The Turing Test and IRD

crm-turing_test

I have never been a fan of the Turing Test. Alan Turing (1912-1954) proposed a test for determining whether and artificial intelligence can think “like a human.” The test suggests that if a person was communicating with an AI and was unable to distinguish whether or not he was talking to a computer or a person, then one would see the computer as thinking in a manner that a human was thinking. Essentially, if the external behavior is similar to a human, one should assume the internal mechanisms driving that behavior is similar. This is a deeply flawed premise (as the Chinese Box thought experiment has demonstrated), showing that what may appear to be internal intelligence is simply may simply be the intelligence of the outside programmer.  That problem with the Turing Test is well understood.

But there is an even more fundamental flaw as far as I can see. It is the fact that we try to see personality patterns in the words that come our way— even patterns that don’t actually exist.  It is much like how we tend to see faces or other patterns in random dots on a wall, or in the stars in the night sky.

A great example of this is in a video on Artificial Intelligence, put out by the Youtube channel “VSauce.” Only a part of the video relates to this post. It can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZXpgf8N6hs&vl=en

In that video, there was an experiment that mimicked the old show, “The Dating Game.” Female contestants would ask questions of three eligible bachelors on the other side of screen. The answers would be transferred to the host to be read to the woman. Bachelors #1 and #3 were human, but bachelor #2 was a computer program. So, for example, the first female contestant would ask what his body was like. He responded with one word— “toned.” The woman thinks that he is a bit full of himself. When she asks bachelor #2 the same question, “he” responds, “I have two arms, two legs, and one head.” She decides that he has a weird sense of humor. As different women go through the questioning, some end up preferring Bachelor #1, and some Bachelor #3. But two of them preferred Bachelor #2… the computer. Why was this? Some found the answers of the computer to be intriguing, or demonstrating a strange sense of humor. This was a mistake. They were overlaying emotions and personality on a computer simulation that had neither. Even the ones that chose bachelor #1 or #3 were also incorrectly inferring personality in the computer. Some thought the prosaic answers as being condescending or snarky. This was likewise not true.

Why does this happen? As noted above, we look for patterns, and much of those patterns are based on guesses and past experiences. One female contestant determined that bachelor #2 was just like one of her ex-boyfriends. The fact was that the two had absolutely nothing in common. Some answers of #2, however, reminded her in some ways to answers she might get from her ex, and so she embued the answers with her ex’s personality. All of them did this to some extent. Inferring personality, thought processes, and motives from words is a very uncertain art.

So what does this have to do with Interreligious dialogue (IRD)?

When speaking to a person committed to and immersed in a different religion, we are talking to a person who has some serious differences in worldview. They are not aliens or completely inscrutable. However, they hold to perspectives that may seem quite alien to us. We then are affected by several things in these conversations:

  • We are affected by religious prejudices, both positive and negative, that make us guess “what is really going on” inside the other person. It is much like friends of mine who accuse politician A while excusing politician B while possibly even commending politician C for the same identical behavior. They determine the motivations and morality of the person through political biases. Sadly, our prejudices are often dangerously wrong— often leading to demonization of “them” while not holding “us” accountable.
  • We look for commonalities that may not exist. Similar language may suggest similar values and meanings incorrectly.
  • We look for differences that may not exist. Different language may suggest different values and meanings incorrectly.
  • We are affected by transference, seeing similar behaviors and language to someone else one knows may lead one to assume that they are similar. Suppose for example, one meets a Hindu who does not eat meat due to religious convictions. Or perhaps one is talking to another person who chooses to maintain a vegetarian lifestyle because of health issues or having concerns with the meat industry. Maybe talking to one or both of them reminds one of a neighbor who thinks that all omnivores are immoral and stupid. It is easy to presume that their attitudes and values are very similar, when they are not.

This is part of the reason that in both interreligious dialogue and in intercultural encounters, one should be slow to judge. We are generally incompetent judges of what is going on inside of others. When Jesus said, Judge not lest ye be judged, I believe it is not simply an issue of love or mercy, it is also a statement of competence. We see the external, but only God sees the heart.

