Faculty member finds dialogue, empathy, key to effective multifaith engagement

Author: Josh Stowe

Embracing opportunities for dialogue with people from different traditions remains crucial for meaningful multifaith engagement.

This approach is one that Ansari Institute faculty member Charles W. Powell emphasizes in his work, and one he articulated in a recent interview with Weam Namou, executive director of the Michigan-based Chaldean Cultural Center.

Powell, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Multifaith Engagement, shared his personal story and how he developed a passion for multifaith dialogue and engagement during a wide-ranging conversation that highlighted the importance of learning, travel, active listening, and narrative empathy.

“When you engage in interreligious dialogue, it's not about giving up your own beliefs,” Powell said. “But it is about coming to the table and, through the power of narrative empathy, trying to understand where that other person is coming from.”

Powell, a former Baptist minister, pastored churches in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi for nearly two decades before coming to Notre Dame. In addition to his work as an Ansari Institute faculty member, he serves as Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford in the UK, and as adjunct professor of Muslim-Christian Dialogue at Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, Indiana. He travels extensively throughout the Middle East and Europe to talk with Muslim scholars and practitioners of Islam in order to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Islamic milieu.

In his conversation with the Chaldean Cultural Center, Powell cited a number of influences that have shaped his approach. Among them was Nostra Aetate (“in our time”), the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, promulgated by Pope Paul VI. The document notes that “religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing ‘ways,’ comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions.”

Powell also discussed his recent book project, The Power of Narrative Empathy: A Path to Muslim-Christian Dialogue for Southern Baptists, which tackles the issues of religious literacy and narrative empathy for Islam and Muslims. He acknowledged that true multifaith engagement is not “singing Kumbaya” and attempting to paper over differences, but rather pursuing constructive dialogue—a practice that requires real work, active listening, and a healthy dose of humility.

“It's about coming to the table,” he said, “bringing your whole self, allowing the other side to bring their whole selves, and engaging in issues and questions that people need answers to.”