Two Poles in Dialogue

Years ago I had a long discussion with a member of the Bahai faith. It was interesting in many ways, but also rather frustrating. The individual would like to say that all religions in essence agree with each other– that all religions give the same answers. He would say that, and I would point out distinct differences between what his religion taught and my religion… to say nothing of the differences between other faiths. He would acknowledge the differences and then say that “No,” all religions agree. This conversation continued over several weeks over 25 years ago. Perhaps today I would be able to follow the dance of words and concepts better. But it felt like he was embracing universalism to the point of self-contradiction. People are allowed to self-contradict— that is their right. On the other hand, I also felt that his attitude was rather disrespecting. Since a unique feature of his faith was this sort of religious relativization, it seemed like the only unique feature he would intelligently acknowledge was his own. I felt that in his attempt to relativize all religions, he was saying that the uniqueness of my faith not only did not exist, but did not even deserve to be seriously discussed.

And feelings matter.

Harvie Cox has noted that interreligious dialogue must address two elements that exist between two different religions or faiths. These are the universalistic elements and the particularistic elements. Religions address universal human concerns and questions. Not only do they address common concerns, often they come up with many common answers. That being said, there are considerable differences between various religions. Ignoring these differences does a disservice to both religions. <Cox, Harvey. “Many Mansions or One Way? The Crisis in Interfaith Dialogue”. The Christian Century. August 17-24, 1998. p. 731-735.>

Focusing on the particularistic elements or “pole” emphasizes the differences, and leads to a dialogue of argument. It disrespects the commonality of humanity that leads to common themes of religious inquiry and answers.

Focusing on the universalistic elements or “pole” emphasizes the commonalities and leads to a dialogue of relativization. It disrespects the unique foci and answers of different faiths.

Centering on either pole is disrepectful to the faiths and participants in one manner or another. However, one can embrace “creative tension” where the commonalities provide context to the particularities, and the particularities provide nuancer to the commonalities. A clarification form of dialogue seeks understanding by not deemphasizing either pole. It respects the participants and the religions without underplaying or overplaying differences.

<This post is based on the first draft of a section of chapter 5 in the book I am now writing:  “Interreligious Dialogue in Christian Ministry.” Hope to finish it by October          in 2019          someday.>


Meriting Dialogue. Kärkkäinen Quote

““Dialogue has to be about the question of truth, evenImage result for veli karkkainen if no agreement about the truth can be reached. For consensus is not the goal of the dialogue. . . . If two people say the same thing, one of them is superfluous. In the interfaith dialogue which has to do with what is of vital and absolute concern to men and women—with the things in which they place the whole trust of their hearts—the way is already part of the goal.” Moltmann rightly says that only those people are capable of dialogue—“merit dialogue,” as he puts it—who “have arrived at a firm standpoint in their own religion, and who enter into dialogue with the resulting self-confidence.” Thus, Moltmann continues, “it is only if we are at home in our own religion that we shall be able to encounter the religion of someone else. The person who falls victim to the relativism of the multicultural society may be capable of dialogue, but that person does not merit dialogue.””

     –by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, in “Christ and Reconciliation,” p. 28.  Quoting Jurgen Moltmann in “Experiences in Theology”




Truth and Dialogue– Bringing Them Together

David Hesselgrave, in his book “Communicating Christ Cross-culturally,” has an interesting figure in Chapter 9 called “The Contextualization Continuum.”

Here is a version of it.

Hesselgrave Chapter 9

I find the figure interesting in some ways, and even useful. However, there are some aspects of it I disagree with.

1.  One part of the figure I disagreed with so strongly that I removed it from the figure here. Associated with “Orthodoxy” is something called “Apostolic Contextualization.” Associated with “Neo-Orthodoxy” and “Neo-Liberalism” is something called “Prophetic Contextualization.” Associated with “Liberalism” is “Syncretistic Contextualization.” I somewhat disagree with the last one, “Syncretistic Contextualization,” but to me the terms Apostolic and Prophetic Contextualizations are used randomly. I can see no linke between the terms and the concepts. In fact, if I did feel like I had to use the terms, I would probably switch Apostolic and Prophetic. The NT Apostles (I am thinking primarily of Paul, Barnabas, Peter and John) actively promoted and/or applied the idea that Eternal truths in Scripture are laden with cultural/temporal truths. Paul, Barnabas, and Peter recognized that Greeks do not/should not embrace Jewish culture to be Christian. John, did considerable work, especially in the Gospel of John, to express Christian teachings in with Greek concepts. To me that effort is more than simply a translation process.  Since OT Prophets, at least, generally deemphasize such an openness to other cultures, it seems like Apostolic Contextualization comes closest to relating to Neo-Orthodoxy and Prophetic to Orthodoxy (at least as the figure presents them).

