Mostly I favor the Golden Rule, to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." However, it is not a good guide for interfaith conversations at the parish level. That dialogue requires the kind of listening that begins not with self, but with others. Of course, when engaging in any significant exchange we must assume we share some universal human experiences and aspirations. But in the unique language and practices of our faiths we begin--and remain--different. In interfaith dialogue we commit ourselves not to do to others what we would want for ourselves, because their expressions of faith may be completely different from our own.
When volunteers from a local Christian parish first met with a dialogue group at a neighboring Muslim mosque, the practices of each seemed odd to the other. The Catholics initially felt snubbed by the Muslim women who would not shake hands with the Christian men. Having asked that the meetings be informal to encourage honesty, the Christians felt the chill of formal distance when seeing the long sleeves worn by the Muslim men and the head coverings by the Islamic women. Only later did they learn that these customs had religious, not social, significance.
However, when worshiping at the mosque, the Catholics felt an immediate affinity for the "holy calisthenics," as they called it, that the rows of Muslim men practiced when moving together in various postures of prayer. At the same time these Western Christians were shocked (even offended) that men assumed their places in the center of worship while women stayed in a section in the rear of the room. (This practice is motivated by a desire to protect the women's modesty, because of the kinds of postures assumed in the ritual prayers.) And the Catholics were thoroughly puzzled that the prayers were said without any priestly leadership or sacramental unity.
Over time the two' groups discovered that they had much in common. They shared a deep affinity not so much for the Golden Rule as for Jesus' summary of the law: to love the Lord your God with all one's heart, soul, and mind, and to love one's neighbor as oneself (Matt. 22:37-39). Although their expressions of faith differed, they agreed on the primacy of God and on respect for all humanity (although each expressed these very differently).
Interfaith experience at the parish level wears a human face; it occurs among people who call each other by name. Typically, congregations learn most about each other when they seek common goals. To express their mutual "love of neighbor," a certain Jewish synagogue regularly joins with an evangelical Christian church in preparing and serving the evening meal at a nearby soup kitchen. By working together members of both congregations developed a mutual affinity that transcends their differences. The cooks from both congregations make good meals from meager rations--"baptizing it until it's kosher," as they say.
Places of employment provide arenas for interfaith dialogues, "without benefit of clergy." Colleagues may share their faith first as friends facing problems. Perhaps later, if at all, they explore the meanings of their differences. Sometimes one employee will invite others to join in significant faith-centered events. For example, when our neighbors attended the bat mitzvah of a colleague's daughter, to help celebrate that youngster's coming of age, they asked their friends about aspects of Jewish worship services. They would have laughed if I had called their conversation among friends an "interfaith dialogue." Yet their inquiry represented the best of religious dialogues, for they tried to see the world through others' eyes.
Interfaith dialogue is not, however, limited to the boundaries between different traditions. Every congregation engages in dialogues of faith when they accept newcomers into the flock, or respond afresh to new crises that challenge their members. We must develop the skills, trust and affection to listen to others' expression of faith, whether in interfaith dialogues or with each new generation that grows up in the congregation. Study groups, bat/bar mitzvah celebrations and soup kitchens each encourage formal interfaith dialogue. But we need to make as much effort to listen to differences within as between our communities of faith.
On the local level interfaith dialogue is all around us. It strengthens believers to articulate a faith that may have deteriorated into meaningless habit and threadbare ritual. At the same time it weakens any approach that claims to possess the complete and exclusive revelation. It begins with our listening to others, and then hearing God together.