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Head, Heart, Hands: Forms of Interreligious Engagement

  • How do you define an interreligious space?
  • How can you broaden your understanding of dialogue?
  • What are different ways of conceptualizing interreligious frameworks?
  • Familiarize yourself with the Head, Heart, Hands model of interreligious engagement.
  • Understand different ways to embody modes of dialogue.
  • Study, examine, and analyze religious life near you.
  • A poem: To Be of Use by Marge Piercy.
  • The work of many different theorists on pluralism and dialogue.
  • Leonard Swidler’s conception of Head, Heart, and Hands.
  • The Pew Research Center‘s “Study on Religion in America.”

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

The full poem can be read here.

“To be of use” by Marge Piercy.


The words “interfaith” and “interreligious” are often used interchangeably with interfaith “dialogue.” But interfaith and interreligious both refer to a much broader range of fields, actions, and relationships than dialogue alone. In a pluralist society and globally connected world, we encounter interfaith/interreligious moments in countless ways each and every day. Interreligious engagement can take many different forms. You do not have to be an ordained member of the clergy leading a worshiping community to engage in interfaith/interreligious work.

For example, there are a broad range of chaplains serving individuals from any and all faiths and no faiths in hospital settings, university campuses, and prisons. There are non-profit organizations that serve a diverse range of communities, sometimes crossing over religious/worldview boundaries or involving staff members from a variety of traditions. Also, most workplaces bring together employees from all kinds of backgrounds and religious identities. Alongside colleges and universities, the military is among the most religiously diverse spaces. It draws people from all demographics and requires them to live and work closely together under a variety of challenging circumstances and major lifecycle events.

Now that we understand the opportunities for interreligious dialogue occur in a variety of spaces, let’s look more closely at the term “interreligious dialogue.”

Dialogue: What It Is and How to Do It?

At the Jewish-Hindu Summit in 2007, Swami Dayananda Saraswati (d. 2015), a Hindu philosopher and teacher of Advaita Vedanta, with great clarity articulated a purpose—or perhaps, prescription—for interreligious dialogue:

Swami Dayananda Saraswati (Jewish-Hindu Summit in 2007)

The point of dialogue is to look for the common features behind one’s religious philosophies and practices while gladly accepting our differences. We should learn to live in harmony. Although we might differ in some respects, we can agree to differ, and work for the common good of humanity.

Let’s break Saraswati’s teaching down into three key values.

First, the desire to live in harmony.

Second, agreeing to disagree. This is essential to any type of dialogue. When two or more sincere parties who hold particular worldviews and/or belong to particular religious traditions come together for a mutual goal, neither party is entering for the purpose of converting the other. Proselytizing and missionary activity is antagonistic to dialogue since it privileges one party’s purpose by undermining the other.

Third, collaboration for the purpose of the common good of the communities we live in.

Do you agree with these key values? Why or why not? What would you/your group center as key values?

Dr. Diana Eck, director of The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, also describes dialogue in her work related to pluralism: “The language of pluralism is that of dialogue and encounter, give and take, criticism and self-criticism. Dialogue means both speaking and listening, and that process reveals both common understandings and real differences. Dialogue does not mean everyone at the “table” will agree with one another. Pluralism involves the commitment to being at the table – with one’s commitments.”

Creating Dialogue Guidelines

The most common criticism of the interreligious dialogue movement (IRD) names the Christian origins and influences on the movement. For example, Catherine Cornille’s five conditions for interreligious dialogue:

  • Humility
  • Commitment
  • Interconnection
  • Empathy
  • Hospitality

Though made in good faith, these conditions reflect Cornille’s own Christian tradition–to an extent. Paul Hedges, professor of Interreligious relations at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, uses a post-colonial perspective from the Chinese religious landscape to analyze these five conditions. Here’s what he says about commitment.

Paul Hedges, Understanding Religion

In China, people have tended to utilize or participate in the rites of different religions when useful: one may consult a Daoist exorcist, undertake Buddhist funeral rites, rely on Confucian ethics, and so on. Standing committed within only one tradition has not been the usual practice. This has been spoken of as strategic religious participation.

As you read Leonard Swidler’s “Understanding Dialogue,” consider the ways our own traditions frame and possibly restrict our interreligious work. He identifies three features of effective interreligious dialogue in the article:

1) An openness to learn from others, or, rather, the other.
2) Knowledge of one’s own tradition.
3) An equally disposed and knowledgeable dialogue partner from the other tradition.

After reading the article, set a timer for three minutes and consider how Swidler’s own Christian tradition influences the way he frames interreligious dialogue. How might this article look different if Swidler were from a different wisdom tradition? Ask others in your learning environment for their ideas.

With this reflection in mind, create at least three guidelines that you feel are essential for an effective discussion among a small group of interreligious participants. Imagine the group is composed of practitioners from at least five (unspecified) religions. In what ways are your guidelines inclusive to non-Christian religions? Would a non-theist feel comfortable in this discussion?

Forms of Dialogue

Scholars and practitioners divide dialogue into different subtypes. Swidler’s “Understanding Dialogue” divides it into three kinds:

  1. Dialogue of the Head (the cognitive)
  2. Dialogue of the Heart (the affective/spiritual)
  3. Dialogue of the Hands (the ethical)

According to Eric J. Sharpe, the religious studies scholar at the University of Sydney, Australia who originally developed the Head, Heart, Hands model, there is an additional dialogue type, the “dialogue of life.” He coined this to describe the essential reality of lived interreligious interactions, such as intermarriage and holiday celebrations in multi-faith workspaces. The dialogue of life will be touched on in later units.

