`Nobody should expect the Spanish Inquisition’ in multifaith dialogues

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Chris Walsh
Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute

It’s human nature to reflect on personal experience and obsess over foibles. Why didn’t I do this or say that? How could I have approached the situation better? 

I’m having such a moment over a podcast that my colleague Bill McKenzie and I recently joined called Good God with Dr. George Mason, a Christian theologian and former Senior Pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. We were on to discuss the Pluralism Challenge series and our latest essay on religious pluralism.  And despite my sour expression on the thumbnail image, it was a fun conversation.  

Still, there’s something I wish I had said in response to one of the questions. And it’s been eating at me. Instead of dwelling on missed opportunities, though, I’m calling a mulligan through this writing. 

Mason asked us about overcoming the anxiety that some may feel about multifaith dialogue. Specifically, fear that the mere act of engagement with folks of different religions could potentially compromise something about their own deeply held beliefs or somehow endorse a faith tradition to which they don’t subscribe. 

I responded with three thoughts. First, and importantly, don’t dismiss or scoff at these fears. It’s serious business talking about matters of ultimate concern like the fate of our eternal souls. Such fear is perfectly understandable. 

Next, I suggested resisting the urge to conceptualize the conversation as the ultimate battle over faith. Meaning don’t start with the most controversial disagreements. Attacking one another over dogma or sacred beliefs probably isn’t the best place to begin any relationship. It likely won’t go well. 

There’s wisdom we can borrow from Monty Python on this. In one of the group’s classic skits, a middle-aged couple is chatting in their living room when suddenly a trio of Catholic cardinals bursts through the front door. As sinister music plays, they exclaim, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise. Surprise and fear … and ruthless efficiency.”  

Obviously, the skit is meant to be silly. It would also be a silly way to approach a multifaith dialogue where you should establish trust – not surprise, fear, and ruthless efficiency. Start by explaining your faith; use genuine curiosity to explore different topics; don’t try to convert them. These steps can pave the way to deeper understanding of the other, but also prevent one from feeling like they’re suddenly facing an inquisition.   

Lastly, I encouraged those who might be hesitant to join a multifaith conversation to consider it as an opportunity to sharpen the articulation and understanding of your beliefs and why you hold them. In doing so, it’s a chance to refine the strongest arguments for your religious convictions. That’s a fantastic way to show devotion to your faith.  

A number of high-profile religious leaders have also encouraged multifaith interaction. Pope John Paul II, who was prolific with such engagement, remarked that, “The non-Christian world is indeed constantly before the eyes of the church and of the pope. We are truly committed to serve it generously.”  

The 14th Dalia Lama emphasized the importance of multifaith engagement for preserving social harmony, saying, “Suspicion of each other will only harm both communities. Therefore, it is very important to live in harmony and analyze where the opinion of the other lies. The best way to do this is to engage in dialogue, dialogue, and dialogue.” 

In addition to these thoughts, though, I should have made a fourth and important foundational point about why we should approach multifaith dialogue with wonder, not trepidation. In many ways, religion is about questioning and searching.  

People want to understand their existence. Where did they come from? What is their purpose? What provides meaning? What constitutes a virtuous life? What, if anything, comes next?  

Many of us seek answers to these questions throughout our lives. And some of us may even glimpse the answers through faith or other pursuits. Still, even the most devout people can’t claim to fully comprehend the mind of whichever deity or deities they worship  or what is intended for us.  

So it would seem that we mortals don’t have all the answers. We are perpetually trying to understand the nature of the divine (or existence) and human purpose.  

Arguably, this is the essence of faith. On an episode of the Unbelievable? podcast, Bishop Robert Barron, a Roman Catholic, debated atheist influencer Alex O’Connor over the nature of faith. When asked to define such a nebulous term, Barron made clear that faith should never be reduced to superstitious belief. Instead, it “is surrender on the far side of reason” and “a response to the revealing God.”  

He explained this as God showing “something of himself beyond what the mind alone can grasp.” To paraphrase, faith comprises our efforts to process, understand, and respond to such revelations. 

Multifaith dialogue, then, seems a natural pathway for religious communities to jointly wrestle with how we understand our faith. And when viewed through this context, it is something to be embraced, not feared.