Authentic Religious Encounters as a Means to Peaceful Coexistence


As humanity becomes increasingly connected to one another, it becomes ever more necessary to evolve cognitively if we are to inhabit this world peacefully and justly. It no longer serves the greater majority to segregate and isolate ourselves. Increasing incidents of terrorism, occupation and murder seems to signal that universal ideals are being lost to trivial particulars in difference. Interreligious dialogue is an imperative aspect of this conversation because the opposite has led to war, death and devastation. In order for our species to inhabit this world peacefully, we must integrate and find common ground. We must work together to create a world community in which individuals and groups live in synergy accounting for the needs of all.


There is an estimated 8.8 million species on earth,[1] each is unique, and all are dependent upon connections. As humans, our connectedness to one another affects our physical, social and psychological well-being. This is to such a degree that the importance of community is stressed in all religions and ways of knowing. This is known as ‘the golden rule,’ which can be translated across many traditions in different ways. For example, in Judaism and Christianity, it translates as, “love thy neighbor.” An adage in Confucianism says, “do onto others as you would have them do unto you;” and, in Islam, one proverb says, “love for your brother what you love for yourself.” These are powerful words, yet I wonder how deeply people consider the true implications of them? To whom are these anecdotes referring? Is the brother, neighbor, or community in each referring to those whom are reflections of ourselves? Are they, those with whom we congregate in places of worship; or, with whom we share a common ethnicity, cultural background, class or “race?”

Our communities are no longer monolithic reflections of ourselves. Neighbors, colleagues and other individual members of our communities are most often different from us. They represent different cultures and religious traditions, yet, we do not take the time to meet them and learn from them. Why? The disconnect that many feel towards neighbours and those around us should be looked at more deeply as it can serve as an explanation for much of the pain and suffering that can be seen throughout the world today. Power over self-determination, access to resources and connection to community are all connected to the various catastrophes of this world. Rootless people, or individuals disconnected from community, are believed to be the most susceptible to the appeal of cults, violence and radicalism. “Cults draw their members from special sets of rootless and vulnerable people, whom they single out and approach.”[2] Therefore, building a sense of community can be a catalyst for both individual and community level change and resilience. Communities are built through relationships and participation. The following document seeks to substantiate my theory that an evolution of pluralism through authentic religious encounter is a missing component to the world’s habitant’s peaceful coexistence. To do this I will discuss the need for religious literacy, as well as, compare and contrast the meaning of pluralism versus diversity. Finally, I intend to outline what an authentic inter-religious encounter is and how each of the stated themes is necessary to building healthy and resilient communities.


A resilient community is one of flexibility, strength, and, ingenuity. Most importantly, it is one that is able to bounce back with minimal damage when difficulties or challenges are presented. Resiliency is a tool or skill that can be taught and enhanced to aid in navigating the stress that comes when complications arise. One characteristic of this is the ability to absorb the shock of a crisis. This is achieved by the community reestablishing its footing while remaining calm under the pressure of a setback. One example of this is that of a rubber band. Although it can be stretched, twisted and manipulated, it will, in most cases, return to its original form. Stretching the rubber band puts tension on it. If the rubber band is stretched beyond its capacity, it will eventually snap. As such, the same can be true for a community that does not have the tools to sustain itself. Another example of a characteristic found in a resilient community is that the community members will look for the silver linings or possible lessons that can be taken away from a situation. Through embracing and reframing the hardship as a learning experience, the community can grow and adapt to change.

To a scientist, resilience is determined by what an object is made of, or, how strong it is. However, this does not tell the whole story when it comes to human beings, who are complicated and dynamic. For example, some people or communities have greater challenges or problems than others, and cannot, therefore, be blamed for not being as resilient as another with fewer obstacles to overcome. Accordingly, in terms of the human context, resilience also refers to an individual’s or community’s access to support. This is based upon building relationships of trust that can be accessed in times of crisis. According to Charles Edwards,

everyday resilience is created and sustained through conversations and relationships that tie individuals and communities together. It is a latent force… in the sense that one does not necessarily recognize its properties until emergency occurs.[3]

This means that through positive engagement and interaction with others, strong bonds can form. In turn, the connection individuals feel towards others in their communities will also grow. As a result, this will create a community that is able to cope in healthier ways when faced with adversity, which is more sustainable.


