Rabbi Dr. Ted Falcon will be joined by Imam Jamal Rahman in a keynote address called Healing at a Time of Polarization, which the public can watch online by registering at vst.edu. (photo from Ted Falcon)
When beginning interfaith or intercultural dialogue, how much emphasis should be placed on similarities and how much on differences? According to a rabbi with decades of experience in the topic, the question puts the cart before the horse.
When Rabbi Dr. Ted Falcon, a Seattle spiritual guide, author, teacher and therapist, leads such interactive processes, he starts with something far more general: the basic humanity of the participants.
“We encourage people to begin a dialogue, a conversation process, not by focusing on similarities or differences in their religious views or nonreligious views, whatever they might be, but begin by creating contexts in which they can meet each other as human beings, meet each other as persons, which essentially is done through sharing stories,” said Falcon.
He uses “a series of questions that people can respond to either in dyads or around tables that elicit stories about important events in their lives, stories about concerns in their lives, stories about important relationships in their lives, so that the dialogue begins by appreciating a common shared human condition. That has made a tremendous difference because only after that do we encourage people looking at more specifically their religious or nonreligious concerns.”
Falcon will be part of a keynote address at a fifth annual multi-religious, multidisciplinary conference presented by Vancouver School of Theology, May 24 to 26. Due to the pandemic, the conference, titled Religious, Spiritual, Secular: Living in a Pluralistic Culture, will take place online. To virtually attend the entire event, registration fees apply, but the keynote and a Monday night concert are open to the public at no cost, although pre-registration is required.
Falcon is a member of the Interfaith Amigos, made up of himself, Pastor Don Mackenzie, a Christian minister, and Imam Jamal Rahman, a Muslim clergyman of the Sufi tradition. The three have published books and present together frequently. Rahman will join Falcon at the conference for the keynote, titled Healing at a Time of Polarization: Reaching Beyond Difference to What We Share.
Once the framework for constructive dialogue is in place, Falcon said in a telephone interview with the Jewish Independent from his Seattle-area home, interfaith exploration can begin to approach similarities that transcend religious differences. Among their Jewish, Muslim and Christian values, the amigos acknowledge some fundamental principles.
“We identified three basic core teachings that our traditions share,” said Falcon. “A core teaching of oneness, a core teaching of unconditional love and a core teaching of compassion. We can utilize those core teachings to then look at our texts, our traditions and our lives and evaluate how does this reflect in my life, how am I not living up to this, what do I need to do to live up to this more authentically? And it’s only after that discussion that we encourage people to engage in more difficult conversations, whether it’s conversations about Israel-Palestine, whether it’s conversations about desire to convert other people, whether it’s conversations about feeling your way is somehow better than other ways, whether it’s conversations about somehow being wary of allowing ourselves to truly appreciate the spiritual wisdom in another’s tradition.”
He admitted that interfaith dialogue is not always possible. But, even among people who acknowledge that they believe their theology to be unerring and people who may not be open to difference, there can still be dialogue, he said.
“In other words, if our conversation is based on my need to get you to change, there is no conversation.” But, he continued, if people recognize that neither they nor their interlocutor will change their minds, there is still a means and a purpose to engaging.
“We share the essential aspect of walking around in a human body with all its frailties and all its challenges and all its wonders,” said Falcon. “We have so much in common that that changes the energetic environment and allows a different kind of conversation to take place. Will you ever convince me that Jesus is the only way? No. But can I truly appreciate that that is your way and authentically support that? Yes, I can do that.”
Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan-Kaplan, director of interreligious studies and a professor of Jewish studies at Vancouver School of Theology, is conference director. She acknowledged that the online, virtual format for the conference changes its nature, but with the drawbacks come benefits.
“We are well aware that people can experience Zoom fatigue and computer fatigue and perhaps don’t want to sit in front of the computer for two full days, no matter how much they are fascinated by the content,” Duhan-Kaplan said. As a result, all of the sessions will be recorded and participants can watch and join the conversation on message boards for 10 days after the conference weekend. This means that, unlike most in-person conferences where participants have to choose between breakout sessions, it is possible to virtually attend all of them.
While the event is an academic conference and it will naturally attract clergypeople, Duhan-Kaplan said it is appropriate for anyone who cares about the role of religion in the public sphere.
“One of the objectives, when it was an in-person conference, was, of course, to get people interested in religion and spirituality from different sectors of our community, to meet each other in person and network,” she said. “The dynamic may be very different online, so, aside from that goal, I’m really hoping that people will come away with a sense of the complexity of creating a community that has room for religious diversity.
“But I also want them to be able to see what some of the components of that complexity are, so that no one throws up their hands and says it can’t be done, but has a sense that by doing acts, whether it’s a group of multifaith chaplains supporting a prison population or whether it’s a group of people getting together to work on the Downtown Eastside or even religious communities twice a year doing outreach to someone of a different faith, I want people to get a sense of understanding that they are part of a larger project and what kind of difference what they do makes.”
For information, to register for the entire conference ($100/$50 students) or sign up to attend the keynote and concert (free), go to vst.edu by May 21.