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.

Chapter 5. Models of IRD (part 2)

<Continued from previous post>

Poles” of Interreligious Dialogue

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.5

This author recalls having a long discussion with a member of the Baha’i faith. It was interesting in many ways, but was 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 occurred 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. It all felt rather disrespecting. He honored one pole (universalistic pole) while dishonoring the other (particularistic pole). While I suppose he was seeking to give me comfort that “we all really agree,” I felt like my faith and beliefs were being disrespected.

Our differences were ignored, and feelings matter.

Meaningful and respectful dialogue must address and honor both the particularistic and universalistic elements of the two religions. When comparing this to the three models before:

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 disrespectful of 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 nuances 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.

But Why Do Dialogue Anyway?

Perhaps it is a bit late to bring this up, but perhaps now that the major perspectives of dialogue have been presented, it is a good time to consider why one may choose to participate in IRD, particularly from a Clarification Approach perspective. This is not a complete list. But here is a start.

First, some familiarity of other faiths helps to identify the nature of that faith. Distant observation and second-hand information does not inform, it tends to misinform and confuse. Many religions utilize similar terms but with very different meanings. Some religions utilize very different terms but with very similar meanings. Both of these are difficult to recognize without practice and conversation.

Second, knowing other religions helps one to understand one’s own faith better. We learn to a great extent through comparison and contrast. For example, when Jesus shared, in the Sermon on the Mount, how the Kingdom of God “operates,” He did it by providing a series of contrasts to how the world tends to operate. Perhaps Jesus could have explained it without contrasts. He could have said that the Kingdom of God is loving, kind, forgiving, content, worshipful, and so forth. It would be quite easy to read all of that and feel pretty good about being part of the Kingdom of God. But by utilizing contrast, we discover how far we truly are from God’s ideal.

Third, knowing other religions helps one gain a sense of what are key differences and what are not. Key differences between Christianity and other religions are commonly in areas of Christology (the nature and work of Christ) and Soteriology (what is the nature and process of salvation). But some things that we might think are key characteristics of Christianity are also shared by most other faiths. Consider the Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self-control). While these may be qualities that can be identified in a growing Christian, most of these qualities are also promoted by other religions. They may evidence a growing Christian, but they may not identify Christian dogma versus non-Christian dogma. This, in fact, should hardly be surprising since Paul notes that against these, there is no law— in other words most everyone thinks these are good, or at least not bad.

Fourth, through contrast with other religions we can gain a clearer understanding of the broadness of our faith. Often when our understanding of religion is limited to our own faith, we end up majoring on minor issues. By learning about other faiths, one may understand that variety within valid expressions of Christianity.

Recently there was Twitter post circulating that stated to the effect that after 100 years of mission work only 12% of the Philippines is Christian. There are some obvious problems with these stats:

  • Christianity and Christian missions arrived in the Philippines nearly 500 years ago, not 100 years ago.

  • Over 90% of Filipinos describe themselves as Christians.

So how could he come up with the statistics shared? There are several assumptions made to arrive at these statistics:

  • Roman Catholic Christianity is absolutely classed as non-Christian,

  • Real Christian missions only started with the arrival of Protestant missionaries to the Philippines close to 1900 AD.

  • 0% of Roman Catholics in the Philippines are Real Christians

  • 100% of Protestants in the Philippines are Real Christians

Every one of those assumptions is highly suspect, but this is not the forum to discuss this. What is important is that these assumptions are the assumptions made through non-interaction. Christianity is understood only in terms of Protestantism. Thus Protestants are Christians and other traditions of Christianity are non-Christian. But is this true?

By knowing other religions better, we can also understand that we as Christians often share far more in common than we hold different. This is not to say that differences don’t matter, but at least be open to what Brian McLaren describes as a “Generous Orthodoxy.”6

From Book:  “Dialogue in Diversity: Christians in Conversation with a Multi-faith World

Chapter 5. Models of IRD (part 1)

Chapter 5 from “Dialogue in Diversity: Christians in Conversation with a Multi-faith World.”

Views of Salvation

There are many views regarding Interreligious dialogue. Not only are there many views, there are many labels and many classifications for IRD. In this book, we will use a spectrum based on the people’s understanding with regards the the prime function of dialogue. Figure 5 shows the range that is loosely divided into three general approaches. However, before we get to that, we can start with a different, but very much related, spectrum— perspectives on salvation. This is based generally on Alan Race’s three basic groups: Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism.1 These three groups are pretty well agreed upon. Two more groups are added in Figure 4– Particularism and Universalism. Some people use the terms Particularist and Exclusivist interchangeably. Here, they will each have a different emphasis.

figure 4

Figure 4. Salvation Spectrum

An Exclusivist for a Christian means that only those who are Christian, embracing Jesus as their Savior will be saved. The term Particularist is often used to describe a narrower version of Exclusivist. Such a person may believe that salvation is mediated through their own faith group or denomination. As such, one is saved by Jesus, but it is only available to those within their own specific sect, or those who embrace a certain unique doctrine, or have participated in a special denominational ritual.