Diversity Versus Plurality

Though humanity has always been diverse, never before have we been so connected. As we fill our growing salad bowl of cultures, traditions and ways of knowing, we must come to terms with the fact that encountering one another’s ideas and values will be inevitable. Even more so, we are faced with looking within and justifying our own beliefs and values to both ourselves and others. I approach this subject with the metaphor of a salad bowl rather than a melting pot because a salad bowl is filled with many ingredients that remain separate; and, each flavor is celebrated for what it is. This is in contrast to the idea of a melting pot, whereby the ingredients are mixed together. The flavors infuse into one another; and, to some degree, it is more difficult to discern each flavor. This is the primary difference between diversity and pluralism. This point is further emphasized in the book entitled, Building the Interfaith Youth Movement: Beyond Dialogue to Action, in which author Eboo Patel makes a very important distinction between the two terms,

mere diversity… is simply the fact of people from different backgrounds living in proximity to each other. Pluralism, on the other hand is when people from    different backgrounds seek mutual understanding and positive cooperation. [4]

The need for all communities within a diverse society to take responsibility for embracing a common life while maintaining their uniqueness is a modern issue with which we must grapple. However, we must avoid the idea of creating a mono-religion because it goes against principles of free will and agency, as author Harold G. Coward illustrates in Pluralism in the World Religions: A Short Introduction,

“[a] universal religion would amount to religious coercion. Unity without diversity leads to a denial of freedom. Accordingly, plurality in matters of faith and morals should be accepted.”[5]

It should be further stressed that although religious pluralism can be trying and difficult, it can also serve as an opportunity for a spiritual evolution.




Religious Literacy

As humanity becomes increasingly connected through globalization and digital media, a new religion is on the rise. Every day, more and more people are being indoctrinated into the religion of hate. The ideology of “us versus them” is the language of the religious illiterate, and, it is this ignorance that often exacerbates religious extremism around the world. Unfamiliarity with different cultures or ways of knowing often leads to “Othering,” which can provoke hostility and contribute to misunderstandings. In this way prejudice, myths and misunderstandings create invisible boundaries that keep people, even neighbors and families, divided. This has been eloquently emphasized by Herbert V. Guenther, author of “The Tantric View of Life,”

[h]ostility is an emotion that introduces a division where there is none, and its association with perceptual abstraction, the capacity to recognize similarities and, above all, differences among sensible particulars, shows that it thrives in the unremitting cold and bleakness of a frozen wasteland – categorical perception. [6]

It is for this reason that religious literacy is important. In contextualizing the “Other,” even those who do not see themselves as being religious, for what they are, we can make better inferences about the world around us.

To begin, the term ‘religion’ comes from the Latin root religare, which means to “tie or bind together.”[7] This refers to binding oneself to something or taking an oath;[8] furthermore, it is deeply personal and has been connected to how one occupies their time when they are alone. Religion gives people the ability to categorize the world; and may have to do with God, spirituality, community or service. To some extent, it is also connected to cultural identity and is a potential source of strength and self-assertion. Those who feel threatened, excluded or discriminated against often turn to religion as a source of stability and an expression of that which is indisputable. In this way, religion becomes a coping mechanism. In addition to this, violence is often times attributed to it. An example of this is when attacks are perpetrated against places of worship or representatives of particular faith traditions. These assaults are typically connected to the manipulation of religion, religious identity, feelings and symbols. Religion is known to appeal to the heart and can be a strong ethically motivating force. As a result, this can influence conflict or activism; the outcome of which can be either negative or positive. Furthermore, it attempts to provide answers to the fundamental questions of human existence and the very meaning of life.

One possibility of a positive outcome from having an authentic religious encounter is that those engaged in a meaningful dialogue will invariably recognize the universal messages that are contained in all religious traditions, or ways of knowing. Often times the similarities are so great that it can become difficult to discern where one tradition begins and the next leaves off. In a verse of the Qur’an, in the chapter entitled, The Dwellings, God says,

Oh mankind! We created you from a single [pair] of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other [not that ye may despise each other]. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is [he who is] the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted with all things.[9]

