Cultivating Partnerships in the Unfamiliar

July 17, 2014
Cultivating Partnerships in the Unfamiliar

Charles Carstens

Conflict resolution, social justice, and peacemaking were all prominent themes in my studies at Harvard Divinity School.When I first arrived as a master of theology student, I had a vague idea about the benefits of interreligious dialogue. I imagined that conflict and injustice arises, at least partially, from a lack of empathy, ultimately rooted in misunderstandings among estranged groups.

As I understood it, in theory, the practice of interreligious dialogue initiates contact and, if successful, fosters recognition of commonalities among disparate groups. Identification with “the other” then gives way to empathy, a necessary precondition for effective remedy of conflict and injustices.

Aware that these ideas were formed in the abstract, I sought an opportunity to experience the messiness of interreligious dialogue in practice. The Greeley International Internship generously afforded me that opportunity, sponsoring my summer 2009 internship at Payap University's Institute of Religion, Culture, and Peace (IRCP) in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

IRCP's mission is threefold: to foster greater interreligious and intrareligious understanding, appreciation, and cooperation; to nurture peace-building and reconciliation efforts; and to cultivate a space for those interested in the religions and cultures of Thailand and the surrounding region. In contributing toward these goals, I had the privilege of serving—alongside the Rev. John W. Butt and HDS graduate Eva Pascal (MDiv '05)—as an instructor for a four-month course on Buddhism and Christianity.

The class, officially a course at Payap's McGilvary College of Divinity, was a diverse group of Christian seminarians enrolled in McGilvary's international master of divinity program. The course began with the seminarians sharing their religious journeys to McGilvary, with special attention to encounters with religious others. Once the students were acquainted with each other, each instructor led discussions on a handful of topics of shared significance for Christianity and Buddhism (for example, transcendence and suffering). Classroom exposure to Buddhist doctrines was followed by a series of excursions to a Buddhist monastery called Wat Suan Dok. There, the seminarians attended Buddhist ceremonies and engaged in interreligious dialogue with Buddhist monks.

The course's objective was modest: to experiment with the practice of interreligious dialogue. But we also held the lofty goal of cultivating a dialogical partnership between Christians and Buddhists in the region. What might this “dialogical partnership” look like? How might understanding fit into such a partnership? We had no idea. It was something that we hoped to uncover in the process.

In their written reflections about these interreligious encounters, the Christian seminarians expressed feelings of excitement, confusion, intrigue, and discomfort. However mixed their feelings, they stated—unanimously and unambiguously—that these encounters nurtured a space where they could explore new horizons of religious inquiry in the company of others who made them laugh. Consider two examples.

For one occasion of interreligious dialogue, we formed circles composed of three Buddhist monks and three Christian seminarians. Each group was given a religious concept of central importance to the Buddhist tradition. I observed the group that received the term “dhamma.” The monks listed basic characteristics of dhamma.

After careful notation, the seminarians discussed whether they could imagine something Christian that embodied similar characteristics, a possible analogical concept in their own tradition. One seminarian noticed a parallel between dhamma and God. Both refer to something true, universal, and omnipresent. Another seminarian quickly pointed out limitations to the parallel. God was explained as personified, whereas the dhamma appeared impersonal. Both the monks and the seminarians discussed the extent to which each concept was personal or impersonal.

Their initial claims were matter-of-fact; however, in the course of the conversation, they began to play with unusual interpretations. Could we think of dhamma as a personal force in the world, or of God as impersonal laws of the universe? What if both God and dhamma were imagined to have a combination of personalized and depersonalized elements? The students chuckled when considering these unusual propositions. Later, in their personal reflections, none of the Christian seminarians entertained the idea that God and dhamma were the same. However, they did acknowledge how imagining God in such a different light was at the very least amusing and at most thought provoking. Conversation with the monks inspired new thinking and unexpected plain fun.

On another occasion of dialogue, the seminarians presented short accounts of parables from the Bible. The monks and seminarians then formed small groups. The monks posed questions about the stories and offered a few theories about each story's purpose.

Initially, the seminarians responded with explanations of the “correct” interpretation. The monks, however, pushed back. Why that and not this? Unaccustomed to responding to such interpretative possibilities, many of the seminarians did not have ready-made answers. During one moment of silence, a seminarian in my group smiled and exclaimed, “Why not?” The group then burst into laughter.

In their reflections, many of the seminarians expressed their distress in fielding the monks' questions. While uncomfortable, this distress brought awareness of other interpretative possibilities, prompting questions of why one choice and not another. No seminarian indicated preference for the Buddhist interpretation; however, they did encounter the unfamiliar in something that was familiar. In search of answers, they opened their Bibles and knocked on their teachers' doors.

I came to IRCP to observe interreligious dialogue in the raw, curious about methods of developing mutual understanding and empathy. By the end of the course, the seminarians certainly had a marginally better understanding of this group of Buddhists. But the significance of these interreligious encounters was much less about “understanding the other” than about the intrigue of the shared experience.

The seminarians were much more involved when having to untangle their bizarre conversations about Christianity, experiencing the joy, and the distress, of having the familiar rendered unfamiliar. Though these two examples highlight what the seminarians reaped from the encounters, it is also important to acknowledge their feelings of gratitude for these conversations. They consistently expressed hope that their numerous dialogues had somehow helped the monks. Their words would indicate that we discovered the possibility of a dialogical partnership that was not about mutual understanding, but about cultivating a relationship of exploration, laughter, and giving.

Since my internship at IRCP, interreligious dialogue has receded into the background of my course of study. Nevertheless, I have continued to benefit from this notion of a dialogical partnership with another beyond my immediate proximity. Many of my most productive academic conversation partners have been situated in fields distant from my own. It is astonishing to watch the ease with which “scholarly others” raise unexpected questions and trigger surprising insights.

In addition to dialogue, I have also turned to unexpected resources for my own academic research. For example, in studying the world of nineteenth-century Buddhist Burma, I initially attended only to Buddhist sources. After my internship at IRCP, I began to consider unconventional accounts of Buddhism in this period, such as those documented by Catholic and Baptist missionaries.

While exploring those perspectives, I became interested in missionary translations of the Mālālaṇkāra Vatthu, exciting windows onto a rather inaccessible world. My experiences at IRCP neither confirmed nor refuted my earlier theoretical thinking about interreligious dialogue. However, I came to orient myself away from “understanding” of the other and toward partnership. I have found such partnerships to be not only a powerful first step for projects of conflict resolution, social justice, and peacemaking, but also enriching for the realm of scholarship.

—by Charles Carstens

This article appears in the Spring 2014 edition of CSWR Today.