2.  There is no way that one should describe the Method associated with Liberalism as Dialogic. Dialogue in no way expresses an opinion about truth. Perhaps the term was chosen because of the novel tendency of Evangelicals back in 1978 (when Hesselgrave’s book was written) to understand dialogue in line with John Hick and Raimon Panikkar. Their understanding of dialogue could arguably be seen as linked to a Liberal or Pluralistic perspective. On the other hand, perhaps the terms were chosen to be clever. Aliteration sounds nice (Didactic, Dialectic, Dialogic) even when it (perhaps) misinforms.

3.  The figure could be interpreted to mean that the more supra-cultural one interprets the Bible, the more orthodox one is. In my understanding, Orthodoxy has always questioned normalizing (blessing) one’s own culture, as well as any particular Biblical culture. As such, there should be a category further to the left on the figure for Schismatic or perhaps Particularistic groups.

This figure reminds me of the figure I use for dialogue:

Dialogue spectrum

One can bring these two figures together– relating Strategies of Contextualization and Strategies of Dialogue.



The red line shows the theoretical spectrum of theology from more conservative to more liberal. The Green region would be the more normative strategies associated with the theological perspective. The Yellow region would be less normative, and Orange quite unlikely.  Of course, the redline as shown doesn’t truly exist. The range of theological perspectives do not fit comfortably onto  a single thin line.

The more conservative theologically, the more likely that the contextualization strategy is Didactic (focusing on how to translate the Bible and Christian teachings into the language and thought patterns of a target people). There is also a greater likelihood to utilize an Apologetic strategy of dialogue, emphasizing argument as a way to share the Christian message.

Of course, that is not always true. For example, many Conservatives may choose a Clarification strategy for Dialogue believing that it could be a more successful strategy. It would, however, be quite unlikely for Conservatives to utilize a Relativistic strategy for Dialogue or a “Dialogic” strategy for Contextualization since both tend to minimize the uniqueness of Christian revelation.

At the other end, being more theologically liberal, a “Dialogic” strategy of Contextualization and a Relativistic strategy for Dialogue would be more likely because of the tendency not to see Christian revelation as unique. That, however, is not automatic.

For me, I strongly support a Clarification strategy for Dialogue. For Contextualization, since I tend towards a “Counter-cultural approach” of contextualization, on this chart I suppose it is in the area close to where Didactic and Dialectic meet. That means I am not on the Red Line, but still in the Green Zone.



Learning a New Term: “Symbolic Interactionism”

I have recently begun reading the book Participant Observation by James Spradley. I suppose I should have read it years ago… but better late than never. In Chapter One he references Herbert Blumer (1969) and his work Symbolic Interactionism. Three premises of this theory are (in my own wording)

  1.  People act towards objects  (nouns of any type) based on the meaning these things are given (by us).

  2. These meanings do not come from these objects but are assigned to things based on the social interaction people have with their peers.

  3. Meanings are not static, but can modify as people interact with the objects they encounter.

I have seen this as I have been reading FB posts recently. Often I have wondered if I should stop reading them.  I have a melancholic temperament, and a lot of the social media of Christians is quite depressing. However, maybe instead of complaining at the freaky things people share on FB, I should embrace my involvement in terms of Partcipant Observation.

Recently, I was reading a thread on FB that was coming up with stronger and stronger language to speak against former US President Obama, and former presidential candidate H. Clinton. Eventually one conversant described Obama as the Antichrist and Clinton as the “Whore of Babylon.” I hope I don’t need to say that this is a huge abuse of Scripture and Scriptural language, Despite this, the person got quite a few “Likes” for the post. Since most all of the conversants in the thread would consider themselves Christians, and even use the label “Bible-believing,”  why would they say or like a statement that was, arguably, a heretical interpretation of Scripture (from a section of the Bible that appears to curse those who do just such abuses to the Word)?

