cross cultural dialogue

The Cross-Cultural Dialogue Golden Rule

When I first began to engage in cross-cultural dialogue with Muslims, Christians, and Jews, I was invited to an interfaith banquet at a local mosque. At our table, our host was a Muslim member of the mosque; the rest of us were Christians. As host, he was in charge of drumming up a meaningful conversation. He asked: “Is God in Islam more about love or more about justice?”

As we went around the table, one at a time, each of us Christians said firmly, “Justice.”

When it came back around to our Muslim host, he said, “Love,” and started to defend his view. Before he could eke out more than a few sentences, we (all non-Muslims) pounced. We told him that Muslims believe that God keeps a strict record of who’s naughty and who’s nice, opens the book of reckoning upon one’s death and dispenses Paradise based on one’s “score.” Perfect justice perfectly dispensed by Perfect Justice. Where is the love?

We Christians told the Muslim what he believed. Not my finest cross-cultural, interfaith moment!

We felt that we knew better than he; maybe as outsiders, we thought we could see something in Islam that insider bias prevented him from seeing. But we outsiders had had little previous experience of Muslims themselves; none of us had any Muslim friends. We had learned of Islam from a book or a sermon, usually by people who were determined to denigrate Islam and to elevate Christianity.

If, instead, love had overcome our arrogance, we would have listened.

I determined, from that point on, that I would listen to Muslims and let them tell me what they believed. Seems simple. But it’s not. 

When our fears are engaged, it’s easier to fall back onto our prejudices than it is to sit quietly, mouth closed, ears open, and humbly listen and learn.

Our host, Dr. Eiyass (an optometrist!), met our failures of love with compassion. He patiently endured our rude interruptions and slowly brought us back to the Quran and Islam. He both manifested and made a case for love in Islam. He sowed the seeds of love, both in belief and practice. His demeanor more than his logic drove me to examine the Quran more carefully to learn if there was more to Islamic love than my fears had allowed me to see.

There was. There is.

I have learned from these and similar failures how to more effectively carry on a dialogue with people who are very different from myself (and my tribe).

The fact that there are countless versions of the Golden Rule of Cross-Cultural or InterFaith Dialogue has not prevented me from developing my own: 

Listen Unto Others As You Would Have Them Listen Unto You.

I think my Golden Rule cannot be repeated enough. 

For over a decade I directed academic programs involving American Christian philosophers and mainland Chinese scholars. I noticed, after my first few conferences in China, that the Christian professors spent a lot of time presenting and defending their own, Christian views but very little time learning about Chinese philosophy and religion. While we were involved in Chinese-Christian dialogues, there was little respectful listening to and learning from one another. One night a Christian professor tearfully but illegally shared his testimony for 30 uncomfortable minutes; China’s secret police showed up the next day. 

I determined then and there to actively listen and learn about Chinese thought, without interrupting, from Confucius to Communism; and I determined not to let my discomfort prevent me from listening and learning. I had to turn off my philosopher’s penchant for arguing. “Just sit on your hands, close your mouth, and listen,” I told myself over and over.

And I determined to learn about my new Chinese friends. I learned, the hard way, that exporting my own views without listening respectfully to the views of others is detrimental to dialogue with those from diverse backgrounds.

In my dialogues with Muslims, I have likewise come to appreciate the discipline of listening. My first education in Islam was from Christian leaders who informed me that Islam is satanic and Muslims are hell-bound. I “learned” from Christians with an ax to grind about 1.3 billion practitioners of a religion they knew very little about. My second “education” in Islam was the highly selective and biased media reports of ISIS and the Taliban. Preachers and papers alike reinforced my biases and stoked my fears of Muslims. 

I’ve begun to unlearn my biases and fears by, again, listening to Muslims who, like Dr. Eiyas, manifested compassion and mercy.

How, you might wonder, can you meet people who are very different from you and your friends?

In my own community, I try to build cross-cultural friendships one person at a time. As I write in my book, God may so love the world, but we love one person at a time. I encourage people to leave their homes and their communities (composed of people who are a lot like themselves) and walk down the street to the Black family, or the Latino family, or the Muslim family and ask them over for a cup of coffee or even a meal. I encourage taking that first courageous, bridge-building step. Love your neighbor as yourself (another Golden Rule), you might say. 

When I’m working with larger groups, I always encourage gathering first over a meal and talking about anything about religion (or how nice Christians really are or how good everyone is down deep). Talk about the weather, your hobbies, and your kids (and ask them about their kids and hobbies). I try to get people to see people from different cultures as just plain old human beings. When you’ve built up some trust, then you can ask about their religious or cultural beliefs. And when you ask, LISTEN. 

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