Interfaith Starts With Empathy

When I was young, I realized a paradox. I remember thinking, "there are hundreds of religions, and they all think they are right." Even as a young child, I had this kind of self-awareness that my own faith was not exempt from this kind of rigid mindset. 

What is true?

If we didn't believe our faith was true, we wouldn't practice it, but with so many different faiths, how can any one of us claim to have the monopoly on truth? 

Perhaps truth is not so black and white, perhaps it's not either/or. Instead of one faith being true, and all others false, maybe each faith holds a little of each. After all, religion is influenced by so many things, including cultural norms, history, and varying interpretations. 

When we look at the similarities between many religious faiths, we see that no matter how different, they all serve a similar purpose: to connect people to a higher spiritual reality, to give meaning and purpose to ourselves and the world around us, and to build a community of believers. 

What if we thought of each religion as its own unique expression of the truth? We may not pray in the same way, or celebrate the same holidays, but what is our goal for ourselves, for our families, and for our world? It might be that we find more in common here than we realize. 

We are Intertwined

Faith traditions are much more intermingled than we might think. Throughout history different religious practices and faiths have morphed and been adopted by each other. You need only look at the pagan symbols used in Christian holidays, or how Buddhism holds roots in ancient Hinduism to observe this fact. Just like we can trace our human ancestors back to a central place in Africa, we can trace many of the worlds major religions back to a few central points that spread, evolved, and branched off over time. 

Walking in Your Shoes

In order to have respectful dialogue with people of a different faith, we must first let go of this idea that they are "other." We must assume that even though someone else dresses differently, or speaks a different language, or celebrates a different holiday, that they have feelings and experiences that are similar to ours. This is empathy. I may not pray five times a day with a prayer mat, but I do understand prayer, and the value of ritual. I may not light a Menorah and hand out gifts for 8 nights, but I know the importance and joy of creating an experience for children and celebrating holidays with the family. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes. It is a skill that can be helpful throughout our lives, but I think it's essential when talking about any kind of interfaith experience.

When we allow ourselves to come together without preconceived notions or expectations, when we are able to learn from each other and offer new perspectives, there is so much good that can be accomplished. It all starts with empathy. We must be willing to admit that all human beings, no matter the religion, are capable of love, joy, fear, hate, and of course, redemption. 

photo credit: woodleywonderworks rainbow hands via photopin (license)