Godwin’s Law states “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” While this is commonly applied to arguments, you will notice that Godwin’s Law doesn’t actually specify argument. When a bunch of people get together who share the same beliefs, there is often a tendency to play one-upmanship with each other making more and more radical statements.

For some Christians, Hitler (or other authoritarian abusers and killers) does not describe consummate evil. Rather, Satan, or demons, or the Antichrist would be the substitute for Hitler. The use of the term “whore of Babylon” is clever in that it sexualizes the insult— as seems to be always the temptation when men (or women) want to denigrate a woman. Of course, the “whore of Babylon” is a system and not a person (as, probably, is the Antichrist) but that is not the point. Both terms are symbols. Image result for the devil

For the FB discussion… Obama and Clinton represent a challenge to power— legal power, political power, social power. As such, they are seen as a threat to some people. Threats gradually lead towards demonization (or Hitlerization). In the case of Obama and Clinton, it is not so much who they are (they don’t seem to me to be worthy of much applause or castigation— they are just people who are involved in US politics). Rather, for those who see Obama or Clinton as threats to power, they symbolize something bigger.  When people attack them, they are attacking what they symbolize.

Of course, one does not have to be in a position of power to fall into this trap (and it IS a trap). Over here, the President of the Philippines occasionally states things that insult or attack the Roman Catholic Church— the largest religious group in the country. Many Evangelicals have applauded this. Why?  Again, the Catholic church has considerable power in the country, and as such, there is the temptation to see them as the enemy. (Of course, if they actually were the enemy, then we would have to embrace the teachings of Jesus and love them, not applaud attacks on them.)

But going back to the three premises of Symbolic Interactionism, none of this is inevitable. We connect to things (and people and concepts) based on the meanings we give them. As such, meanings are flexible… they can change. Today, I was in seminary chapel, and the speaker noted how wrong it was for Protestant Christians to applaud the attacks on our Catholic brothers and sisters. We are not without our faults so why express joy when their faults are exposed? And when politicians use religion to divide (and conquer), why do we yield to the temptation of predictability (standing by “our guys” uncritically, and attacking “their guys” uncritically). In the case of the speaker in chapel, he was seeking to work on the 2nd premise of symbolic interactionism. He was seeking to influence his peers so that the Catholic church is no longer given the label of “the enemy” by seminarians. I would like to think that he words will have influence.

Additionally, interacting with people different from ourselves can also help. This is the third premise. I find it valuable to talk to people of other faiths, other denominations, other theological persuasions, other races, and other political and national affiliations. Often, I find there is a lot of common ground. Even when we still disagree strongly on things, the temptation to stereotype them or “Hitlerize” them goes away. Rather, they are simply (in my opinion) “wrong.” More commonly, they are a mixture of right and wrong, good and bad, admirable, and problematic. I find that picking up news from many sources reduces my tendency to embrace certain things as true and other things as fake based on how I feel about a certain subject.

While Symbolic Interactionism is a moutful to say (or type, I suppose), it expresses something of value for Christians.

  • We need to recognize the temptation to objectify— see people as symbols or objects, rather than real people. In fact, we do it automatically, but we can at least be aware of this.
  • We need to recognize our temptation to confuse our ethics and our aesthetics. We tend to think something is right and good, or dispicable and awful based on group feelings and stereotypical generalizations than on what what is truth. We “bless” our beliefs with Scripture verses, rather than drawing our beliefs from the (uncomfortable) whole of Scripture.
  • We can grow as people by interacting positively with those who are unlike us. And if we go in willing to grow and learn, the others might as well,.

And the last is perhaps the most important.

  • We can break Godwin’s Law cycle of devolving discussions by challenging the base instincts of our peers— helping them seek out God’s perspective rather than Groupthink.

In the case of the FB thread I was describing earlier, perhaps it would have only taken one person to jump in and note that both Obama and Clinton (regardless of whatever flaws they may have) are God’s creations, worthy of love and concern— and appear to sincerely seek to live out their political life in line with the ethics that their particular Christian denominations hold. As such, they are worthy of a certain amount of admiration even if one does not ultimately agree with them on some issues. I am not sure everyone would suddenly embrace, but perhaps that person could at least have short-circuited the road to the Antichrist and Whore of Babylon.

