By Alex O'Leary
Tables are a wonderful. It is rare a day goes by that I don’t use one. Considering how simple they are, they serve a myriad of purposes. However, despite their many functions, my favorite use of a table is eating—specifically eating in community. Relationships are built and strengthened over the table. There is something very intimate about sharing a meal. When people eat, they let their guard down; it is no wonder the adage exists imploring people to avoid talk of religion and politics at the table. People hold their religious and political beliefs very close; an attack on one’s beliefs is often viewed as an attack the individual. However, despite the wisdom offered by the popular adage, I believe that the table is, in fact, the best place to discuss these issues.
Once a month, I help facilitate dialogues between evangelical Christians and Zen Buddhists. The dialogues have been intentionally centered around a table because we believe that one of the strongest ways to form a relationship with someone is by sharing a meal together. Our dialogues are structured as potlucks; beyond the obvious pragmatics of a potluck, we believe there is something significant and symbolic wrapped in the idea of everyone bringing something to the table. By bringing a dish, one is showing that they are involved with the community. Everybody brings something different to the discussion and everyone has something to offer.
A key mantra that drives our dialogues is “we want to go through our convictions, not around them, and not stop short of them.” We have no delusions that we ultimately agree on everything, but we want to make every effort to truly understand the position of the other people sitting at the table. If we go around our convictions, we avoid our differences and have seemingly stopped engaging in multi-faith dialogue. If we stop short of our convictions, we do not allow for the other side to truly understand what we believe. No, we want to go through our convictions and live fully into them—not drop them at the door.
We want both the Buddhists and the Christians to take their convictions seriously as we engage with each other. Each month we sit around a table. We eat. We laugh. We cry. The first half hour of the night is open for people to mingle and catch up. After we fill our plates and head to the table. Every month a different topic is chosen to drive our discussion. From the nature of man (sinful, good, tabula rasa, etc), to LGBTQ rights, to civil disobedience, and everything in between, nothing is off limits.
Too often people are reduced to their belief system, but people are more than what they believe. All of humanity has been made in the image of God and therefore every person deserves to be loved and valued. We have a biblical mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves. We must avoid the temptation to place people into boxes—people do not fit into boxes. The only way that we can truly get to know someone is by talking with him or her. What is more, because we believe that all humanity bears the image of God, that means that every human is worthy of love, regardless of whatever decision one may or may not make for Christ in the future. Often, evangelicals will stop engaging with people once they realize that a person has no interest in converting. While we would love to see our Buddhist friends enter into a relationship with the Triune God, it is not the reason we seek to engage them. Even if we could see into the future and know for sure that they would never become a Christian, we would not stop our engaging with them. We must avoid bait-and-switch relationships. We are called to love people, no strings attached.
I encourage you to take a second look at your table and to create space for people that you disagree with. Don’t label people you disagree with. Engage them. Learn from them. No one person has the corner on truth. Even people with a seemingly opposite world view from you can teach you something. Love people. Share a meal. Join me at the table.
Alex O’Leary is from the Bay Area and currently lives in Portland Oregon. He is a student at Multnomah University in both the M.Div. and Th.M. programs. When he is not studying theology, he enjoys spending his free time cooking, reading, and exploring downtown Portland.
[Photo Credit: Alyssa Laurel]