Discussing Religious Difference

With the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Pope meeting in Jerusalem May 23-27, 2014  (for more information go to and, the issue of religious difference and dialogue will surely be on the minds of religious educators and youth ministers.

How should we deal the many topics that this event raises? For the purposes of discussion, and in the spirit of the meeting in Jerusalem, I’ll use the Roman Catholic Church as the example for discussing the issue with young people, but the principles should apply to discussing all sorts of religious difference.

First, remember the family context of the young people. Most likely, they live in religiously mixed households and families. The level of mixing could stagger you. One parent may still be Roman Catholic. If that parent has embraced Orthodox Christianity, that still means that one side of the family will be Roman Catholic – a set of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Other relatives may have married people from other Christian communities as well. This means that the tone of the discussion matters. Saying something harsh about Roman Catholics means saying something harsh about a beloved grandparent or other family member. As others have written, it’s very hard to disrespect another religion once you have family members who belong to it.

Remember the social context. Our young people live in religiously mixed neighborhoods and attend religiously mixed schools. Their friends, schoolmates, and teammates most likely belong to various religions. They may talk about their churches and places of worship, and their different religious traditions and stories. Once, I overheard a Jewish boy explaining a holiday to his Christian friends. The Christian boys started asking questions and comparing notes to Christian holidays. They all got their stories mixed up – the way nine-year-olds usually do – but these conversations are happening. Religious dialogue begins on the playground or in the carpool on the way to soccer practice!

This points to some principles to consider.

Form religious identity from the youngest age. The youngsters I overheard knew that they were Christians and Jews. They didn’t know too much or understand it very well, but they had a sense of their religious identities. They didn’t know too much about the other religions, which may be a good thing at that age. Exposing youngsters to too much difference too soon can be confusing. They don’t have the capacity to do too much comparative thinking. They can handle that not all people belong to the same religion or believe the same “things”. They can handle that we respect people of different religious beliefs, that they can be our friends and we can talk about our religious differences.

In the Orthodox context, emphasize that Orthodox and Christian go together for us and that ethnic identity may be a part of this, but that not all Orthodox Christians belong to your ethnic group. “Orthodox” helps us to understand what kind of Christians we are and that this is different from “Roman Catholic” Christians. Orthodox is the adjective before the noun. But we are both Christians.

Language and Information Matter. We should be careful about the language we use to talk about Roman Catholic Christians. We should present Roman Catholic Christianity in a way that Roman Catholics would present themselves; when we speak about Roman Catholics, we should do so in terms that a Roman Catholic would understand and accept as accurate. That means avoiding caricatures and stereotypes. That means avoiding out of date information. And that means, of course, avoiding derogatory terms.

With teens and adults, when religious identity is much more secure, honest comparisons are possible and very good learning experiences. This is a good time for engaging in religious dialogue at the parish level, visiting different religious communities, meeting and seriously talking about what is shared and what separates religious communities. Religious practices are very good discussion topics, since all religions teach about prayer; hold to religious disciplines like fasting; and promote philanthropy, charity, and social action. Doctrinal and dogmatic beliefs are also good conversation topics, but admittedly, these require more knowledge on the part of all involved, thus making them more difficult.

Avoid “relativism” and “triumphalism.” The conclusions of any encounter shouldn’t end with, “Religious difference doesn’t matter,” “It’s all the same,” or “Our Church is much better than their Church.” There are differences still between Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics. The questions become whether or not the differences are enough to keep us apart, and whether they are essential to Christian faith, as well as about where the areas of agreement exist between us, and about how can we work on the areas of disagreement. All religions can find flaws in how their adherents – specific individuals in different periods of history – have expressed and lived their faith and how they have treated those who are religiously “other.” Admittedly, this is a fine line to walk, but the spirit of the discussion – friendly, respectful, honest – is as important as the conversations that partners seek to study together.

His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in an address at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin said…..

The Importance of Interfaith Dialogue

We hear it stated often that our world is in crisis. Yet, never before in history have human beings had the opportunity to bring so many positive changes to so many people simply through encounter and dialogue. While it may be true that this is a time of crisis, it must equally be underlined that there has also never been greater tolerance for respective traditions, religious preferences and cultural peculiarities.

This does not mean that differences on the level of doctrine are insignificant or inconsequential; for, a difference on the level of doctrine leads to a different worldview and, accordingly, a different way of life. Accordingly, then, we do not approach dialogue in order to set our arguments against those of our opponents in the framework of conflict. We approach in a spirit of love, sincerity and honesty. In this respect, dialogue implies equality, which in turn implies humility. Honesty and humility dispel hostility and arrogance. Just how prepared are we in dialogue to respect others in dialogue? How willing are we to learn and to love? If we are neither prepared to receive nor willing to learn, then are we truly engaging in dialogue? Or are we actually conducting a monologue?

True dialogue is in fact a gift from God. According to St. John Chrysostom, fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople, God is always in personal dialogue with human beings. God always speaks: through Prophets and Apostles, through saints and mystics, even through the natural creation itself; for, “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19.1). Dialogue is the most fundamental experience of life and most powerful means of communication. Dialogue promotes knowledge, abolishes fears and prejudice, and broadens horizons. Dialogue enriches; whoever refuses dialogue remains impoverished. Finally, dialogue seeks persuasion, not coercion. This is why interfaith dialogue is crucial.

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