Inclusive Uniqueness

In my research for the student textbook on Inter-Religious Dialogue I am writing, I came upon a nice article that included a disagreement between two leaders in the field of IRD in the 1970s— John Hick and Max Warren. (“Evangelicalism without Hyphens: Max Warren, the Tradition and Theology of Mission” by Tim Yates. Anvil: Journal of Theology and Mission. Vol 2, No. 3, 1985. p. 231 – 245)

John Hick suggested that IRD should be drawn from a radically new view of the relationship of Christianity to other faiths. He considered the transition as a sort of “Copernican Revolution.” theologically-speaking. Image result for ptolemaic model

The traditional view could be likened to the Terracentric (Ptolemaic) Model in Astronomy. In this case, instead of the earth being the center, the center is Christianity. One would then see Christianity as the center, and other religions would circle the Christian faith from various distances depending on how closely they aligned with the doctrines of Christianity. In essence, Christinity is “the truth” and other religions are in essence “false,” although with perhaps various degrees of falseness.

The view proposed by Hick could be likened to the Heliocentric (Copernican) Model. Here, however, the center is God. God is the center of faith, and various faith groups revolve around this center. On first glance, this seems quite reasonable. God should be the center not our own religion, correct? But there was a problem. That problem had to do with the issue of religious uniqueness. If God is the center and different religious groups revolve around that center, than Christianity is just one of many— maybe the closest, or maybe the “best” but no more— just one faith construct to know or have access to God. If that is true, than to understand God in our Inter-Religious Dialogue, we should open our minds to other truths about God from other groups, and question our own presumptive beliefs. In essence, one must relativize one’s own beliefs if one is to gain insight from others. And, arguably, to relativize one’s beliefs about one’s own faith, one must also doubt the uniqueness of Christ as revelation of God.

This is quite consistent if one accepts a Theocentric system for IRD. But Warren suggested a different possibility that I am calling the “Unclusive Uniqueness” of Christ. A way I might suggest it is to think of a Christocentric Model. However, perhaps instead of saying that Christ is the center, I may be more specific and say the “Revelatory Christ.” After, all there are many religious views of Christ from the panoply of faiths out there. These views tend to give a discription with an implicit “among many” They may say that Jesus is

  • a prophet (among many)
  • a god (among many)
  • an angel (among many)
  • a holy man (among many)

Jesus Christ however, is expressed in Scripture as unique in revealing God. As such, “among many” doesn’t really apply.

Note, however, that placing the revealed Christ at the center, does risk again taking away the uniqueness of Christianity. And to an extent that is a valid concern. Our foundation, however, is in Christ, not the church. To the extent that Christianity aligns itself with the revealed Christ, it is on a unique and firm foundation. To the extent that we drift, we fall more into an orbit around Christ like other faiths.

Consider a bit from Tim Yate’s article:

<Warren> quoted J. M Creed, the Cambridge theologian of an earlier generation, to the effect that, whereas Christian theology did not need to claim that it contained all truth of religious value, it was committed to the view that ‘in Christ it had found the deepest truth of God’. Not to do so was for the Church to lose itse1f. From this point Max argued that the uniqueness to which he was committed was essentially inclusive. Jesus’ relationship to God as ‘Abba’, father, is distinctive but in this relationship he is Man, inclusive Man, relating to God. Max is prepared to accept the Copernican revolution where this means displacing the religion, Christianity (vide Hick above) from the centre. For such a religion can easily degenerate into idolatry, and so invite God’s judgement, as any other religion, a view familar to readers of Barth or Hendrik Kraemer. Max then made a move which was characteristic but vulnerable to Hick’s response: I want to argue that Christianity being removed from the centre the new centre is not a theological term -God- but an historical person, Jesus, in whom God is to be recognized as uniquely revealed.” (Yates, 239)

Where does this leave us as Christians in terms of IRD. If Christ is the center, and not the Christian faith, one should be open to the reasonable and humble belief that “we don’t know it all.” As such, Christians have the opportunity to learn and grow through dialogue, not just teach others. That being said, that inclusiveness is not to lead to a relativization of faith, since our center is the revelatory Christ. Dialogue tht leads us away from Christ as God’s unique revelation, is has led us astray.

