What Does Interfaith Dialogue Teach Us About Collaboration?


Thumbnail In this post, Dr. Christy Lohr Sapp, Associate Dean for Religious Life, shares her thoughts on collaboration and relationship building as important components of interfaith dialogue.  â€˜Collaboration’ is a noted dimension of the Duke University Leadership Framework.     

 A Muslim friend of mine tells a story about the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and the Kaaba, the holy site of prayer in Mecca:  When Muslims pray (anywhere they find themselves in the world), they do so facing in the direction of the Kaaba.  At one time, however, the Kaaba was damaged by fire, and the clans of Mecca were working together to restore the structure.  They got to the point that one stone remained to be put in place and began to quarrel among themselves about who should receive the honor of placing the final cornerstone.  They asked a passerby to settle the question for them, and Muhammad happened to be approaching.  He asked the elders to bring him a cloth and placed the stone in the middle of it.  He then had a leader from each tribe take one corner of the cloth.  Together they lifted the stone and carried it to its spot while Muhammad guided it into place.  In this way, every clan played a role in restoring the Kaaba to glory. Interfaith dialogue is a lot like that cloth and stone: it works best when people come to it as equal partners willing to collaborate and learn from each other.  The etymology of the word speaks to the collaboration that occurs through the act of dialogue.  It comes from two Greek roots dia and logos.  Dia translates as through, between or across, and logos as word.  Thus, dialogue is what allows us to build connections through our words.  In this way, dialogue becomes more about effective communication and understanding than it is about making a point or winning an argument.  Dialogue is not debate. It does not have winners or losers, but everyone involved comes out richer for the experience.   My favorite moments in dialogue come when a little light bulb goes off that indicates that participants have learned something new or gained a deeper understanding themselves, their own rituals or their neighbor’s faith.  When two people who believe themselves to be quite different theologically and ideologically come to realize that they share a belief in common, or when two groups learn that they both prioritize similar values in their daily lives, these are the times that dialogue moves from conversation to collaboration.  These are the moments when we deepen our appreciation for difference – seeing it as blessing rather than an obstacle.  When that collaboration compels participants to work together for a common goal, the dialogue comes alive.   In interfaith dialogue we open ourselves to the adventure of learning something about the perspectives, beliefs and cultures of friends from different religious traditions while also entering into the risky proposition of revealing a bit of ourselves.  There is give and take, sharing and receiving.  In the end, this is about relationship building which, much like the placement of the black stone at the eastern corner of the Kaaba, is ultimately all about collaboration.