Interfaith dialogue should never be a one-sided conversation; it requires participants to listen and learn about other faith traditions, said Tarunjit Singh Butalia.
"There is a tendency in interreligious dialogue that we go to these dialogues to educate others about who we are," he said. "But I also think, more importantly, it is also about listening to what others have to share."
A civil engineering researcher at Ohio State University who is devoted to promoting interfaith dialogue, Mr. Butalia will be the guest speaker at the seventh annual MultiFaith Banquet in Toledo on March 9.
Representing the Sikh tradition in local, national, and international panels, Mr. Butalia was co-editor of the authoritative 2004 book, Religion in Ohio: Profiles of Faith Communities, published by Ohio University Press
His service on interfaith panels is so vast it's almost dizzying, including vice chairman of the North American Interfaith Network; member of the board of trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions; a member of the Catholic-Sikh National Consultation; vice president of the Interfaith Association of Central Ohio; a member of the Interfaith Center for Peace; membership in the Ohio State University Interfaith Association, and a member of the Religious Advisory Council of the Mayor of Columbus.
Mr. Butalia said he is convinced that interfaith efforts are crucial for people in Ohio and around the world to live in peace.
"We need to have a sense of shared community," he said.
As an illustration, he recalled an article in Reader's Digest magazine a few years ago about a farmer in Iowa who always raised the best quality corn. Each planting season, the farmer went to the neighboring farms and gave the owners some of his top-notch seed corn. Asked why he did so, the farmer replied: "When the wind blows over my farm, it's coming from somebody else's farm."
"There is this sense of interdependence that I think gets lost," Mr. Butalia said.
People also need to commit to going the extra mile in understanding other faith traditions, he said, saying that the Golden Rule, which is found in most religions, is not humanity's highest directive.
"A dear Catholic friend pointed out to me a few years ago that there is a greater rule than the Golden Rule - the Platinum Rule, which states, 'Do unto others as they would have you do unto them,'•" Mr. Butalia said.
For example, when Muslim women are introduced to a man, they typically do not offer their hand to shake.
"I need to know that and to respond in a way that a Muslim woman would not find uncomfortable," Mr. Butalia said.
The two biggest stumbling blocks to interfaith dialogue are fear and ignorance, he said.
While some people are afraid that interacting with those of other religions will lead them away from their own beliefs, the results of interfaith dialogue are almost always the opposite, according to Mr. Butalia.
"I find we grow stronger in our tradition. In the Sikh tradition, we don't have the emphasis on confession. But when I'm interacting with people in the Christian church, particularly the Catholic Church, which do have a tradition of confession, I go back to my own faith and see what it has to say about confession."
Mr. Butalia moved from India 18 years ago to study at OSU and said he has seen much progress made in the awareness of Sikhs by the general public, as well as the way Sikhs view their place in American society.
"Twenty years ago, if you were to go ask a local Sikh family in Ohio where they were from, the answer would probably be from India, even while they are U.S. citizens," he said. "In their mind, home was not here. Our community has changed significantly in the last 20 years. Today, this is our home. That changes us and it changes the larger community."
He praised Toledo's religious population in general and the MultiFaith Council of Northwest Ohio in particular for the many joint programs, particularly the annaul Habitat for Humanity builds.
People who meet for interfaith dialogue usually focus their efforts on talking about religious diversity, but rarely get together after such discussions, Mr. Butalia said.
"Interfaith dialogue rarely ever develops into action, and from a conference I recently attended we learned that is true across the country," he said.
But when people of different religious traditions join forces on activities such as building homes for the needy, they often start discussing their faiths.
"Interfaith groups that come together and work together on a project like Habitat for Humanity, in the process of acting together, dialogue happens," Mr. Butalia said. "That is the beauty of what is happening in Toledo."
The Seventh annual MultiFaith Banquet, hosted by the MultiFaith Council of Northwest Ohio, will be from 4 to 7 p.m. March 9 at Rosary Cathedral, 2535 Collingwood Blvd. Tickets are $15 for adults, or $10 for children 12 and under. Reservations are due by March 3 by calling 419-475-6535 or online at www.multifaithcouncil.org.
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