IRD, Culture, and “Just Making Sense”

I am teaching a class on Asian Faiths with focus on Interreligious Dialogue (IRD). I gave this scenario. The story is real, with only trivial changes.

Baha’i is a rather uniquely challenging religion in a number of ways. Years ago I had an acquaintance who was Baha’i. I found one challenge was its pluralism. Brian would say that Baha’i and Christianity agree in theology— and would say that other major religions also agree with Baha’i. When I would bring up some fairly obvious differences, Brian would say, “No, we are in agreement.” I felt like he was being deceptive or perhaps illogical.

Right or wrong in this, my error in talking to him was probably in trying to focus on the differences between Christianity and Baha’i. When I am focused on pointing out differences between the two faiths, and Brian is focused on pointing out similarities between the two faiths… the conversation definitely struggles.

Question:  What should I have done to make the conversation go better, and ultimately (prayerfully) be able to express my faith in a way that would understood and appreciated by Brian?

1.  Should I have stuck with my plan of argument based on differences?

2.  Should I have adjusted to Tim’s aim, in focusing on similarities?

3.  Some third option  (State what that would be)

Explain your answer.

From the answers I got, I had a couple of thoughts.

A. I got some interesting answers from my students. Probably the most interesting was one student who suggested that the best answer was to neither focus on differences or similarities. Rather, he suggested to focus on personal testimony. In other words, spend less time on issues of religion as it is believed, and more on religion as it is experienced. This is actually a recommendation I have heard given for talking to people who are more post-modern in worldview. (I believe that Brian McLaren suggested this in his book “Finding Faith.”) Pre-modern tends to look to ancient authority (focus on the past). Modern tends to look at issues of expertise— looking to experts and (perhaps) an empirically-centered form of rationality. But in Post-modernism, there is doubt of both ancient authorities and present-day “experts.” As such personal experience is more… compelling. The issue in all three cases is not what is true but what is more likely to be accepted as good evidence— what is more compelling.

B. I also noticed a trend. Most of my students come from places where Christians are a minority sub-culture within a majority culture of a different faith. In the case of my students, it was either Islam or Buddhism. However, there were a few who come from places where Christianity is either the majority faith, or a strong sizable sub-culture within the larger society. I noticed that those who come from a more Christian-dominant society tended to prefer Option #1— argument… focusing on differences. Those from a place where Christianity was a much smaller and weaker sub-culture, they tended to prefer Option #2. They prefer to focus on finding similarities.

Why is that? One reason may be that those who come from cultures where Christians are a small minority, know not to “make waves.” Don’t rile up or upset the majority group. And YES, that can be a genuine concern. But there are other possibilities as well. Cultures are an amorphous changing set of values and ideas that people share and transmit to each other. One of the products of culture are the “Just Makes Sense” perspectives. One could call it a “worldview.”

Within a culture, it is the dominant group that tends to define what “just makes sense.” I am from the United States where there is a strong tendency towards Religious Relativism/Pluralism, as well as a more secularist view that we are ultimately the result of a near infinite series of happy (or unhappy) accidents. From a strictly outsider perspective, it is no more reasonable to think that all religions (except for small little unpopular ones) are essentially correct, than it is to think that one is correct, or that all are wrong. It really is no more reasonable to think that happy accidents with no defined purpose resulted in our Universe, than that it was designed with intellect and forethought. But, depending on the culture or sub-cultures, one will tend to “just make sense” while the others seem dubious or foolish.

So… when a Christian lives in a small sub-culture in a society dominated by another belief system, the Christian faith is on the losing side (culturally-speaking) of the “just makes sense” battle. Thus, the reasonable way to sound compelling is to show how one’s faith fits with the “just makes sense” beliefs in the society. On the other hand, if one lives in a place in which Christian beliefs and values are predominant, the more compelling argument is to show how other faiths fail in the “just makes sense” test.

Let’s take a simple, but obvious example. In Islam it is humiliating, even blasphemous, for God to be born physically (incarnated). In cultures dominated by an Islamic worldview to argue against their point just sounds really foolish. On the other hand, the opposite occurs in a place where a Christian worldview dominates. That is because both Christianity and Islam claim an all-powerful and loving God. In the Christian worldview, God is loving because He identified with us, and sacrificed for us, and rescued us when we cannot rescue ourselves. In a Christian culture, to believe in a loving God but then undermine the primary evidences of that love is… well, again, foolish. Because of this, the strategy is quite likely to be at least a little different depending on the dominant faith.

Of course, there are other factors to consider… I am being oversimplifying here. But I do think the general trend holds true. We want to sound compelling to others in our society. We don’t want to sound stupid (although I have met Christians who are exceptions in this). As such, the strategy we use to sound compelling will differ somewhat depending on the role that Christianity has in the broader dominant worldview.

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