To Tell the Truth in Context

When I was young, a TV show I liked to watch was called “To Tell the Truth.” One person with an interesting job or story would be joined with others to talk to a board of celebrity panelists. The goal of the panelists iwas to determine who is telling the truth and who is lying. The goal of the contestants is to all talk as if, and answer questions as if, they they are the person being presented. Fooling the panelists would put money in the pockets of the contestants. My understanding is that they have revived this show in the US, but I haven’t seen it since I am now in Asia. Image result for to tell the truth show

The goal in the show, really, is not to lie but to deceive. Fooling the panelists is the aim, regardless of whether one uses lies or truth or half-truths or deceptive language.

Lies are a rather complicated thing. When young we are told that lying is telling something that isn’t true. But most jokes, parables, hypothetical problems, and such are, strictly speaking, not true (not based on reality or fact). We then learn that lying has as much to do with motive as fact. That’s why the key concept is “bearing false witness”— speaking falsehood to circumvent justice or promote corruption.

Then we start learning more subtleties such as saying things that are actually true, but are designed to misinform or deceive. I recall reading a fun article on writing references for former employees— using language that sounds rather positive, but is actually quite negative. For a former employee who would steal office supplies, “With Howard leaving, I definitely feel a great loss in our office.”

LIes and deception get more confusing when filtered through culture. When I was in the Navy, we had a huge amount of evaluation inflation. So if I wrote about one of my men in the division, “He is a very hard worker and deserves a promotion”— that was actually a slam. I wanted him out of my division. If he really WAS a very good worker I would say something like, “This many is top-notch, the best in my division and certainly one of the best in his rate anywhere in the Navy. He should be immediately promoted.” Something like that (I am out of practice). In the first sentence above where I described the person above as a hard worker, I was not lying. That is because meaning is always filtered through culture. BUPERS was able to clearly interpret what I was writing without confusion.  I was using truthful language withing the culture of Naval evaluation language.  I recall getting a bad evaluation in the Navy. It said I was smart, capable, hard-charging officer, and certain in the top 15% of other officers of my rank in the Navy. That was a very negative evaluation— and I knew it because I was very familiar with the language of evaluations. But because the words actually sound nice, it makes the negative message feel better. The evaluation could have said, “Bob is a dirtbag and should be dumped out of the Navy at the first opportunity, ” that the wording in the eval sounds much nicer. Cultures often provide a more pleasant way to say unpleasant things.

It becomes more challenging when people are from different cultures. Living in Asia, many Americans get angry because “Asians lie.” They say one thing, but mean another. However, that is often not true. Often they will say “Yes” when they really mean “No.” However, their tone of voice, and body language, make it very clear that they are really saying “No.” Many times, I have asked something from a friend or co-worker of mine, and they say “Yes,” they can do what I ask. But I can hear and see that the word is not in line with what they mean. So I respond with something like… “Well, maybe some other time, but thanks.” Then I see the tension leave them and they smile as if to say, “I am so glad you understood what I was trying to say.” If they meant “No” why would they say “Yes” but then mix it with verbal and physical cues to point to the opposite? There can be multiple reasons… but mostly it is related to the relationship game. Saying “Yes” to a request for a favor that the person cannot or doesn’t want to grant is like saying, “Your relationship with me is important. Therefore, I will say ‘Yes’ but I hope you understand that I am really saying ‘Yes’ to the relationship, not to the request.”

These subtleties are often lost on Westerners… but, truthfully, everyone does it.

In Osoba O. Otaigbe’s book “Building Cultural Intelligence in Church and Ministry” there is an interesting help that was given to immigrants or foreign workers who were living in England. The guide was meant to help the people understand what the British mean when they say some things. Here are some of the helps.

When British people say:  “I hear what you say.”

They mean:  “I disagree and do not wish to discuss it any further.”

When British people say:  “With the greatest respect…”

They mean:  “I think you are a fool.”

    <By the way, despite what one sees on some military TV shows, such as NCIS, military personnel do not say things like “With all due respect…” or “Request permission to speak freely.” At least they didn’t when I was in the Navy. That was because bot statements were universally understood to mean, “Captain, you are full of %$@&!”>

When British people say:  “Not bad.”

They mean:  “Good or very good.”

When British people say:  “Quite good.”

They mean:  “A bit disappointing.”

