Image: Girl disgusted at food. Some things were just not meant to be reduced to a puree. (koh sze kiat/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)
Periodically I encounter a well-meaning person who assures me that “we’re all really the same, I mean, we all believe in God, right?” It’s a feel-good, no-worries approach to interfaith issues, minimizing problems and seeking to avoid any unpleasantness.
Here’s an analogy to explain why this feel-good approach can actually cause hurt feelings:
Imagine we’re all going to a potluck supper. I bring a beautiful loaf of home baked challah.
Catholic Bridget brings a traditional Irish cottage pie, savory beef with carrots and onions and mashed potatoes piled on top, gently browned in the oven.
A Hindu acquaintance brings a vegetable curry, redolent with spice, served on a mound of brown rice.
A Buddhist neighbor brings a crisp green salad with tomatoes fresh from his garden and a tangy dressing that his grandmother taught him to make.
A Methodist from Mississippi brings a plate of fragrant pork loin with baked apples.
A Pakistani Muslim brings a dish of creamy kheer for dessert.
All of the dishes are mouth-watering. All are rich not only in nutrition but in cultural values and tradition.
Then the host welcomes us, crams everything into a giant blender, and begins pulverizing it into a liquid. When one of us protests, she says gaily, “It’s all food!” And that’s true – but the distinctive flavors have been lost, the texture is gone, and it’s just a tasteless mush.
Do you want to eat that mush? Is it really “just the same?”
And by the way, what is the Hindu supposed to do about the beef in the pulverized goo? What am I to do with the pork chops that are in there somewhere? What is the Buddhist to do with all that meat?
For me, interfaith dialogue is a bit like that potluck. Each tradition has its own beauty, its own distinctive texture and flavor. There are things we can share but there are other things that clash and cannot be smoothed over.
For Christians, the person of Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, and a personal manifestation of God. That is dramatically different from the fierce monotheism of Judaism, which insists that God is ultimately indescribable and utterly One. And both of those are completely different from the Allah of Islam, who revealed His will to humanity through the Prophet Mohammad, and to whom believers owe perfect submission.
There are elements in each that simply don’t reconcile. Either Jesus is God, or he wasn’t. (The tense difference is deliberate.) Either the Messiah has arrived, or not yet. Either the Koran is the definitive word of God, or it isn’t. Either a particular food is forbidden, or it is permitted.
To have a true dialogue, we have to hold those differences – the different flavors, the different understandings of what is permitted. We have to hold them in our hearts and still keep our hearts open to listen to one another.
I understand why these differences can be scary and why it seems safer to insist that there is no real difference. The problem is, there ARE real differences, and all the insisting and pretending in the world won’t change that. Our task, in a pluralistic society, is to learn how to get along despite the fact that we disagree on so much. It can be done, but only if we’re willing to be honest about the differences. If we are honest in owning differences, then we can learn enough about each other to avoid injuries, and to foster mutual respect.
There are still many things upon which we can agree: our religions share moral values that sometimes need to be expressed in all our voices in the public square. We can work together for peace and justice and fairness. We don’t need to be “all the same” – in fact, our differences can translate into great strength.
May the day come when we can appreciate difference without feeling threatened by it.