The first time I went to an interfaith event, an all-day, all-city women’s interfaith conference, the chairperson saw my name tag with “Christian Science” on it for my faith tradition, and was astonished. She said: “We’ve never had someone from the Christian Science church here before. I thought your church didn’t allow you to do interfaith work.”
I was astonished at her astonishment! Although I’d never been to an interfaith activity before, I assured her that Christian Scientists are completely free to participate. I felt a calling then and there to become active in the interfaith community.
That was over 20 years ago, and I have learned so much since then, both from interfaith dialogue (dialogue among Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Baha’is, etc.) and from ecumenical dialogue (dialogue among various Christian denominations). I have also been able to share Christian Science ideas with my interfaith and ecumenical colleagues.
I’ve just finished a term as Chair of the Cabinet of Interfaith Partnership, the largest interfaith organization in my city. Its motto is: “As communities of faith, we agree to differ, promise to love, and unite to serve.” I could easily support that purpose. We were not divided, even though we differed in our approaches to the Divine. The promise to love stems from the center of all our faiths—the demand to love God and love our neighbor. And uniting to serve “put legs on” our relationships with each other. Doors have been opened among us.
So how do you go about having a conversation with someone from another faith tradition, or with those from several faith traditions sitting at a dialogue table?
If you feel like you need to speak for the whole Christian Science movement—that you have to be brilliant at answering everyone’s questions; that you have to convince them that your faith is better than theirs—there will be few, if any, opportunities to share meaningfully. More important, you will not have an open heart to be blessed by what you can learn from them.
The promise to love stems from the center of all our faiths—the demand to love God and love our neighbor.
I’ve learned to come to a dialogue with the goal of listening and learning. For instance, when other Christians ask me directly about a theological point, such as, “What kind of baptism do you do?” I’ll ask them first about their understanding of baptism. They will usually talk about their practice (infant baptism, adult baptism, and so on) and also about what it means to them. That gives me common ground in the meaning of baptism before I explain that I don’t have the kind of outward practice they have.
Or in an interfaith dialogue, when a Muslim wants to know how I think about God, I’ll ask about his understanding of God. He will usually talk about the 99 names for God, such as the Compassionate, the Merciful. What a good place to start in talking about my understanding of God and the seven synonyms for God. This helps me not only find comfortable ways to share what I believe and practice, but also to learn more about the spiritual yearnings of others.
Here’s an experience that taught me more about listening and responding: I was walking on a beach in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the US, a number of years ago, praying about something troubling me. The thought came: “That’s enough praying for yourself. Look at all these people (it was spring break and the beach was jammed). Surely there is a hungry heart out here, looking for God. Why don’t you find it?”
I responded: “How will I know which one it is?” But then I realized that it was the job of Christ to do the finding, the relating, and associating. It was my job to be really willing to listen. I affirmed my complete willingness to respond to the seeker, whoever it was.
A couple of hours later I was sitting on a beach chair in front of my hotel, reading, when I realized there was someone watching me. I smiled at her and she came over to me. It turned out that she thought I was someone she knew from her hometown in Canada. I wasn’t.
We chatted for a bit, and then she shared that her husband had just passed on and how sad she was. I responded with some generic words of comfort. But then, as I looked at her hanging on every word, the light bulb finally went on and I realized (duh!) this was the hungry heart I had been praying about. So I responded to her silent cry with a much deeper sense of love, with the Comforter, divine Science.
I ended up going up to my hotel room to get her a copy of Science and Health, and she left the beach hugging her book with a smile on her face.
Maryl Walters is a practitioner and teacher of Christian Science who lives in St. Louis, Missouri. She is also a member of the Christian Science Board of Lectureship.