One of the things I hope to study when I go to graduate school on the army's dime this fall are what models exist for fruitful dialogue between Christians and Moslems. A copy of the United Church Observer crossed my desk at work last week and contained a short but fascinating interview with Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. Taylor has made a career looking at issues of pluralism, secularism, faith, and social cohesiveness. In this interview, he deploys the metaphor of the prairie firebreak to describe how friendships between faiths and groups can check prejudice and friendship.
"But it’s another way of trying to fight against the growth of these absurd stereotypes that can easily circulate in society and that stand in the way of our living together. . . . For instance, if you learn something about Islam, the diversity is just incredible. And if somebody then said to you, “All Muslims are the same,” you would say otherwise. This kind of measure is essential.
Q Can you elaborate?
A The image that I’ve often used is the image of the firebreak. When a prairie fire breaks out and somebody builds a ditch, the fire can’t jump over. Any friendship across these differences is a kind of mini-firebreak. They’re as irrational as prairie fires, these kinds of mobilizations [of hate]. We have to find a way of creating firebreaks. It’s possible to teach with deep respect things that you don’t yourself believe in. When I was an undergraduate at McGill, there was a guy called William Cantwell Smith who was my teacher. He blew my mind. I was studying honours history, back in 1949. I had to take an optional course, and I took his course in comparative religions. No rhetoric —he wore a gown and walked up and down, and he was just extraordinary, just inspiring. A United Church minister. He had this fantastic understanding of Islam, particularly. He managed to make it live for us.
Q Interfaith dialogue can be challenging. In Christian-Jewish dialogue, even if people have known each other for years and are able to talk about many things, when you get to the difficult topics, such as the politics in Israel and the West Bank settlements, dialogue is very hard.
A Often people don’t say what they really think about the other. [We have] what I call pacifying dialogues to convince each other that we aren’t total enemies of the other, but they aren’t the kind of things that are enriching or appealing or create deeper friendships. You have to be able to say, “I find this belief of yours very perplexing,” or, “I think this is a questionable moral position that you guys are taking. I don’t want to score points against you. I really want to understand.” What makes that possible is when you’re talking unofficially as friends. I go back to these cases in schools. Kids who are in school together from diverse backgrounds can’t diabolize each other, can’t see their friends in that light. This is because their friendship evolves in a way where nobody is a representative of their group."
Taylor, along with evangelist Leslie Newbiggin and William Cantwell Smith, are three chaps going on my reading list this summer as I get ready to go back to school.