In another verse, in the chapter entitled Abraham, God says: “Have you not considered how God presents an example, [making] a good word like a good tree, whose root is firmly fixed and its branches [high] in the sky.”[10] According to these two verses, it is God’s will that there is diversity in the world. Therefore, our differences should not be taken as weakness, but rather strength. In the Qur’an God does not say what type of tree this is, but if I were to take a guess, I would say that He is talking about the banyan tree. One tree alone can be the size of a forest. In a matured tree, no one can tell where the center is or where the original trunk stands. It spreads through aerial roots that shoot down and stabilize into the ground. As the ‘forest’ ages, the trunks become so numerous that it becomes a jungle like maze. As such, the banyan tree becomes an allegory for the plurality of religions and can help us understand diversity. Furthermore, the ‘good words’ that are mentioned in the Qur’an can be interpreted as the universal messages in all religions being firmly rooted in the ground and serve to make the world a better place. Additionally, the good words that are mentioned in chapter Abraham can be interpreted to be referring to other things as well; such as, being kind and gentle and speaking the truth. Just as the roots of a healthy tree will stabilize in the ground so too will strong bonds between people when they have an authentic religious encounter. An authentic religious encounter boils down to good communication. When you have this, you will create a platform for better understanding.


Authentic Inter-religious Encounters

There are various factors that have contributed to the presence of distrust, dis-ease and difference between cultures and people today. At the macro level, there has been an increased polarization between the upper class and everyone else. The growing wage gap, along with the surmounting systemic inequalities and injustices in all parts of the world is leaving many with the feeling of helplessness. This has caused an increase in anger and frustration from those at the lower end of the economic spectrum; and, sometimes pushback through violent force or various forms of radicalism is the result. However, individual people can help alleviate the weight of these issues at the micro level. Building and strengthening relationships between groups and individuals can help counter some of the negative outcomes that often accompany injustice. The relationships that are built on the micro level can spread and eventually affect change on the macro level. As such, resilient communities are the direct outcome of relationship building.

Relationships may only come to fruition through an interaction or engagement. These engagements can take various forms, such as, verbal, symbolic or concrete interactions between individuals or groups of the same or different communities. In addition to this, they can also take place publicly, privately or secretly. It is imperative to recognize that the religious “Other” is often the source of an individual’s discomfort and disengagement from neighbors and colleagues of differing backgrounds. Previously held biases or the fear of the unknown or insulting another’s culture, are just some of the reasons that a person will keep their distance. The proposed method for moving past this is through engagement and dialogue. This is particularly true for religious dialogue, which is a meeting place between two or more faith traditions. Specifically, dialogue has been described in the following way by Lissi Rassmussen,

The prefix dia- indicates that two or more persons relate to each other across certain differences. Today there is considerable interplay between people across national and regional borders and ethnic and religious identities, and it becomes ever more imprecise to speak of encounters between two or more cultures and religions. The encounter takes place not only between human beings but also within each person.[11]

For the sake of creating a cohesive interchange between traditions it is imperative that there be a level of, “doctrinal humility and hospitality or receptivity towards the truth of other religions.”[12]  This means that each side must temporarily let go of their ego and the need to be right. Furthermore, in order for a positive exchange in interreligious dialogue to manifest, each individual must respectfully acknowledge the boundaries and attachment of the other to differing traditions. As such, the various aspects of a faith tradition, including: histories, worldviews, doctrines, rituals and schools of thought, provide the roots of engagement with one another.

In order for the interaction to be meaningful it must also be authentic. Consequently, there needs to be a genuine willingness on both sides to let down the invisible barriers that become activated when such interchanges take place. An important element of the authenticity that is needed to build the relationship, is using language that invites and gives others room to be sincere. Furthermore, “[d]ialogue is a process, which must be owned by both parties. One has to be prepared for opposition from other believers, from polemical writings and from networks of opposition.” [13] This means that implicit tourism is not enough. We need to go to a deeper level to become literate and gain a deeper understanding of the religious “Other.” Making space for others to be authentic ultimately means that an individual must learn to live with tension. Accordingly, a true interchange will not be achieved without discomfort. It will force the participants to look within and acknowledge and justify their own convictions while accepting and validating the truth of the “Other.” Furthermore, inter-religious dialogue should not merely be seen as a friendly exchange of  information, it also includes elements of learning and in some cases, argumentation.

[M]ere diversity… is simply the fact of people from different backgrounds living in proximity to each other. Pluralism, on the other hand is when people from different backgrounds seek mutual understanding and positive cooperation. [14]

The key to creating pluralism through engagement is to bring people together through storytelling and various types of interactions. Furthermore, through finding commonalities bridges can be built between communities. However, it must be mentioned that although an encounter can be well-intentioned and affirming, it can also be adversarial, and one sided. In addition to this, “[a]nother common feature observed in our study is the practice of responding to the challenge of pluralism by superimposing one’s own criteria of validity upon the other religions.”[15] This includes missionary activity whereby the ideology of one participant is superimposed on the other with the intention of converting them. However, as long as the encounter itself forces a modification of boundary, it is possible for the other to be seen as they are rather than how we expect or perceive them to be.