When British people say:  “Oh, by the way, …”

They mean:  “This is the primary purpose of the discussion.”

When British people say:  “That is an original point of view.”

They mean:  “You must be crazy.”

When British people say:  “I am sure it is my fault.”

They mean:  “It is your fault.”

This is not strictly a British thing.

When my dad would say, “Oh… can’t complain.”

He meant:  “I am have most excellent time, thank you.”

When an American says, “What’s up?” or “How ya doin’?”

They mean:  Very little beyond “I acknowledge your passing near me.”

When Christans respond to a request with “I will pray about it.”

They mean:  “I don’t plan to be of much help, but I hope things turn out okay.”

When Americans say, “Let’s do lunch sometime.”

They mean:  “I think you are okay of a person, but not okay enough to spend time with.”

When Americans say, “I’m kind of busy.”

They mean, “I don’t plan to reprioritize may schedule to accommodate you.”

It is pretty clear that language is filtered through culture and context. As such, where meaning is accurately transmitted from one person to another in one setting, may very much deceive in another.

In missions, meaning matters. Meaning is found in sentences not words, and in context, not in a “vaccuum.” This is one of the many reasons that effective communication is so difficult on the field.  Unlike the show “To Tell the Truth,”  our goal is not to deceive but to inform and enlighten. But it is easy in the mission field to confuse and deceive by telling the truth while not understanding the context.

Inter-religious Dialogue as a Tool

I have recently, finally, started working on my book on Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD). I should not have been so slow. I will be teaching the course starting in October (2018). This is the third time I have taught the course, but this will be the first time with my own text. I hope to have at least a rough draft ready by then.

The following is the rough draft of the Introduction.

Imagine that you have a toolbox. Imagine you are a carpenter, and in your toolbox you have only one tool — perhaps a hammer. Can you build a house only with a hammer? Poorly at best. Can you hammer screws? Again poorly. Other tasks are likely even worse — leveling, sawing, drilling, and more. The results would be poor. The carpenter would be exhausted and the constructed house would be a disaster.

A wise carpenter has three things:

  • A toolbox with a variety of tools of the trade

  • Skills in how to use each of the tools effectively

  • Wisdom to know which tool to use for each task

Now imagine that each Christian has a toolbox of skills associated with serving God. Some tools may be spiritual disciplines such as prayer, bible study, witnessing, and mediation. Other tools may be less specifically religious such as teaching, polemics, argument, encouragement, and counseling. Having a wide variety of skills/disciplines is important, but this is not enough.

One must know how to use eachtool well. A carpenter may have a power saw, but still need considerable training to use it well. A minister may “know how to preach,” but still there is a great distance beween this and preaching well or effectively.

Skillful use is not enough. One must have the wisdom to know the right tool to use in each specific circumstance. Some people are very skilled in prayer, but as important as prayer can be, there are times when prayer is the wrong tool… or at least an inadequate tool. A hungry neighbor needs more than prayer. There are times when preaching is needed, and times when it is inappropriate or unhelpful.

This book is about a tool — dialogue. Specifically, it is about the tool of dialogue, and how it can be used effectively as a Christian minister in interacting with people of other faiths.

At a basic level, most everyone knows how to do dialogue. But this does not mean that everyone is equally competent to dialogue well. This also does not mean that everyone knows when to use it and when not.

This book is primarily aimed at missionaries and ministers who work in cross-cultural or religiously pluralistic settings. However, the places on earth that are monocultural and religiously monolithic are decreasing rapidly. Therefore, there are fewer and fewer ministers who can say that they are competent in their ministry without skills in inter-religious dialogue.

Philosophically, this book sees inter-religious dialogue as seeking understanding. This is in contrast to those who see it primarily in terms of relativization of beliefs at one extreme, and apologetics at the other. As such it is consistent with Evangelicals, who take very seriously their own truth convictions regarding religious faith. However, it also challenges the presumption of many Evangelicals that the most effective way to interact with people of other faiths is through preaching or teaching (one-way communication), or through arguing.

Sadly, a book is by its nature a form of one-way communication. Since this book is about dialogue, it is my hope that readers will have an opportunity to go through this book with others — and especially with others of a variety of viewpoints. Dialogue, as a tool, is practiced, not simply read about; and is made sharp through practice with those of diverse opinions.