3 H’s of Persuasion

I have been going over different Asian religions in my Dialogue in Asian Religions course. I started with Judaism in Western Asia and worked my way across to Shinto in the East. Now I am looking at Atheism. Atheism has deep roots in Asia. Some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism could be described as Atheistic, as can some modern political movements in Asia such as Bolshevism and Maoism. Of course, Atheism is so diverse that it is hard to find commonalities between many atheistic perspectives. That, however, is the point. One doesn’t truly know what another person believes simply by knowing the label they use to self-describe. One must talk with them.

Image result for captain disillusion

I decided to use some comments from my favorite “skeptic” online. His name is Alan Melikdjanian. He is more commonly known as “Captain Disillusion” on Youtube. He is a debunker— particularly of videos that seem to show the impossible. He shows how many of these are made through special video “tricks.” Very interesting. However, I am bringing him up for a talk he gave at Skepticon Australia (2018 I think). The title of his talk to a group of skeptics was “The Unbearable Loneliness of Being Right on the Internet.” While he doesn’t say it directly, the talk is essentially a critique of the “New Atheism” movement that developed in the early 2000s. I really don’t think the movement truly exists. Rather, it was a term coined by a journalist around 2003 (I forgot the journalist’s name) to refer to a rather aggressive evangelistic form of atheism that often shows itself in seeing belief in God or in a religious belief system as a sign of mental deficiency or delusion.

Melikdjanian does not seem to have problems with the evangelistic fervor of these people, but rather that their method often has the opposite effect of what they are seeking. The aggressive negative stance of the “new atheists” tended to lead to pushback seeing these skeptics as jerks (or as Melikdjanian said, falling into the “black hole of assholery”).

He suggested three H’s to describe how skeptics (a term that itself is generally understood as rather negative) can be more persuasive.

H is for Humor. Melikdjanian commonly uses humor to entertain and to educate. Good humor builds bridges between people. Bad humor such as sarcasm (“cutting of the flesh”) drives a wedge. Humor also makes one’s message more interesting, grabbing the attention and sympathy of the respondent. Such humor must be humor that resonates with people outside of the echo chamber of the skeptic community. When humor is used in a self-deprecating fashion (pointing out one’s own weaknesses or mistakes), it can lead into the second H.

H is for Humility. In theory a skeptic is a doubter (even though it has often been used to describe those who are rather uncritical of a naturalist worldview). As a doubter, one should be ready to admit one’s mistakes, and express uncertainty and a willingness to learn. Skeptics too often have been known for embracing a certain “know-it-all” attitude with an associated condescension of other’s views. This seeming lack of humility is not a popular attitude, and even less so in a time being dominated by post-modern thought.

H is for Hope. Melikdjanian notes this is very important. Many people hold to faith beliefs that are out of line with the beliefs of skeptics. Many such believers do so, in part, because it provides a source of hope for them. For a skeptic to encourage a person of faith to leave that faith, the hope lost must be replaced with a new hope. The goal should never be to replace hope with hopelessness.

I think there is a lot of wisdom here, and I believe it applies as much to Christians as anyone else. Christians need to be able to express their faith in a manner that is humorous… entertaining, and enlivening the interest of those who are not Christians. Far too much Christian media is designed to be consumed only by Christians or those who are fully immersed in a Christian worldview. Much of it is boring or nonsensical to those outside of the subculture. It is maddening at times the Christian productions out there. Much of it is low quality. That is worthy of complaint. Worse, however, is that it is often marketed as Evangelistic, and yet uses language and cultural references that are only meaningful to insiders. To insiders, it may be seen as simplistic and boring… but to outsiders, the reaction can be far worse. The Gospel poorly presented CAN be do worse than the Gospel not (yet) presented.

As Christians, we recognize that God knows all things, and that we are not God. As such, we have every reason to be humble and joyously embrace our own ignorance. This should not mean that we revel in ignorance (it is good to study and try to understand), but we should not assume that we know it all and that we are always right about everything. Christians are supposed to be humble, so why not embrace that role? We also should avoid espousing the lie (or at least mistaken belief) that doubt is the opposite of, or contradiction of, faith.

