Inter-Theological Dialogue (ITD). To Love or to Loathe?

I saw an interesting little poll that was put on a Philippine Pastors Group. I can’t find the poll on a quick search right now but the question was something like:


Since no two people on earth have ever had exactly identical theologies, the question really is more like, WHAT DO YOU DO IF YOU MEET A PASTOR OF A DIFFERENT DENOMINATION, OR FAITH TRADITION, OR PERHAPS ONE YOU BELIEVE “MAJORS ON A MINOR”?

The three options given were:

#1. Pray to God that He would give enlightenment to this pastor.

#2. Argue strenuously with the pastor to convince him (her) of the error of his (her) beliefs.

#3. Love them

I think the poll was meant to be more instructive than exploratory. I think it was meant to make pastors think and then realize that love (#3) is the correct response. I found it both disturbing and charming that the Filipino pastors who had taken the poll were honest enough to have #3 as their least popular answer.

I get it. #1 (the most popular answer when I looked at it) is a very satisfying response. It assumes that the reader is on God’s side (or perhaps God is on the reader’s side). Most people want to feel like God has given His seal of approval not only ourselves, but also our beliefs.

I get #2 as well. A lot of people (and pastors are, generally, people) are not very comfortable interacting positively with people of other beliefs.. Therefore, “If you can’t join them, beat them.” Many groups simply assume that the relationship between different faith traditions within Christianity will be (and perhaps should be) antagonistic and competitive. Books on theological perspectives often are rather polemic and/or argumentative. Some take competition further and see an alternative theological perspective as something that must be rooted out and destroyed. <I recall a friend of mine on FB sharing approvingly a post from someone else that stated everyone who disagrees with the writer politically and philosophically should “Get out of my country.” That writer then listed al of the people who meet that criterion— a long list. This is a stupid thing to say, certainly, but the emotions behind it are pretty understandable.>

Of course #2 tends to be defended as an effort to root out heresy. However, heresy is not always easy to identify… and many theological positions can fit within the “tent of orthodoxy.” If not, then there is between zero and one theologically orthodox person on earth since no one shares exactly the same theology. There must be some wiggle room.

I think that #3 is a good answer. Yes we should love ministers who have a different theological perspective. But I feel like the answer has a risk of being… SNARKY. After all, to say that one should love those of other theological positions, makes many (I don’t think I am alone in this) think of the command of Jesus, “Love your enemies.” So Option #3 can be a subtle acknowledgement of the belief that Christians of divergent theological perspectives are actually our enemies.

So, despite how theologically sound Option #3 is, I feel like some other options should be given in the poll.

#4. Embrace the opportunity to learn about their beliefs to not only to increase understanding of said beliefs, but to better understand the other pastor as well.

#5. Seek dialogue to explore and appreciate the rich diversity within the Christian faith.

#6. Learn from the other pastor as part of my own path of theological reflection and theological growth.

These other options, especially #6 sounds wishy-washy. Some may hear the subtle strains of relativism in them. Let me be clear on this. I am pretty comfortable with my own theological perspective, and most any conversation with a person of a different perspective, I am likely to think I am right and the other wrong. After all, if I thought I was wrong, why would that be my belief anyway? But my own theological perspective is NOT CANON. It is a contingent, contextual interpretation of God’s general and special revelation. The most fundamental statement of Theological Anthropology is, “God is God, and I am not Him,” so it is wise for me to accept my own limitations, including in terms of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. As such, my theology should always be embraced with a tentativeness. Some aspects of our beliefs we may embrace with a certain amount of confidence. Some aspects we may embrace with a certain amount of (Kierkegaardian) “leap of faith.” But theological (over-) confidence can easily take us to a bad place.

Peter originally saw salvation as to the Jews and through the Jews. His interaction with Cornelius helped him to evaluate, and ultimate change, his theological view. Paul early on spoke confidently of becoming a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks, to win the more. However, he seemed to struggle for years in how to address a multicultural setting. In Galatians we find Paul chastizing Peter for seemingly doing what Paul taught (adjusting behavior to the setting), but in a way different than Paul preferred. In Acts 16 Paul encourages Timothy to get circumcised, seemingly in a reversal. Both situation it was unclear who was right. What does this mean? I am not sure… but if Peter and Paul struggled with their theology, don’t expect to have gotten it all correct yourself.

In fact, embracing a level of theological diversity in the church does not lead to heresy and cults particularly. It is far more likely that schisms devolve into cults when people think that their own theology is perfect and immune from challenge. Think about it… the ultimate way to win a theological argument is to state with confidence— “I talked to God and He told me I was correct.” That is what happened with Islam. Islam came out of a long history of discussions about the nature of the Godhead and the nature of Christ. There were centuries of discussion based on New Testament and Old Testament scriptures. Then in the 7th century along came one who said, in effect, “Here are my views, and these views were given to me directly from an angel of God.” The founder of Mormonism came out of a time of intense theological arguments in the “Burnt Out District” of New York, and did pretty much the same as the founder of Islam.

Rather than canonizing one’s own beliefs, dialogue with others and theological self-reflection is valuable in a diverse environment. Therefore, I don’t believe any of the three options in the original poll is a complete answer. In fact, they may hardly serve as partial answers.

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