A Discussion with Dr. John Borelli, Georgetown University Special Assistant to the President for Interreligious Initiatives, on New Social Media and Interreligious Understanding

With: John Borelli Berkley Center Profile

February 5, 2010

Background: John Borelli currently serves as special assistant for interreligious initiatives to Dr. John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University. He previously served as associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (1987-2003) and as a consultant to the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (1991-2007). He now serves as national coordinator for interreligious dialogue and mission for the U.S. Jesuit Conference and coordinates the Woodstock Theological Center's Interreligious Dialogue on Education. In this interview he discusses the value of face-to-face interaction for building the kind of relationships that support successful interreligious dialogue.

Do you use new social media?

Very little.

Have you had success using new social media for interreligious dialogue?

Let me be clear. Dialogue is interpersonal communication, and it happens face-to-face. Hard work must be put in person-to-person interaction. If you have existing relationships with people, new social media can serve as an auxiliary communication tool to help you maintain contact with them, but I don't see how it can ever replace the physical contact of human interaction.

Look at conference calls. They simply aren't as effective as meeting in the same room with someone. Real interaction requires much more time and effort. That is hard to replace. This involves commitment.

Also, social media can be quite negative and sometimes even destructive. I'm amazed by the amount of hate out there in the blogosphere. People go after others all the time and often demonize whoever disagrees with them. Ultimately, this has a polarizing effect on society. Instead of trying to work things out in face-to-face meetings, people attack each other online from behind their computers.

Are religious groups using new social media in an effective way?

I haven't studied it, but I imagine they are. I think there are a lot of lonely people in our society, isolated at a keyboard. But nothing replaces human contact.

What is your experience with interreligious dialogue?

Interreligious dialogue helps people gain insights not only into “the other's” faith, but their own faith as well. When you ask someone else what they believe and why they believe, you are in a sense asking yourself that as well. Ultimately, I think this makes your faith deeper and stronger.

How do you measure successful dialogue?

It depends what kind of dialogue you are doing. The long range goal of intrareligious dialogue within the Christian faith, what we call “ecumenical dialogue,” is to break down barriers that separate us as believers for common profession of faith and worship.

For interreligious dialogue, it is important to note that the goal is not, and should not be, the collapsing of religions into one. I think building rapport so that you can work together as friends and achieve mutual understanding is one way to measure success. Also, developing a cadre of people who can promote mutual understanding and articulate why we need it is also important. Successful dialogue can also produce statements on specific issues that people may find relevant to their daily lives, like interreligious marriage. But there is some debate on this matter, and the interreligious landscape is always changing. Ultimately, I think each generation has to find out how they will define successful dialogue in a way that is relevant to their time and needs. What might have been a real breakthrough in interreligious understanding 20 years ago might not be that significant now. We always need to be asking ourselves, “Where do we go from here?”

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