Here is a favorite joke.
A synagogue decides to start a rowing team, and after 14 races, not only doesn't win, but places last in every, single race. They decide to send a representative to Harvard to watch their team and see what they can learn. Upon his return the team asks, "Did you see anything that can help us?"
"A lot", he says. "First off, they've got eight guys rowing and one guy screaming!"
This is a funny but increasingly depressing metaphor reflecting our inability to talk with one another. The poet Rumi wrote, "Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field. I will meet you there." The question, of course, in this time of separation and anxiety is how do we make our way to the field of agreement that Rumi spoke so eloquently about? Lately this "field" has felt a world away...separated by differences of religion, politics, rhetoric and violence.
A clue rests in the struggles we have in an unusual arena; the manner in which we frequently discuss the nature of God. In most religions there typically exists three different and clearly defined branches of thought (and here I am being quite broad). First you have a branch of "fundamentalists", which loosely we can define as those who take their dogma and scripture literally. To their opposite pole every religion has "mystics", who profess to have a direct relationship with God and sacrifice literalism for internal experience. Finally there is the rest of what's left over, i.e. your garden variety middle of the roaders.
Sadly, many religious leaders tend to be keepers of the faith, i.e. traditionalists and even fundamentally oriented. Thus, (as many religious councils have encountered), if you put them together in a room a reversion to differences of dogma usually occurs. They often struggle to find the common ground in their view of the Divine and/or the right way to live. Imagine a conversation between an Evangelical minister, a fundamentalist mullah and an Orthodox Rabbi. Though they basically represent different branches off the same religious tree it's not hard to create a picture of argument and attempted persuasion. Now put a different group together in the same room. This time bring together representatives of the mystical branches. Around your table sit Sufis, mystical Christians and Hassids. Within minutes of their discussion (as I have witnessed numerous times) shouts of "Brother! Sister! We are all the same! What's the big deal?"
What then can be learned from this difference?
In my own life I have found that in religious discussion whenever I ask the question, "What is your definition of God?" I am taken to a place of divergence and a fundamentalist energy. But when I ask the question, "What is your experience of God?" what emerges is often common ground and a more "mystical" connection. For example, I cannot imagine someone more different in my point of view than Jerry Falwell, but the later question of "experience of God" would likely draw the same joint conclusions..."Joy", "Love", "Compassion".
This is a great lesson in the seeking of Rumi's field. For if we move to the experience rather than a concept we are more likely to find the overlaps we so desperately need in this time of great divide. The next time, regardless of content, you find yourself concerned about a conversation, start with an exploration of your shared emotional experience. You may be surprised where it takes you.