As Christians, we need to help others know that we offer a message of hope. Often we do the opposite, spending more time on judgment than on hope. Why? I think there is still a part of us that think that the Medieval practice of the Morality Play (scaring people into formal adherence) is still a good method today. I am not sure it ever was. We must realize that the Gospel message is an offense to some and foolishness to others. It also undermines much of what others base their lives on. Therefore, when we express the Gospel message, the focus should be more on hope.

 

 

Is Dialogue Contradictory to Evangelism?

Dialogue is in contradiction to Evangelism. Or is it?  Dialogue is generally thought of as conversation between two equals (certainly equals in terms of roles in conversation) so as to achieve mutual understanding. As such it is not driven by a desire to coerce another, or change another’s mind. From this standpoint, it is certainly understandable if Dialogue is seen as contradictory to Evangelism. Some even explicitly (or at least implicitly) say this:

Leonard Swidler:    The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn; that is, to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality, and then to act accordingly.

Peter Feldmeier:   Be without covert or ulterior motives.  Do not secretly be trying to convert them or prove yourself superior.

Frankly, I agree with them. Dialogue is not to be manipulative. It should be built on mutual respect and openness to learn.

So does that put it at odds with proselytizing? Does it work against evangelism?

No, I don’t think so:

Dialogue IS NOT Evangelism… but it IS Foundational to Evangelism

Dialogue helps one…

  • Understand each other  (head level)
  • Have greater insight with each other (heart level)
  • Reduce social distance (relational level)

So consider three forms of evangelism

#1.  Testifying. Sharing one’s own experience (serving as a witness of what God has done in one’s life).

#2.  Proclaiming. Sharing the gospel message and Christian dogma.

#3.  Arguing.  Seeking to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian faith over the faith of the other (two-way conversation where each is seeking to change the mind of the other).

Now consider these.  Testifying is a more personal form of evangelism and that certainly is helped by a reduced social distance. It would also be aided by an understanding of the thoughts, beliefs, and values of the other so that the testimony can be presented in a way that would be understood well by the other and be relevant to the other.  The same could be said in terms of proclamation and even argument.

So, dialogue  is not evangelism. the process and goals are different. However, healthy dialogue helps to bring connection between the two and better understanding of each other which is pretty necessary to effectively evangelize.

Let’s be honest here. Most of the evangelisitic methods that have been created are based on the presumption that the other person is already (essentially) Christian. For example, the Romans Road presumes that the respondent accepts the authority of the Holy Bible, and essentially has a Biblical understanding of who God is, who Jesus is, and what sin is. The respondent may or may not be “born again” (having allegiance to Christ) already, but probably already is already at least nominally or culturally Christian. Hardly surprising that such methods don’t work well with those of distinctly non-Christian religions or cultures.

If you are interested in knowing more about Interreligious (or Interfaith) Dialogue, consider clicking on the menu above for “My Books” and look at the book “Dialogue in Diversity.” It can be clicked on to purchase, or simply to preview some of it.

Cover front

 

Reflective Book Review: “Principles of Leading Muslims to Christ”

I don’t do book reviews very often. Frankly, I usually read through or skim through books rather than deeply read a book. And I even more rarely read a book in the manner appropriate for critique.  However, the author of “Principles of Leading Muslims to Christ” was one of my students, and I did work through the book cleaning up some aspects. Anyway, here is my rather lengthy review.

The book, “Principles of Leading Muslims to Christ: Effective Contextualization and Dialogue for Transformation and Discipleship,” was written by Adesegun Hammed Olayisola. He is a Nigerian who was raised as a Muslim and trained as a Muslim, before coming to be a follower of Jesus when he was college age.

I find the book has several strengths, one weakness, and one or two things that fit in a gray zone between these points.  I will start with strengths:

1.  It is written from a position of sympathy and love for Muslims. Much Christian writing regarding Muslims tends to embrace negative stereotypes. I once decided to electronically cut ties with a pastor friend who essentially used his FB account to promulgate every hateful click-baity story put out there that degrades Islam or its adherents. The author finds much that is commendable in Islam and its adherents, and chooses not to pander to his primarily Christian audience.