Dialogue of the head best preserves the Greek etymology of the word and stresses its focus on mutual understanding. A compound of the Greek word “dia” for across and “logos” for reason, “dialogue” of the head is what Krister Stendhal, a Swedish Lutheran bishop, had in mind when he provided his recommendations for how to approach dialogues with other religious traditions. Stendhal recommends the following principles:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for “holy envy.”

Understanding another tradition requires a good faith effort from the one trying to understand. Learning about Islam from a former Muslim or about Catholicism from a former Catholic may not be the best way to learn about either of those traditions. It’s also worth recalling Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk from Unit 1: no one person is a single story. In a similar vein, no one religion is completely embodied by the single-story of an individual. The experiences of a Sikh man in Brooklyn, NY or Amritsar, India do not speak for all Sikhs everywhere, no matter how learned or respected the individual is.

In addition, dialogue of the head is fundamentally intertwined with religious literacy. Diana L. Eck, professor of comparative religions and Indian studies at Harvard University and director of the Pluralism Project, carefully observes that tolerance doesn’t require knowledge about the other but pluralism, she argues, does. The first step to pluralism—our affirming response to how to live together in an increasingly diverse society—is a dialogue of the head. With a selection of 17 religious traditions, the growing library of Harvard’s Pluralism Project seeks to introduce various religions to a broad audience.

In dialogue of the heart, “we open ourselves to receive the beauty of ‘the other.’” Inviting or attending a religious service from a tradition other than one’s own and interreligious prayer services fall under this umbrella. Dialogue of the heart means approaching another religious tradition with the intention of coming together with mutual respect with the intention of sharing in cross-religious or interreligious activities.

What does appreciating the others’ beauty mean in the context of your own group? How can you engage with one another in this way?

The dialogue of the hands is a dialogue of action. Swidler writes, “We join together with others to work to make the world a better place in which we all must live together…we join hands with ‘the other’ to heal the world.” It is collaborative peacebuilding and community work.

A common philosophical framing for this type is the “Global Ethic.” Under the influence and directive of Hans Küng, a Swiss Catholic priest and theologian, in 1993 the representatives at the Parliament of the World’s Religions delineated the presence of an ethical system behind every major world religion.

Behind each of the world’s religions, they surmised, is an ethical vision—the shared core values that translate across these ethical visions is the “Global Ethic.” Küng’s Global Ethic identified four values:

1) non-violence and respect for life;
2) solidarity and a just economic order;
3) tolerance and a life of truthfulness;
4) equal rights and partnership between men and women.

The “Head, Heart, & Hands” model of interfaith dialogue is a worthwhile launching point for interfaith dialogue. But it doesn’t cover everything. Before moving forward, consider:

  • What do you like/agree with from Swidler’s framework?
  • What (if anything) is missing?
  • What do you find challenging?
  • What would you do differently?

Sergey Melnik, from the Department for External Church Relations for the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, notes that Swidler’s model does not provide a framework for thinking about several other types of interfaith encounters, including “polemical” and “diplomatic” interactions. Melnik proposes his own typology of dialogues, centered on the intention of the encounter: polemical, cognitive, peacemaking, and partnership.

Of course, the polemical category is fraught and is best avoided. But it is a helpful category to be aware of and for descriptive purposes. To polemicize is to debate with a predetermined answer: “myself and/or my own tradition is correct.” To return to Saraswati’s description of interreligious dialogue, polemical interactions do not begin with the important agreement to disagree respectfully.

Intention matters. Some other possible intentions provided by Melnik and corresponding to his types include the following: Who is right? Who are you? How do you relate to the other? How might power be related? How can we live together peacefully? And what can we do to improve the world?

Closing Exercise: Religious Diversity Near Me

Hebrew College and the Miller Center are located in the Greater Boston area, a large metropolitan area (4.9 million people) and an extremely religiously diverse region. The Pluralism Project and World Religions in Greater Boston teamed up to thoroughly represent this diversity by visually mapping religious centers and gathering places. The full interactive version of the map is available on the Pluralism Project’s website.

Pluralism Project's map key to the world religions of Boston. The interactive map can be found on their website:
Pluralism Project’s map key to the world religions of Boston. The interactive map can be found on their website:

The map key lists 18 unique broad religious traditions, including Zoroastrianism, Daoism, Bahá’í, and Jainism. Most estimates of global Zoroastrianism typically conclude there are fewer than 300,000 Zoroastrians in the world today—and yet, Boston is home to a Zoroastrian association!

Unfortunately, such a map does not exist for every major metropolitan area in the United States. Use the data from Pew Research: Religion in America to find out about the diversity in your own locale—and pick one religion other than your own that represents more than 1% of the geographical area you chose and answer the following questions to the best of your ability by navigating the Pluralism Project’s website:

  1. Does the religion originate geographically in the area you chose? If not, how did people in your city come to practice this religion?
  2. What are some major issues for practitioners of this religion in the contemporary American context?
  3. How has the presence or absence of cultural and political power affected this religious community?