The Sacred Practice of Understanding Religious Difference

We need to develop the patience and motivation to learn our differences. Awareness leads to real dialogue, and dialogue leads to friendship.
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Last week I piled my books and student papers in my bag and headed out to The Flying Joe, a local coffee shop where the excellent mocha takes some of the pain out of grading undergraduate and seminary papers. While my visits there are inconsistent, I do notice the regulars, and the baristas obviously have taken the time to learn the details of every order, including mine.

Learning those details takes a good listener, someone invested in bringing you back for another espresso hit. It is a practice that takes patience. And it is a practice that I require of students in my world religions and non-religious worldviews classes. One of their assignments is to step outside of their bubbles and interview someone of a different worldview. They are required to return their report to the original interviewee for input before they submit it to me for their grade, which encourages them to present the view fairly. The kicker for many of them is that they cannot proselytize during their interviews, forcing them to listen and to get the details right about the other person's views.

It's a helpful practice that I held myself to recently when I met up with Ramji at The Flying Joe. An enthusiastic young devotee of the Swaminarayan movement, he contacted me in December after I posted a piece here at HuffPost about a local Perrysburg, Ohio mosque ("Mosque Sweet Home"). Our conversation provided me an opportunity to learn about his Hindu tradition and how it is growing today.

Swaminarayan (born in 1781) was an ascetic once named Sahajanand, who eventually became the leader of the movement known today as Swaminarayanism. He revealed himself as the manifestation of god to his followers, Ramji tells me as I frantically scribble down some notes. He is said to have left his body in 1830, promising his followers that he would remain with them in many forms, including in the temple images and Scriptures. In 1830 the movement had nearly 2 million followers; today it is an international movement of more than 20 million and is quickly attracting younger adherents looking for a deeper connection to their Hindu roots. Some followers are converts like Ramji, who was raised Catholic but finds the Swaminaryan religious devotion attractive.

When I assign the interview paper to seminary students, I often hear students complain that don't know anyone in another religion or worldview that they can interview. (At that point I remind them of the religious listings in the phonebook.) But their reaction doesn't surprise me, as it is easy for any of us to surround ourselves mainly with like-minded individuals. That is how humans have survived for millennia. But the problem this creates becomes obvious when I hear Christians in my circles rattle off angry stereotypes of others with whom they have not even bothered to talk.

When I asked Ramji what one thing he wanted people to know about his religion, he immediately wanted to clear up one major misconception: "We do not worship cows," he said.

Angry rants against another person's beliefs are often founded on straw men, false caricatures of what are really nuanced points of view: straw men like Hindus as cow-worshipers or Christians as science-haters. Whether one is a theist fuming over atheism or vice versa, the fact is that we have to live together on the same tiny planet. We must take the time to learn about each other so that we can be the best neighbors possible.

Swaminarayanism has drawn the attention of several important religious and political leaders in recent years. The beautiful Akshardham Temple in New Delhi has welcomed guests including former President Bill Clinton. And on more than one occasion, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has visited Swaminarayan schools and temples. Absurd stereotypes about Hinduism can hardly explain such attention from world leaders.

Like the baristas at The Flying Joe, we need to develop the patience and motivation to learn our differences. Awareness leads to real dialogue, and dialogue leads to friendship or at least friendliness, which is good for everyone, Swaminarayan or Christian. My hope is that in intentionally modeling patient listening to my students, these future religious leaders can better navigate the difficult waters of religious dialogue, whether by phone, on Facebook, at the campus library or perhaps even over a café mocha.

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