2.  He takes up more space bringing awareness of Islamic teachings over Christian responses to those teachings. Some of this is because of the next point. However, in addition he notes that Christians often have a stunning ignorance of Islamic beliefs (and I would add beliefs of almost all other religions). Effective interaction with Muslims begins from a foundation of understanding, rather than ignorance.

3.  Olayiwola recommends dialogue built off of a foundation of mutual understanding over the utilization of argument,  or special plan or technique. Argument generally drives people further apart and special techniques or procedures often are ineffective because they completely fail to take into account the individuality of belief, personality, values, and situation of the person one is talking to. He recommends using a clarification form of dialogue (as opposed to argumentative or relativizing dialogue), and finds value in the 7 principles of Max Warren for interreligious dialogue.

4.  He emphasizes what needs to be done with those Muslims who decide to follow Christ. He speaks particularly of those Muslims who, like himself, find themselves ostracized by family and community (and for some by nation) because of this change of faith. He gives a lot of good advice as to how to bring them into the community of faith. He does not recommend C5 or C6 groups, but does see the need for churches who are MBB (Muslim Background Believer)-friendly. Ideally, it is pastored by an MBB. He speaks of some of the difficulty and rejection he had with Christians and Christian groups for some trivial things such as his name (an “Islamic” name) and whether being a Christian requires a Muslim to start eating pork, or reject part of his (polygamous) family.

The major negative aspect of the book is that it is roughly edited. I have to bring this back on me. I helped with the editing, but Olayiwola lacks to resources for professional editing. It does show, but I don’t believe that it undermines the book, but readers should be aware of this. <As a person who cannot afford professional editing, and as one who likes to put out books first, and fix some problems in later revisions, I am quite sympathetic of this.>

There are some other things that I consider neither negative or positive, but are worth noting.

  1.  The book arguably is not clearly written to any specific target demographic. The early part of the book spends considerable time talking about the story of Sarah and Hagar. This is shared because it is an important issue for many Muslims. However, for most Christians, Hagar and Sarah of Old Testament characters, and a rather obscure New Testament metaphor for salvation. For many Muslims, the story is much more. The author spent considerable time on this because it is important to Muslims and an important separation point for Muslims and Christians. The likely readers, Christians, should embrace this focus rather than seeking to undermine this focus. (I remember when the author presented this topic in one of my classes, and students began to try to argue with him. It was as if they forgot that the presenter is a Christian who is trying to present Islam from an insiders perspective for the benefit of the class.)  Additionally, context of Islam and Christianity is heavily skewed towards Nigeria. As such he focuses on concerns such as “white weddings,” polygamy, prosperity churches, and shariah. While many readers wouldn’t connect with some of these issues, it is unlikely to be beneficial to speak of Islam and Christianity only from a supracultural, decontextualized, setting.
  2. His principles of leading Muslims to Christ point to the idea that there is no set method. The title of the book should hint at this, but Christians are so used to focusing on methods, that they often struggle with focusing on principles or on process. However, once one embraces a method, one often disregards relationship. Additionally, whatever method works in one context is likely to be unhelpful in many (most… nearly all) other contexts.

I do think this book is valuable to Christians who love their Muslim neighbors. But expect to be challenged.

Olayiwola’s book is available at this time in online sources such as Amazon.com.

NOTE:  Olayiwola used some of what I had written on Interreligious Dialogue. If you want to read up more on this topic, consider my book:

Dialogue in Diversity

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Keep Them Talking???

I was looking at a blog of one of my favorite Asian theologians. His blog is on Patheos. Patheos appears to be a webspace that allows bloggers (especially theological or religious) to reside. I am not sure if they allow the bloggers to be monetized, but there are an awful lot of advertisements. Much of the advertisers are really, Really, REALLY SKETCHY. Personally, I am not interested in clicking on an advert to get a prophecy from my personal angel. If my personal angel wants to tell me something, he/she can email or PM me like the rest.

One advertisement caught my eye, however. It said.

How to shut up an atheist in 15 seconds flat.

Click Here to Find Out How

A strange whim came over me and I clicked on it (something I never ever ever do).  It said,

Atheists silenced by “Adam Gene” discovery.

A new blessing for every Christian American.