Increasing instances of globalization and technology have made a shrinking world that much smaller. Diversity is a current reality in communities around North America. One outcome of this is that people from different faith groups often cut themselves off from others. This is due to many factors, some of which are positive, such as, in an effort to preserving traditions and culture; other factors, however, can also be negative such as, fear of the “Other.” One result of “Othering,” is that stereotypes are created as a way to categorize and make sense of our world. This has become increasingly problematic because human beings are dynamic creatures that are constantly growing, changing, and, sometimes even regressing. Learning about the religious “Other,” is a necessary response to our ever changing social environment and has become more important than ever. In doing so, we can move from diversity to plurality, and, in turn, build strong relationships and bonds will transform our communities into resilient safe spaces in which people can thrive.

            Resilience is shaped and maintained through conversations and relationships that connect individuals and communities to one another. Being resilient is being able to adapt and maintain yourself in the middle road. This means that you are connected to your values and traditions yet you accept and acknowledge the right of others to live their truth also. The most effective way to achieve healthy and strong communities is through authentic interreligious encounters. Furthermore, in order to build bridges between faith communities, individuals must use their intellect and have a genuine and sincere intention to learn and connect with others.

As previously mentioned, in order to build safe and strong communities they must be empowered with resilience; which is based on the strength of relationships. Building relationships and creating bonds with people from differing religious backgrounds does not only create more openness, warmth and acceptance between the people of the converging religions, but, also for people of other faiths. However, negative interactions can create the opposite affect and can be counter-productive to dialogue.

There are some recommendations that I have found that would be good catalysts in increasing instances of connection in our communities. The first of which is to create safe spaces that are open to people of all faith traditions, including humanist and atheist groups. The purpose of these groups should be to work collectively on a project that will celebrate religious plurality. Secondly, there is a need for a public or common language that is inviting and gives space so that everyone can be authentic and genuine. Thirdly, those individuals that are interested in creating resilient communities should attend lectures and programs. Conferences like the North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) are good because they are conducive to many learning styles and there are different formats to engage in. Furthermore, there is a common goal of which everyone is aware which gives people a non-threatening space to meet. Finally, the last recommendation I have is to share meals together. There is something magical in breaking bread with others. It brings about joy and creates a space that is comfortable for all. In Arabic one word that is used for bread is “aish,” which actually means life. Sharing bread is sharing life.


Salam alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh



[1] Press, The Associated. “How Many Species on Earth? 8.8 Million – Technology & Science – CBC News. “CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 24 Aug. 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

[2] Pg 9. Levi, Ken. Violence and Religious Commitment: Implications of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple Movement. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1982. Print.

[3] Pg unknown. Edwards, Charlie. Resilient Nation. London: Demos, 2009. Print.

[4] Pg. 18 Patel, Eboo, and Patrice Brodeur. Building the Interfaith Youth Movement: Beyond Dialogue to Action. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Print.

[5] Pg 141 Coward, Harold G. Pluralism in the World Religions: A Short Introduction. Oxford, English: Oneworld Publications, 2000. Print.

[6] Pg. 54 Guenther, Herbert V. The Tantric View of Life. Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 1976. Print.

[7] Pg. 111 Eberle, Gary. Dangerous Words: Talking about God in an Age of Fundamentalism. Boston, MS: Trumpeter, 2007. Print.

[8] Pg. 120. Blood, Barry E. Sr. Christian Dogma: The 21st Century Perspective. Longwood, FL: Xulon, 2004. Print.

[9] Chapter 49 verse 13. Emphasis mine.

[10] Chapter 14 verse 24. Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary. Brentwood, MD: Amana,              1983. Print.

[11] Pg 178. Rasmussen, Lissi. Bridges Instead of Walls: Christian-Muslim Interaction in Denmark, Indonesia and Nigeria. Minneapolis, MN: Lutheran UP, 2007. Print

[12] Pg 331. Cornille, Catherine.

[13] Pg 177 Rasmussen, Lissi.

[14] Pg. 18 Patel, Eboo, and Patrice Brodeur. Building the Interfaith Youth Movement: Beyond Dialogue to Action. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Print.

[15] Pg. 143 Coward, Harold G. Pluralism in the World Religions: A Short Introduction. Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, 2000. Print.



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