Context/Content/Community: Teaching Interfaith Dialogue as a Quaker

Rebecca Mays


In 2006, a Quaker-style ‘leading’ came out of a time of gathered worship; I felt I heard a direction to “go and learn how they know of me.”

I had been doing a Quaker-Jewish interreligious dialogue with a woman rabbi in the Jewish renewal movement for about a decade at that time and so I heard “they” as Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus in that order. I heard “know” as seek knowledge I did not have, so I accepted a PhD scholarship to study with Professor Leonard Swidler at Temple (please see Works Consulted) where he has taught interreligious dialogue for fifty years. I heard “me” as the transcendent being I address as God.

Having completed the MA in religious studies in the spring of 2012, Professor Swidler asked me to serve as director for the Dialogue Institute he had founded to link the academic journal, the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, with grassroots work to facilitate dialogue among persons of differing religious traditions. The opportunity to do that facilitation and teaching came in the form of a grant from the U.S. State Department to teach religious pluralism and democracy to a cohort of twenty students from the Middle East in the summer and another twenty from southeast Asia in the winter. These international college-aged youth have become my teaching/learning community over the past six years.

An incident in a class called “Jesus in Islam” at the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia helped prepare me for this particular piece of interreligious dialogue work. I sat listening to a member of the Ahmadiyya sect of Muslims explain a Qur’anic view of how Jesus’ disciples, understanding the swoon just before one dies of crucifixion, asked for Jesus’ body from the soldiers before he actually died. These disciples, he explained, were then responsible for his healing and travel to Kashmir, where he lived out a life of happy marriage and family.

My first response to this belief came in the form of tears as I was swept up in a feeling of compassion. Perhaps my personal savior Jesus, whom I love, may not have had to suffer as much as I had always thought. I was stunned by my response – that I was not instantly resistant to a belief so dissonant to my own. I give thanks to my thirty years of Quaker worship for that response with its emphasis on listening for that of God in everyone. Beneath his and my interpretation was still the rootedness in our common view of God’s love at work among persons.

The resistance came later: How were we to agree to disagree, though, on the content of our beliefs? How could we know of one another when even language did not help? How do I hold to a lived religious experience I cannot deny that is so contrary to that of another? How do I refrain from judging ‘the other’ as wrong? Perhaps the major critique of religious pluralism I have heard from the students was correct: that if one opens to substantive differences, one’s own religious beliefs will be weakened and perhaps even disappear.

In response to these questions and fear, I want to name four major contributions from the Quaker tradition which I’ve used in teaching religious pluralism that could help face such existential differences without compromising distinct convictions. I then ground these practices in the experiences of interfaith dialogue with the international students I have met from: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Philippines, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

Only two or three out of the nearly 200 of these international students are “NONES” who espouse spirituality without being religious; the majority are “radical devotees” mostly of Islam, then Buddhism, some Hindu and some evangelical, Coptic, and Maronite Christians. They are young people who want to be good and to do good as global citizens, engaged and happy with modernity; yet, the majority do not want to lose the depth of their religious foundation for life’s meaning or their ties with traditional families.

These religious devotees often bring with them suspicions of the State Department’s motives, and fear of “liberalism” and “secularism.” A few just want an item for their CV and we don’t hear from them again. But they all bring a desire to be leaders, helping to create peaceful relations with neighbors and government.

In this context, how can we engage both the conviction of one’s own religious tradition and the desire to to enjoy the benefits of being a modern, global citizen unafraid of neighbors who are unfamiliar and different?

Three quick examples from the students illustrate the challenge and opportunity: 1) a Muslim young man from a rural island whose hadith lineage would not allow him to enter the sanctuary of a Christian church if a cross stood in the sanctuary; 2) a young Buddhist scholar who argued that the Rohingyah young woman in the group should not call herself by that name as that ethnic group as such has never existed in Myanmar; or 3) a Muslim young woman who could not room with our one transgendered participant.