It started to try to open up a video for me to watch… but I dumped out before that happened. I wasn’t convinced I was interested. First of all, it is apparently for Christian Americans and most of the people I minister with and to are Christian Asians. Second, if this “Adam Gene” is such a wonderful thing (“a new blessing”) shouldn’t it be a new blessing for atheists? Do Christian Americans really need a new blessing? Let’s not get greedy…

Not having watched the video, I have to guess what is being said. I guess they are saying that there is something that someone labeled the “Adam Gene” in the human genome whose character is so self-evidently inexplicable from an non-theistic evolutionary perspective that a committed atheist will be completely dumbfounded and have no retort to this. And this discovery can be explained adequately in 15 seconds or less. Without knowing what this new blessing is (which I guess must actually be an “old blessing” since it is given the moniker “Adam”), I still have my doubts. Worldviews are generally quite resilient to opposing views, and evidence is rarely as “In Your Face!!” as proponents think it is.

For me, however, I am thinking more about an advert for Patheos that would be a bit different. It could be something like this:

Atheists

I feel like this would be much more valuable and interesting. I feel it sounds clickbait-y enough. Adding “in 15 seconds flat” is overkill, and I think disingenuous as well. When a person clicks on it, they are taken to a list. Perhaps the list could look something like this:

  1. Let them know that you are genuinely interested in what they believe.
  2. Listen actively and intently to what they say, seeking to not only understand what they believe but also why they believe it. (Talk less, listen more.)
  3. Demonstrate to them that you genuinely care about them as fellow human beings; and see each as an individual person, not a label or category.
  4. Make it clear that the care you demonstrate to them is not contingent on them coming around to your way of thinking.
  5. Invite them to share their faith journey to atheism. Seek to understand and empathize as much as possible with the feelings involved in that process.
  6. Dispel the stereotype that you as a theist believe that they, as atheists, must be bad people.
  7. Agree with them in areas that you can honestly agree, Don’t pretend certainty on things that you can’t be certain about.
  8. If asked to share what you believe, do so with humility, gentleness, and respect.

I would like to think that following such a list would be a blessing to Christians (American or otherwise) and Atheists alike.

Quite an improvement in my view.

Stories and Dialogue

Found a section of my old book Theo-storying that had stuff that I had forgotten about. I think I will have to update my book on Interreligious Dialogue (IRD) to include this. If I have time.

Another thing that affects the impact of a story is the respondent’s (or hearer’s) attitude about stories. Let’s return to the idea of responding to movies. Robert Johnson in “Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Engaging Culture)”3 speaks of different film responses.

  • Avoidance. Films are all bad. Best to stay away.

  • Caution. Films are often bad. Be careful to avoid any sort of heresy, or bad language or behavior.

  • Dialogue. Films speak for themselves. Critique and interact with the film on their own terms, not our own.

  • Appropriation. Films may have something important to tell us. Let’s be ready to listen and learn.

  • Divine Encounter. Films may provide us an epiphany or divine experience.

According to Johnson, these five attitudes describe five philosophies of critiquing movies. He notes that they fit into a spectrum where avoidance and caution are in the region of ethical critique. By that is meant that the critic looks at the movie regarding how moral is the behavior, visualizations, and scripting. If there is too much bad stuff in the movie, the movie is judged bad. Otherwise, it may be okay. Appropriation and Divine Encounter are on the other end, is where the critique is more aesthetic. Bad behavior and language may not be the main focus, but rather whether the film inspires and enlightens.

This, I believe, is a useful way of looking at films, at least from the standpoint of film critique. However, for individuals hearing stories, there needs to be some changes. We can keep the same spectrum. However, since this is a response attitude, rather than a philosophy for critique, there will be some differences.

Avoid    Caution    Dialogue    Appropriate     Encounter

|                   |                   |                   |                   |

<—————————————————————————>

Less Educative                                        More Educative

Less Doubt                More Doubt                Less Doubt

Further to the right on the spectrum the greater the tendency to accept the story as having educative value. The further to the left, the less presumption of educative value is given. The whole spectrum can be seen as sharing the attitude of the story having entertainment value. After all, a story without entertainment value probably is unnecessary… just replace it with facts and declarative sentences (or say nothing). Combining these makes the definitions change a bit.

