Dialogue Commandment #10: Experiencing the Other “From Within”

TENTH COMMANDMENT: Each participant eventually must attempt to experience the partner”s religion or ideology “from within”; for a religion or ideology is not merely something of the head, but also of the spirit, heart, and “whole being,” individual and communal. John Dunne here speaks of “passing over” into another”s religious or ideological experience and then coming back enlightened, broadened, and deepened. As Raimundo Panikkar notes, “To know what a religion says, we must understand what it says, but for this we must somehow believe in what it says”: for example, “A Christian will never fully understand Hinduism if he is not, in one way or another, converted to Hinduism. Nor will a Hindu ever fully understand Christianity unless he, in one way or another, becomes Christian.”

This last “commandment” may be scary for some. Haven’t we said all along that the point of dialogue is not to convert the other to our religion? And yet here Swidler seems to be saying almost the opposite– that some measure of “conversion” is not only necessary for dialogue, but desirable!

And yet, is it not the case that human beings simply cannot fully understand any new piece of information unless they have assimilated it deeply? If we are to learn something new, we always have to start with making analogies to what we already know. Something that falls completely out of our experience cannot be named, grasped, or expressed. And so we begin with what we know and seek to understand how this new thing relates to our previous understandings, categories and perceptions.

As we come into closer contact with this new thing, as much as we are able to encounter it on its own terms, we gradually are able to see how it does not fit our preconceptions, how it differs/ contrasts/ challenges what we have known previously. And finally, this new thing offers us a chance to see things in a new way, to take a new perspective, to incorporate it into the knowledge and experience we will bring to the next new thing.

So it is that a genuine, open, and honest dialogue with someone from another religious tradition opens the way for a new way of seeing. Not simply converting one point of view into the other, but together discovering another way that allows us to remain true to our different origins, but which is richer for the wider perspective we have gained from each other.

This is the promise of interfaith relations, and the gift that those who embark on this journey come to share.

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