I have had to turn back into my own adult Quaker tradition to ground myself in the face of what, as these examples suggest, has seemed impossible at times. The first contribution came from my encounter with the peace testimony of the Religious Society of Friends. Raised in the south among Republicans who served in the military, I had to read and study and ask hard questions when I came among Quakers. Sandra Cronk was my spiritual director when facing those questions. She had a PhD from Chicago and was a gifted Quaker minister and teacher who mostly listened and asked questions. Her pamphlet, Peace Be with you: A Study of the spiritual basis of the Friends peace testimony, was one of the first places I have rerooted since starting the interreligious studies work. She taught and wrote that the “peaceable kingdom” was the goal and process of Friends peace testimony. “It is an expression of God’s power bringing healing and wholeness to every part of our hurt and alienated lives: our inequitable and unjust socio-economic structures, our discordant community affairs, our broken interpersonal relationships, and our guilt-ridden or defensive interior lives. Underlying all the rest is the restoration of our ruptured relationship with God.” (Cronk)

Because of an experience of this power that treats life itself as sacrament, she asserted, Quakers live life as a “testimony” in which they eschew sharp divides between the sacred and the secular. This bridging assumption is a contribution to the study of religion that has long seen those categories as conventional. To erase or suspend this distinction moderates many post-modern discussions about power, rights and responsibilities, rendering them less destructive of communal identities and what is increasingly called civic engagement and social entrepreneurship.

A result of this first contribution has been the second: a focus on lived experience rather than creed. In our program’s leadership workshop, this theological practice undergirds dialogue skills for communicating. We emphasize “appreciative inquiry,” “reflective listening,” and noticing our resistances or what we call “red flags” to encourage speaking and listening to actual experiences the students have had.

In using these skills again and again, we ask each other the question: “And what has been your lived experience of what you just claimed?” Early Friends would ask: “Do you possess what you profess?” Or, “how has Truth prospered in you?”

Most important is giving permission to have “red flags.” Students are encouraged to notice in themselves when a statement or an action of another contradicts learned behaviors in their home families and schools. These resistances are to be trusted as grounds for reflection on the conviction, stereotype, assumption that is moving them to resist.

This growing self-awareness leads to dialogue that can require what Friends have called plain speaking, speaking with the exact details rather than in overarching concepts. With practice comes courage to share core convictions and their source in a way that builds community through knowing and being known rather than by a common creed.

A third contribution I draw from Robert Barclay’s 5th and 6th propositions in his early Quaker theological treatise The Apology: “There is an evangelical and saving light and grace in everyone, and the love and mercy of God toward humankind were universal, both in the death of his beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the manifestation of the light in the heart.”

We relate to difference by trusting God’s compassion for whatever that difference may be, by trusting the light enclosed in what Barclay called the universal vehiculum dei. The “other” bears responsibility for responding to the breaking open of “the seed” carried in this “God car” (the exact translation of the Latin). The ‘other’ is not ours to own, to convince, or to persuade to be like me in order for our community to thrive; and yet, we are obligated to bear witness to how an inward manifestation of love and mercy has worked in our experience. (Barclay)

    As a Christian, I find here an inclusive Christology that is relational and personal without being manipulative, exploitive, or commandeering. This Christology sets up a stance in interfaith work I would call “paying attention” to “that of God” at work in one’s self and in the ‘other.’ Mel Keiser, Quaker theologian and former professor at Guilford college, explicates this interpretation of Barclay in Volume 5, Issue 2 (2001) of Quaker Studies. He sees a relational theology in Barclay’s propositions that is not dualistic, but rather based on a relationship in which individuals choose to open to the “grace” carried within the “God car” inside.

“This is a vehicle or a medium, or what [Barclay] calls ‘the organ or instrument of God,’” Keiser writes, quoting Barclay, “It is ‘a spiritual, heavenly, and invisible principle, in which God, as Father, Son and Spirit, dwells; a measure of which divine and glorious life is in all men [and women] as a seed, which of its own nature, draws, invites, and inclines to God.’ The biblical portrait of Christ reveals what is revealed within each person, but it is only the inward revelation, the inward taste, within each person that saves, not the knowledge of Jesus as the historical revelation of God,” Keiser concludes. (Keiser)

Proceeding from these premises, my responsibility is not to convert the other but to trust that this “seed” is there in everyone, theist and nontheist. Their own self-awareness will open and flourish in a way I can trust whom I call God to handle; I simply need to be faithful to what the “seed” of God is producing in relationship, whether positive or negative. It is this interest in the experience of ‘the other’ and the listening for where the words come from that is the heart of building an interfaith community.