  • Avoidance. Stories entertain, but should not be trusted to inform. Listen but don’t learn.

  • Caution. Stories entertain, but are not a good way to inform or educate. Perhaps they may have value as case studies or illustrations for difficult concepts.

  • Dialogue. Stories entertain, but they also provide an alternate perspective and experience. Interact with them and see what they have to say.

  • Appropriation. Stories entertain, but they also are an educational tool. We need to learn from stories.

  • Divine Encounter. Stories entertain, but they also inspire and transform. We need to hear God’s voice (or perhaps “divine wisdom”) coming through the story.

But Which Response Is Best?

If one is telling a story with the purpose of informing and inspiring the hearer, which response attitude is best? The immediate thought may be that Divine Encounter is best. And in one sense that may be true. It is nice when the respondent already starts from the presumption that what you have may be, not merely true but, the TRUTH. But I might suggest that Dialogue is a better starting point. Why?

Dialogue, the center of the scale is most likely the highest position of doubt and critical faculty. As one moves towards Avoidance, there is a lessening of doubt and critical faculty as one is more sure that the storyteller does not have something of value. Likewise, as one moves towards Divine Encounter, one is lessening doubt about the storyteller/story and lessening the critical faculty. Strong faith often comes from critical wrestling with doubt. It may not be desirable for the respondent to start from a lesser amount of critical faculty and doubt.

Take the example of the story of the Good Samaritan. An avoidance attitude is likely to lead the respondent to think that the Good Samaritan is a nice and pleasant story… but has no personal relevance or application. Divine Encounter attitude may lead to an uncritical acceptance of the story. That may sound good, but the uncritical acceptance may lead to a trite understanding (“It is nice to be nice to people”). Or, perhaps, the hearer will have an understanding of a deeper meaning, but not take time to see how to integrate the message with the hearer’s life. On the other hand, Dialogue means that one is open to hear the story, interact with the story, and “wrestle” with it. Elwood P. Dowd may have “wrestled with reality” for 35 years, but we can and should wrestle with stories. We grow through the process.

One should not minimize the concept of meditation or rumination. It is a cognitive and affective wrestling with the story. Two of the greatest defenders of the faith of the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, only came to faith through a long process of this sort of wrestling with truth.7 In the case of the Good Samaritan, what does it mean to truly love one’s neighbor as oneself, when one’s neighbor can be one who hates you? In the case of the the priest and Levite, is Jesus saying that religious piety should be set aside to help someone you don’t even know or like? (If you have read the Gospel Blimp by Joseph Bayly,8 one of the main characters begins going to church less often to invest time with a non-Christian friend on Sundays, to the chagrin of his Christian friends. Not completely a parallel story, but it does have elements of commonality.) If loving one’s neighbor includes friends, family, fellow believers, and enemies, is there any way in which one’s actions should differentiate these relationships? Are you TRULY loving your neighbor as yourself while you are reading this paragraph about loving one’s neighbors? The more you meditate, the more questions you are likely to have. Questions show that we are still learning, or at least open to learning.

Reflection on Interreligious Dialogue Class

Background. I was teaching a class on Dialogue with Asian Religions at seminary. One day, one of my students, a Muslim Background Believer, came to me and asked whether he could teach a couple of class hours on Islam. I was rather relieved by this. Islam is not a religion that interests me particularly, but I also know that it deserves to be taught well, since it is the largest (organized) non-Christian religion in the world, and probably the second most important religion in Southeast Asia.

Dialogue/Incident. M will stand for the student teacher in Islam. S1 will be Student 1. S2 will be Student 2. P will be the Professor (myself). <The story was written down over a year after the incident, so due to poor memory, some specifics are fictionalized although the overall story is accurately given.>

M: Good morning class. I will be teaching you about Islam today. I was born and raised a Muslim in a Muslim community, and today I will share about Islam from the perspective of a Muslim. Now Islam is a religion of peace. The name Islam is related to the word “Salaam” meaning peace and relates to the Jewish word Shalom.

S1: Excuse me. But why are Muslims so violent then if they are a religion of peace?

