Explore the transformative power of interreligious dialogue with this GTUx exclusive sit-down interview with GTU leadership Diandra Erickson and Sephora Markson. As two of the content developers and leaders for GTUx, they speak to one of the core tenants of the platform: being a conduit for thoughtful, meaningful, and productive discourse. In this conversation, you will gain deeper insight into the ways that the subject matter experts and broader learning community of GTUx are exemplifying the principles of interreligious dialogue that is integral to the GTU mission.
How are the driving principles of interreligious dialogue, very much present at the GTU, interwoven in the fabric of GTUx? How do you see interreligious dialogue in conversation with the material and the community?
Diandra Erickson: One of the driving principles of interreligious dialogue is learning through conversation. One way that this learning can take place is by having a conversation that helps both parties understand how different religious perspectives on a particular topic can really amplify and broaden one’s understanding of that topic.
I believe this is well exemplified in GTUx. For example, In the GTUx Certificate of Completion in Ecospirituality, both Drs. Rita Sherma and Devin Zuber are from different religious traditions and their various approaches to the topic provide a wide array of ways to think about faith, religion, and spirituality. What is particularly helpful about their conversation is that it’s an interweaving of different religious ideas. Their ideas aren’t juxtaposed, instead they are skillfully intertwined through interreligious dialogue. That’s what makes the dialogue interreligious versus religious plurality or multireligious. For them, their differing perspectives work together quite beautifully to illuminate the variety of ways in which to engage in meditation, prayers, ritual practices, and to better understand the land as sacred.
Sephora Markson: The essence of interreligious dialogue comes down to hearing one other and seeing one another with empathy and genuine interest. Someone who is engaged with this dialogue can simultaneously hold an appreciation for one’s own identity and the unique identity of others, while co-creating a space of respect and mutual appreciation for what is common and distinctive. Those spaces can also be a place for a lot of brave conversations to occur.
In the context of GTUx, when you look at the array of perspectives and conversations on the platform, there is a wide representation of voices, which gives folks a chance to connect. People are directly responding to what’s being brought out in them. These conversations are happening and speaking to shifts as they are occurring in real time. This is paradigmatic of the transformative work of interreligious dialogue and what it is meant to be.
When envisioning interreligious dialogue, how does that differ from pluralism, if at all? How does the differentiation—or lack thereof—contribute to the discourse on GTUx?
Diandra Erickson: Religious pluralism is a coexistence of different religions and practices. Coexistence doesn’t automatically lead to interreligious dialogue. Religions can coexist without any exchange of conversation. Instead interreligious dialogue takes that additional step, which can be more challenging to accomplish. GTUx demonstrates interreligious dialogue and not just religious pluralism. If all the content focused on individual religions and they were coexisting on the platform, that would be pluralism. In that case, the learner would have to make those connections for themselves. GTUx doesn’t really do that. Instead it encourages interreligious dialogue within its original content.
Sephora Markson: A helpful image to visualize the relationship between pluralism and interreligious dialogue might be that of a tree.
Religious pluralism posits that everyone deserves to be represented and there is strength in diversity of representation. However, representation is not the same as engagement. If you think of the branches as the different religions, then the trunk becomes the meeting of these branches (pluralism). From there, interreligious dialogue becomes the ground from which the tree extends outwards and deepens its roots. Introducing the dialogue component is what allows for that growth and deepening of the pluralistic experience.
When we consider this metaphor in the context of GTUx, it is a platform bringing everyone together and presenting engagement in the desire to spark a conversation and move spaces of understanding even deeper with folks from around the world.
Diandra Erickson: I love how the metaphor of the tree presents a sense of movement that interreligious dialogue brings to the static nature of pluralism.
How are the principles of interreligious dialogue on display in today’s discourse—both from a religious scholar and secular perspective? How do you see GTUx’s work contributing to that conversation in the present day and possibly future?
Diandra Erickson: Even though we are seeing religious diversity become more and more prevalent in our culture, to me it seems that interreligious dialogue is growing at a slower pace. I think that’s because individuals don’t know how to engage in those challenging conversations. This can be said for interreligious dialogue, but also for conversations about race, politics, and all those charged issues that can be emotional to discuss. You have to be productive beyond the emotions or know how to utilize those emotions effectively to have a productive conversation—versus the other way around where those emotions may get in the way or cause an unproductive conversation.
GTUx does offer interreligious dialogue in the content, but the platform also demonstrates how to have an interreligious dialogue productively. If you watch how the faculty and the speakers conduct their interviews, you can learn a lot. Not only can you learn about the content provided by GTUx, but you can also learn by watching how the presenters speak to one another, how they have that dialogue, and what tools they’re using for productive dialogue. That is particularly helpful for someone wanting to learn how to have these conversations.
Sephora Markson: When talking about interreligious dialogue, I think that there is an intuitive impulse towards this type of conversation for those who may not even think of it as such. There is the human inclination to connect, to know, and to understand. Those who are concerned with the key issues of our time, have this intuitive impulse to want to be a part of a conversation that connects with others. Forming this conversational space of understanding is ultimately transformative and inherently positive. So even if someone is engaging in this informally, we can understand them as engaging in the practice of interreligious dialogue.
Diandra C. Erickson is the Associate Dean of Teaching, Learning, and Assessment and Lecturer in Course Design and Pedagogy. She holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union, where she focused on Hebrew Bible.
Sephora Markson is the Chief Strategy Officer and Vice President for Institutional Advancement at the GTU, where she also serves as Executive Lead for GTUx. She holds a Master’s in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School.