Here is an example of this communal practice from the student groups. A Muslim woman from Turkey and an Evangelical Christian man from Malaysia were in visible distress hearing two LGBT speakers describe their rights and responsibilities in American culture. I invited the two of them into a time of natural quiet and speaking out of that quiet after the presentation. They were grateful and began to speak slowly of their discomfort at what for them were convictional errors; yet, they wanted to respect these people.

I just listened without giving advice, answering certain basic questions they posed as gently as I could. I then asked that we meet again after a day or two, urging them to continue to reflect on what they had shared. At that next meeting, the Malaysian man had found all the scripture passages to bolster his conviction, but said that he read them now in a different light because he also now knew a person who challenged for him what he read. He said he knew the scripture also told him he was to love this neighbor and so he did not want to put up a defense against this person. He decided to take his questions about how to interpret contradictory passages of scripture back to his pastor and at least open the conversation.

The Muslim woman spoke about how she had realized at home in Turkey how important it was for her to be free to choose to wear her headscarf; she reported that she was wondering whether the gay and lesbian individuals she had met were really just wanting this same freedom of choice. She thought so, but she would have to speak with her imam about whether she could think that way.

I chose to listen and to affirm their insights and their process, seeing through a relational lens such as Barclay describes wherein each was feeling/knowing the stirrings carried within their “God car.” I did not need them to come to a certain conclusion; the process of change happens organically and simply needs support. That which is near them they call God will guide them. What is mine to do is to provide a compassionate view of reality.

Herein lies the fourth contribution of Friends: a productive use of silence and the discernment it nurtures. When students faced their moments of cognitive dissonance, I explained about the value of silence when one felt he or she did not know what to think but felt a resistance. I spoke nontheologically about the value of waiting out the discomfort and simply noticing what wanted next to come. Often new insights emerged, new ways of integrating the experiences of what was unfamiliar and threatening. I found myself reconvinced of just how powerful a nonjudgmental, nondefensive silence or learning/listening stance can be. Learning of a different order than having the right answer becomes possible.

Jeff Dudiak, Quaker philosopher, in his study of Emmanuel Levinas entitled The Intrigue of Ethics: A Reading of the Idea of Discourse in the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy) has pointed out the impasse in doing dialogue – that the very word assumes a reasoned “logos,” assumes enough common language and rational thought to do a discourse. Having the “right answer” depends on a common experiential language and culture. But what if there isn’t a “common language” for such discourse. (Dudiak) What then? In confronting the differences I faced in myself and that these young adults face, there is no common language and some experiences are hard to rationalize or analyze with ease at the level of language.

In such an impasse, we can often help create the conditions for truth to surface by acknowledging the lack of common understanding, and naming it as permissible and fecund. I have come to call the creation of this space an apophatic approach, that is, a way of entering the conversational darkness to doing dialogue. In this space one can welcome unknowing, emptiness, pregnant pauses, even dark haunting feelings as part of the conversation. To trust one’s resistances can bring one to a deeper understanding of one’s tradition as well as to confront unresolved questions, fears, and conflicts. With this awareness, one then can often gain some greater awareness of who the self is and who the neighbor really is without doing violence to one another.

Perhaps this openness to the confusion, the lack of knowledge, and the need for wisdom is what George Fox, 17th century Quaker minister, meant when he exhorted Friends in the ministry “to awaken the witness, confounding deceit. . . .Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone” (Nickalls)

Among the dozens of young people I’ve come to know in the last six years, none had ever heard of Quakerism or met a Quaker. And yet they grow from their experiential learning using practices Quakers cherish: “testimonies” that unite the sacred and secular realms of lived experience; a view of the transcendent that keeps us in harmony or at least comity with nonQuaker traditions; and trust in silence and waiting as sources of discernment for learning how to make respectful connections.