M: Islam is about peace. One can’t judge our faith on a few who are bad or violent. Would you like to have Christianity judged on a few bad Christians?

M: <Continuing, M read Genesis 17:17-18, 20. This speaks of God’s plan to bless Ishmael> As you can see God chose to bless Ishmael as the first son of Abraham, the inheritor of God’s favor. And as we see here <showing another slide> Ishmael was the father of the Arab peoples and one of his descendants is Muhammed who is the one who passed onto us the Quran as the final prophet of Islam.

S2: But Ishmael was not the inheritor of God’s blessing to Abraham, it was Isaac! This is what the Bible teaches.

M: Ah, but is that what it says here in Genesis 17? Verse 20 says And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget and I will make him a great nation.”

What does it say in the Taurat (Torah)? And in the Quran Surah 2, it says that Ishmael is the son who was blessed not Isaac. Ishmael was the son who was taken to be sacrificed in Arabia, and the one who Ibrahim took with him to Mekka to build the Kaaba– the first mosque of Islam.

<Some rumblings and jokes started going around that the student is a “secret Muslim.” M continued to speak talking about how Yakub (Jacob) spoke to his sons about the need to follow Allah, the god of Ibrahim, Ishmael, and Isaac. M then spoke of the prophets of Islam: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Isa (Jesus). More questions were brought up by the students. However, the questions were not actually questions to understand Islam or what M was saying, but were questions to undermine the arguments of M. Finally, I jumped in.>

P: <Angrily> You know that M said tha the was going to be speaking about Islam from the standpoint of a Muslim. So stop the little jokes about him being a closet Muslim. Your job is to listen and learn…. not debate!

Theological Reflection: Theologically, we are often insecure. We can be so insecure that we struggle when people express beliefs that are different from our own. As humans we were designed with a Fight/Flight adrenal response to address threats. That can be very useful when we are threatened— when we are under attack. However, when we are faced with a person who believes something different, the same response is often triggered. We often get angry (and wanting to respond agressively) or with fear (and wanting to escape). I think this is a socio-cultural response. Cultural establishes groupings of people who generally share a belief in how experiences are interpreted and how such interpretation would guide action. Anyone who expresses beliefs that interpret experiences quite different and have beliefs that guide actions that are very different—- they are outside of one’s cultural grouping. People who are not part of our cultural grouping are THEM (as opposed to US). “THEM” are foreign, aliens, strangers, outsiders. Such people are naturally seen as threats. Of course, people within one’s own culture (“US”) can also be seen as threats. However, they usually are less threatening because we feel like we understand them (because of the different way of interpreting experiences and guiding behavior). This feeling can be so strong, that we react even when a person is “playing a role.”

Ministerial Reflection. I believe I responded correctly in redirecting the students. They were so focused on joking and challenging, that they weren’t really listening. However, I may have come on too strong. People started focusing on listening so much that they did not really ask many questions after. The presentation became more like a one-way lecture.

Personal Reflection. Why did I get angry. I wasn’t angry at M, but I was angry at the students. I am not totally sure. Maybe I was angry because I felt like I had failed. I was trying to teach them the importance of Dialogue with those of other religions, yet even in the controlled environment of classroom (on Dialogue!) the students immediately went to Debate. Or maybe my anger wasn’t really at the students at all. Maybe I was angry at myself— thinking that I failed as an instructor. I think that maybe I was also sad. Christianity has existed for almost 2000 years. In most of those centuries, Christians have struggled in how to relate to non-Christians. Most commonly, the example of Christ is not lived out in these interactions. The class on this day gave a little snapshot of centuries of struggle in this area.

Response. It was foolish for me to get angry at my students. I was, in a sense, responding the same way they were. They reacted to the presenter, and I reacted to them. In the future, I think it is more important to have students get more practice in Dialogue. As such, I will spend less time on lecture. It is a class on Dialogue after all.

I could also give better ground rules if we do a similar exercise again— warning the students not to react to the speaker, but focus on the principles of active listening, dialogue, and clarification. Or maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe it is better not to prepare them. Rather, let things happen as they happen, and use whatever happens as a learning moment for all of us. I am not sure what is best in this case.