Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Learning from others by listening
In the world of the internet, it is fascinating how many “experts” there are on religion, especially somebody else’s religion. Even though my work the last few years has been with interfaith dialogue, I certainly cannot claim to be an expert on any of the religions, even my own Christian faith. But what I do claim is that the more I engage in dialogue with persons of different faiths, the more I learn about them – and about my own faith.
Over the years I have had the privilege of traveling to many different countries where Christianity is the minority religion. These experiences have been very enlightening and at the same time required me to think more deeply about my own beliefs.
The Swedish theologian and New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl became a leader in interfaith matters. He was a professor, then dean of the Harvard Divinity School, and later selected as a bishop in the Church of Sweden. He is well known not only for his books and scholarly articles but also for his three rules of religious understanding:
- When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
- Don't compare your best to their worst.
- Leave room for "holy envy."
For Stendahl, “holy envy” meant being willing to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.
As one engages in this spirit with other religious people and traditions and goes deeper into the essence of these beliefs, certain principles and values become apparent. For example, various versions of the “golden rule” are found in most traditions. In the Jewish tradition, it is summarized by the statement of Rabbi Hillel, "What you yourself hate, don't do to your neighbor. This is the whole law; the rest is commentary.”
For Christians, it is taken from the words of Jesus, "Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets." For Islam, it comes from the sayings of Muhammed, "Wish for your brother, what you wish for yourself." In Hinduism, it is expressed, “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma.”
Most other religious traditions, as well as humanist expressions, contain similar teachings. Other understandings at the core of many religions include the role of forgiveness, service, and care for the environment.
The specific beliefs and doctrines of the various religions differ in many ways and it is important to discuss and understand the different truth claims being made. It is also instructive, as well as the path to understanding and peace, to seek these basic values at the core of the various belief systems and to appreciate what it means to be human and how we can pursue our common good.
Returning to Stendahl’s Rule 1, “When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies,” highlights the role of listening. This principle of listening in order to learn from the adherents of another religion has been an important practice in our interfaith efforts over the years. Our dialogues, special events, Abrahamic Dinners, and other programs have sought to hear the voices of many different perspectives.
Listening in this intentional way helps us not only to understand the other perspective or belief, but it also challenges our own beliefs and moves us to a deeper understanding. Among our different beliefs, we also find a resonance of values with others as we seek to contribute to the common good.
We don’t really know the other’s point of view without listening. Or put another way, it’s hard to listen when you are talking or when you are thinking of a response.
In the Jewish tradition, perhaps the most important confession and prayer is known as the Shema (from the Hebrew word meaning “hear” or “listen”). It is the centerpiece of the morning and evening prayers and contains the words from Deuteronomy chapter 6, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Gila Sacks, reflecting on the one-year anniversary of the death of her father, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, noted that the most defining feature of his life was that he continued to learn “every single day.” He would learn from books, from law and history as well as world events. But, she recalls, “he learned mainly from people. He would seek out people to learn from, from every possible path of life. And he would seek out what he could learn from everyone he met. And he would do this through conversation, through talking, and listening. So for him, conversation was a defining and spiritual act, a way of opening ourselves up to something beyond ourselves, of being challenged, the only way we could really become more than we were before.”
In his latest book prior to his death, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, Sacks warns of the polarization that has led to a breakdown of the very concept of truth. This in turn leads to the loss of trust and finally to the loss of morality, which threatens our democracy.
Can we restore the ability to learn from others and engage those who believe differently? Let us affirm conversation and listening as a “spiritual act, a way of opening ourselves up” to the common good.