Opening to the ‘other’ does not require them to know Quakers; rather, I felt required to know my own tradition well enough to find what in it compels respect for difference in addition to appreciation for what we hold in common.


Can these practices, as incorporated into the teaching of religious pluralism, help deepen one’s own faith without defensive boundaries; without compromising one’s convictions? Can they help to create a nonviolent community where radical difference is complementary and instructive, not divisive? To the degree that such is possible, community will be created within a religious tradition as well as between and among differing traditions. I am inspired by Mary Pennington in that she knew a vision “to signify to us some great matter and glorious appearance; more glorious than the Quakers at their first coming forth.” I trust these young people from a wide range of traditions to deepen their faith as they face the struggles between religion and state in each of their countries. I trust the ones who leave religion behind still to build just and peaceful behaviors into their personal and professional lives.

In the meantime, I hope the engagement with interfaith challenges could return to Quakers a deepening of their own community. The tenor of divisions and splits among some American yearly meetings has grown acrimonious. Interfaith engagement calls for a devotional humility and patience. Could such difficult but rich interreligious dialogue work give our community renewed trust in its own differences? My experiences lead me to believe so. To the degree we Quakers can exhibit comity, we model a witness for how other communities of faith can allow differences to be examined. The differences point to new learnings that will be needed to face a changing future. Change is inevitable; how do we prepare for, recognize, and grow into that which is happening?

The work of interfaith studies, a new discipline in colleges and universities, faces similar questions. KAICIID, a center for dialogue established by the former King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia, has researched and named 420 centers worldwide that are now engaged in this interfaith work. The proximity of neighbors is now intimate and boundaries very permeable. Many colleges or universities can now approach the questions in concert with these grassroots centers, to help nurture local communities in the skills of interfaith leadership, like those we strive to develop in youth through the state department program on religious pluralism. Wherever it is happening, this interfaith work can help foster a compassionate view of reality, nondefensive learning and nonviolence in our communities or worship, our learning, and our service of the common good.  

Practitioners and scholars generally agree that this interfaith movement in modern times opened with the 1893 Parliament of the World Religions in Chicago, a gathering in which Quakers were active. The most recent Parliament gathered in October 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah with 10,000 present. While the work, however, is in its second century, the principle concerns from the first Parliament seem more urgent than ever. In Interfaith Encounters, interfaith scholar and activist Alan Race summarizes those concerns:

1) The struggle of “interreligion” with the “absence of religion” in modern secularism; 2) the need to overcome the historic connection between religious disagreement and violence; 3) religion as a liberating and motivating force for good in the world; 4) the significance of the Golden Rule and its equivalents as a potential focus for citizens in each country to help create and to implement a global ethic; 5) the problematics of absolutism in commitment to a particular religious path versus the relativism of granting parity of value to all; 6) the possibility of a mystical unity of the religions.

In his work, Race coined the terms “exclusivist,” “inclusivist,” and “pluralist” to signify, respectively, practitioners who held firm boundaries, those whose boundaries were more permeable, and those who held boundaries of their own, but could live and let live, trusting that each boundary matters in equal value to the others. (Race) These categories are much discussed among academicians. (For a brief overview of how a succession of Quakers have related through three centuries to ecumenical and interfaith work, please see Ben Pink Dandelion’s The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction.)

From the depth of Quaker practice, Race’s categories presume more detachment from the practitioners than I believe is useful to make real the hope of interfaith encounters, that is, to identify obligations to one another and increase mutual understanding.

Instead, I would like to suggest a stance, not a category, as a basis for creative engagement in interfaith concerns. This stance is one of “paying attention.” This attention is not the sort by which we learn the material to pass a test. George Fox described it in the aforementioned guidance as “awakening the witness,” becoming aware of one’s self and the other to advance mutual knowledge and benefit. As Mary Penington intuited, not only Quakers recognize the power of listening, waiting, and discerning truth by paying attention to one another. I call on Simone Weil here to augment further this stance of attention as the means for doing interfaith dialogue. She writes: “Because affliction and truth need the same kind of attention before they can be heard, the spirit of justice and the spirit of truth are one. The spirit of justice and truth is nothing else but a certain kind of attention, which is pure love.” (Weil)

A single act of obligation we can choose, one neighbor for another, is to attain the capacity to give quality attention to what the ‘other’ is doing or saying (or not doing or not saying), and thus demonstrate empathy, intelligence, and trust in what a long term relationship can facilitate. The community that emerges from awakening the witness, and confounding deceit through a quality of loving attention, is worth the time it takes to create and is a community in which profound differences need not be feared, but can be integrated.

