impossible if our tradition has never made a misstep, if it has all the right answers. To be sure, in interreligious, interideological dialogue one must stand within a religious or ideological tradition with integrity and conviction, but such integrity and conviction must include, not exclude, a healthy self-criticism. Without it there can be no dialogue–and, indeed, no integrity.

Sadly, the encounter between two religious traditions often winds up being little more than a contest to see which participant can point out the most flaws in the other’s faith and practice. Rather than taking a stance of openness to learning about the other, a person may assume that their task is to point out the error of his or her ways.

Under such circumstances, it is understandable why someone might become protective and wary of any criticism. No matter how vaild or important that criticism might be, the fact that it comes from “outside the circle” can move a person to dismiss it or feel that they are under attack.

If the levels of trust in the relationship have been built up with the attitudes called for in the other “Commandments”– honesty, trust, a willingness to hear the other on their own terms, and not idealizing one’s own tradition and putting down the other’s– there can be room for inevitable self-criticism.

In popular usage, “criticism” is usually considered a bad or negative thing, equivalent to devaluing or disrespecting the thing being criticized. But the root of the word means “to judge” or “evaluate.” Criticism is the process by which we take the measure of something and evaluate it against some standard.

Even if my dialogue partner doesn’t specifically challenge my religious commitments, the mere fact that his or her commitments are different should invite me to reflect on why I believe as I do. My partner is bound to ask questions about my faith and experience that are not the questions I would ordinarily ask myself, and their perspective will not be the same as mine.

The poet Robert Burns once wrote (in his Scots dialect), “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.” This is the gift that interfaith dialogue has the potential to give. As far as we can remain open to the other, to their insight and perspective, we receive the gift of seeing ourselves “from outside,” as it were.

If we resist the self-reflection that interfaith dialogue makes possible, we will remain incapable of entering into genuine relationship with one another; we will not be equal participants. And we will have missed one of the great gifts of interreligious encounter.

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