Posted by: Andrew | December 9, 2014

The Value of Dialogue – just dialogue

There’s been an interesting shift in the interfaith world over the past few years. Whereas once interfaith activities were all about conversation and learning the call now is to action. There’s a huge amount of interfaith social action that is making a difference to may people’s lives and is mostly very good. Whilst I’m all in favour of this activity I am concerned that it is becoming the default for any interfaith work and the sign of whether an event was worthwhile. ‘But what are we going to DO as a result of all this talking?’ is a complaint I hear with increasing frequency. Discussion, it seems, is only valid if it leads to direct, measurable activity.

Yet, as someone who has frequently bemoaned interfaith talking shops, I want to defend the value of dialogue for it’s own sake. Dialogue at it’s best is neither a bland sharing of platitudes nor an excuse for irrelevant pontificating on subjects the speakers know little about, rather it is the genuine exchange of ideas that lead to increased understanding and changed attitudes. Growing in our understanding of the views and beliefs of others is a worthwhile task and one that is not easily done whilst delivering food (or whatever the social action task is). Big questions about the nature of God, the human condition, hopes for the future (in this life or the next) are not just obscure bits of theology of interest only to religious geeks but shape the way people of faith view the world, themselves, other people and the relationships between people, creation and God. They really do matter and so understanding why people of faith behave in certain ways means understanding how these beliefs and others shape their worldview and thinking and this is best done through informed dialogue. But genuine dialogue is not just limited to these big themes but also a way of understanding and re-thinking some of the issues facing society today.

If dialogue is only considered valid if it leads to specific action then the important tasks of growing in our understanding and wrestling with important concepts that do affect the way people interact with the world get lost. Furthermore there is a danger that dialogue becomes consumerist with people only willing to engage if they can see exactly what they will get out of it in ways that can be measured in tangible, photographable ways.

We must continue to make sure that dialogue leads to useful action, or that it takes place during action, but we also need to continue a commitment for dialogue that challenges our thinking.

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