I conclude with the voice of Ramzi, one of the students who is an alumnus of the religious pluralism program in which I work. This Maronite Christian young leader from Lebanon decided to devote his life to making peace among the religions in part as a result of his experience in the program; he is presently working on an MA degree in Peace and Conflict at Phillips University in Marburg, Germany. I asked him the question of this paper: How has the dialogue work deepened your own faith, if it has? Is it possible for you to be very open to different religious traditions and still grow more mature in your own? If so, how? I close with Ramzi’s response.

“My answer is based on my Christian faith and my experience as a human being. My new faith is oriented towards John 17:3: ‘Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” In this verse, I read a double clarification on what is the eternal life. And what I understand is the following:

Eternal life is to know God, and to know that God loves me. First, I believe that there are millions of ways to discover God, and actually, the way is not important as long as it leads to the goal. However, this way is not extraordinary; it should be here on earth. On this earth, it is almost impossible to have a way to the creator, without knowing and honoring his/her creation. Jesus made it so clear: ‘Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20).’

Therefore, as a Christian, I was able to discover God through other people, and for sure, the more different the other person is, the more I can learn. When I discovered that people could find inner peace and God in different ways, I discovered how great and glorious is my creator, and I was able to make my relationship with my God through ‘the other.’ And my life sentence became, enjoying the other.

Moreover, I believe that my only way to grow more mature in my own faith is through the different other faiths. For example, sometimes I am participating here in Germany in different services (with Jewish, Bahai’s, Ahmadiyya, and others), what I am looking for is to know more about how people build their relationship with God, what makes them happy and satisfied.

“As a person, I wanted always to discover myself. When I look back now and analyze how I was developing, I can clearly see that when I am spending my time with people who are very similar to me, despite the positive things, it is like being stuck in the same cycle, and sometimes, it is like living in the past. However, when I am spending time with people who are different, it is always new doors, not only for me but also to my people, because now I know more, I have developed, and the cycle goes on. I wanted to discover myself, so I can know my creator better.

As a metaphor, if life/God is a building then every person is a room. It is impossible to discover the building, if you do not discover every room. Moreover, it is not only about the rooms, it is also about the connection between the rooms the corridors (as horizontal) and the stairs (as vertical), and there are always windows and balconies to enjoy as well as other buildings.”

Works Consulted

Robert Barclay’s Apology (for the True Christian Divinity), Quaker Heritage Press, 2002. Online at:

Sandra Cronk, Peace be With You: A study of the spiritual basis of the Friends peace testimony. Philadelphia: Tract Association of Friends, 1984.

Ben Pink Dandelion, The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, chapter 6.

Jeff Dudiak, The Intrigue of Ethics: A Reading of the Idea of Discourse in the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy). New York: Fordham University Press, 2001.

Garman, Applegate, Meredith, Benefiel, eds., Hidden in Plain Sight: Quaker Women’s Writings 1650-1700. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 1996.

Keiser, Mel, Volume 5, Issue 2 (2001) of Quaker Studies.

Mays, Rebecca Kratz, ed., Interfaith Dialogue at the Grassroots. Philadelphia: Ecumenical Press, 2008.

John Nickalls, ed., Journal of George Fox. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1985, p. 263.

Alan Race, Interfaith Encounters. London: SCM, 2001.

Leonard Swidler, Yeshua: A Model for Moderns. Wisconsin: Sheed and Ward, 1988.

Leonard Swidler, After the Absolute: The Dialogic Future of Religious Reflection. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1990.

Simone Weil, Two Moral Essays: Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations and Human Personality, edited by Ronald Hathaway. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Pamphlet 240, p. 31).

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