I recently reread a favorite story of mine about three religious teachers: one Jewish, one Christian and one Muslim.
Taking a break from their studies, they meet for a walk and conversation in the park just outside the city. They ask about each other’s health and well-being as they walk.
Along the way they encounter a “Gentile,” an outsider searching for the meaning of life.
In an effort to help this “Gentile” and enjoy a bit of debate, the three religious teachers begin a passionate conversation, thick with theological disagreement, persuasion and conviction.
What I love most about this story is how it ends. When the lively conversation is over, the three religious men apologize to one another for any unintended offense and then embrace.
They return to their respective studies inside the city and look forward to their next conversation in the park.
To me, it seems the underlying purpose of conversation between the religious teachers in this story was not a desire to reach a consensus.
Rather, the point of conversation was simply authentic communication with another human being created in the image of God.
The story above, nicknamed “The Gentile,” is not a new story. A Catholic layman named Ramon Llull wrote it more than 700 years ago.
Llull lived on the Mediterranean island of Majorca, located between what is now Spain and Algeria. Majorca was at the center of a somewhat cosmopolitan world where Muslims, Christians and Jews worked hard to coexist.
Llull spoke Catalan, Arabic and Latin and traveled the region extensively. A product of his time and place, “The Gentile” was a story of tolerance amid real and lasting difference.
It’s an old story that engages a timeless challenge: How to live together in a world where religious differences and divisions are real.
This story offers a model of interfaith engagement where an attitude of tolerance is essential.
As the story above makes clear, tolerance of different viewpoints or beliefs is not the same thing as consensus, compromise or endorsement. At the same time, tolerance doesn’t mean indifference, neutrality or even the absence of judgment.
Rather, tolerance allows for identities and beliefs to be rooted and transparent. It sees rectifying diverging beliefs and disagreement as less important than realizing the much greater goods of mutual respect, humility and hospitality.
An attitude of tolerance enables participants in interfaith dialogue to move beyond ethical minimalism, theological ambivalence or religious indifference to make room for honest and sometimes critical conversation to take place in a spirit of goodwill and mutual respect.
Of course, tolerance implies limits. From a position of faith, those beliefs or behaviors that harm or dehumanize others fall outside the broad realm of interfaith tolerance because they contradict the dignity that undergirds the purpose of conversation.
When used to nurture coexistence and create space for authentic and constructive conversation, tolerance is a good thing. But it is not easy. Cultivating an attitude of tolerance is hard work.
When violence or victimization has occurred between religious communities, or generations have grown up with competing stories of vendettas, cultivating an attitude of tolerance will require some risk and take much courage.
To be a witness of the love of Christ in a world of lasting difference requires a willingness to have conversations with those whose ideas, rituals and identities are different, sometimes strange and maybe even offensive.
Yet, in the spirit of Christ, relationships can be fostered when conversation begins with a tolerance for different opinions and an underlying recognition and embrace of the humanity and dignity of the other.
Llull was far from prefect. He grappled with his own temptations with intolerance and prejudice. Yet, his story paints a beautiful picture of what’s possible in interfaith dialogue.
And, even in the muddy realities of the real world, I’ve seen this kind of interreligious dialogue before.
I’ve seen it with former Protestant and Catholic combatants during a meal in Belfast, as they laughed together over a joke one shared.
I’ve seen it at a coffee shop with an Arab Christian and Israeli Jew who finished their conversation asking about the well-being of one another’s family.
I’ve experienced it over a slice of mango and a cup of tea with a Muslim imam in northern Bangladesh.
These are small but important moments where transformation can take place. In each case, there was space for real difference and disagreement, but there was also room for authentic hospitality and fellowship.
Tolerance makes such tables possible – tables where consensus is not required, where fellowship can occur and, perhaps along the way, where friendships can develop.
In a world of difference, hospitality and charity are often paved on the road of tolerance.
And when used in pursuit of honest communication and mutual respect, the attitude of tolerance can help us realize the image of God in ourselves and in one another.
Aaron Tyler is the chair of the Graduate International Relations Department at St. Mary’s University.