Authentic Dialogue

Yesterday, we were privileged to welcome Neil Willard, rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Edina, as the speaker at the Weekly Manna gathering at the law school. Neil has become a recognizable figure at the law school, as he as participated in a number of our retreats and other programs over this past year. So I had been looking forward to hearing him speak…and I was not disappointed.

Neil’s subject was how we bring forth our faith in an ecumenical and interfaith setting. Too often, he suggested, interactions between people of different faiths involve suppressing differences and watering down individuals’ expressions of their faith. He described experiencing some interfaith prayer services that seemed dull to him because of the participants’ fear of offending each other, leading to a blandness on what was left to say after everything else was excluded.

Neil powerfully described an experience of being the newest clergy member on Hilton Head and therefore expected to deliver the sermon at a pre-Thanksgiving prayer service. Although he had been given to understand that the service was an ecumenical one (thus involving only Christians, albeit of different denominations), he learned only minutes before the service began that it was interfaith (and therefore including non-Christians).

Not surprisingly, his sermon included references to Jesus Christ. Learning what he did at the last minute forced Neil to consider what to do – deliver the sermon he had planned or try to do something at the last minute to remove Christian images that might offend the non-Christians present. He concluded that to be authentic – to be who he was – he needed to deliver the sermon he had prepared.

And the moral of his talk can be summed up in that – that we must be who we are. That for interfaith discussions to be meaningful, we need to be authentically ourselves, to bring our whole selves to the conversation. We cannot have meaningful interfaith dialogue unless we bring our differences to the table rather than pretend they don’t exist. As Neil put it, we need to act with faith, and then talk about it.

Sound advice.