At the other extreme, on the far right are the Universalists. Universalists believe that God immediately or ultimately saves everyone. Jesus’ salvation is available to all, and effective for all.

In between the Exclusivists and the Universalists are two groups that overlap somewhat. These are the Inclusivists and the Pluralists. An Inclusivist would typically say something like, “Jesus is the means to salvation, but there may be some people who are saved by Jesus who do not necessarily know Jesus.” Some may believe that Jews can be saved through the faithfulness to the Mosaic Law even if they reject Jesus. Others may say that Muslims can be saved by Christ even though they reject His role as Savior and Lord because they worship the same God (God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Even those who would normally describe themselves as Exclusivist, may have some Inclusivist views. For example they may believe that infants who die are saved by Jesus even though they don’t know Him. Or they may see the same with those who are too mentally disabled to understand the Gospel message and respond to it. Others may go further and say that those who have never heard the message of Christ may still be saved by Christ based on their response to the truth that they know.

Pluralists take this progression further. Some may say that Jesus is still Savior, but that pretty much anyone can be saved if they express Christlike love in their hearts regardless of their religion. Some continue further and take Jesus out of the picture and simply say that ‘There are many roads to Heaven.” For these Pluralists, along with Universalists, may consider themselves to be Christian, but would reject the uniqueness of Christianity.

Evangelicals traditionally are considered to be Exclusivists, although most would have believe at least a limited form of Inclusivism. However, the truth is that one can come across self-described Evangelicals (to say nothing of other Christians) who fit into all of the above categories.

Knowing where one fits into the above categories can be useful because the views regarding IRD correlate often with these categories. Looking at Figure 5, the spectrum is divided into three general approaches. Again, the key is not so much the fact that there are categories, but that it is on a spectrum. There is a wide range of views on dialogue that fit on to different places of this spectrum.

Apologetic Approach/Strategy. In this view, the purpose of IRD is to convert those of other faiths to one’s own faith. Therefore, argument is the most valid form of conversation. Typically, people who like this approach emphasize the differences and deemphasize similarities. This is because the goal is to correct the wrong beliefs of the other. Christians who are more Particularist or Exclusivist in terms of salvation often gravitate to this approach. This may also be described as the “confessional approach.” On the positive side, it could be said this method “gets to the point,” and “calls it like it sees it.” It is unapologetic in its faith commitment. On the other had, perhaps it can be a blurred view. To emphasize differences may also mean ignoring valuable similarities so one is actually seeing a distorted version of the other religion. Such a distorted view of the religion may hamper attempts influence the other person. Additionally, the method of argument, can lead to pushback or backfire as discussed in an earlier chapter.

figure 5

Figure 5. Dialogue Approaches/Strategies

Relativistic Approach/Strategy. Another name for this is the “Common-Ground Approach.” This view, at one extreme of the spectrum, seeks to be truth-seeking, as described by John Hick, rather than confessional when one approaches IRD. That is, one brackets one’s own beliefs or even tosses them aside so that one is better prepared to learn from those of other faiths. This approach tends to emphasize the similarities with other faiths. Those who are more Pluralistic or Universalistic Christians tend to find this approach to make more sense.2

Martin Buber has questioned that Hick’s view that this is actually “truth seeking.” He noted that if dialogue is seen as a quest for truth-seeking, why should it be presumed that a person who relativizes truth is more committed to truth than one who does not. Buber argues that what is needed in good inter-religious dialogue is not relativization of truth, but mutual respect.3

Karkkainaen quotes Moltmann in expressing a similar idea to Buber, that truth-seeking does not imply relativization of beliefs.

Dialogue has to be about the question of truth, even 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.”4

Clarification Approach/Strategy. With this approach, one does not embrace confession/argument, but also does not relativize one’s beliefs either. In this approach, the focus is on mutual understanding. One may anticipate that if one extreme (Exclusivists and Particularists) gravitate toward Apologetic Approaches, and the other extreme (Pluralists and Universalists) gravitate toward Relativistic Approaches, then Clarification Approaches should be most attractive to Inclusivists. To some extent this is true. However, other groups can tend toward some form of Clarification Approach as well. Exclusivists, for example, often like the Clarification Approach.

Why is this? Exclusivists are often Evangelistic, meaning that they seek to share their faith with others with hopes that the others will convert to their own faith. However, not all agree as to how best this is done. Most would presumably agree that relativizing one’s beliefs would not be conducive to conversion. However, there is not so much unanimity as to whether argument (or straight up proclamation) or seeking understanding is more effective. Seeking understanding does tend to reduce misunderstanding and such a reduction is likely to reduce barriers to conversion.

<Continued in the next blogpost>

Book Finally Complete– “Dialogue in Diversity”

It is finished. The battle is over. Yesterday, January 12, 2019 I put my book “Dialogue in Diversity— Christians in Conversation with a Multi-faith World” out into the world. It has been a slow process, and am thoroughly glad it is over.

That being said, I now feel trepidation at putting it out for all to see. I suppose that is strange since many parts of the book I have put on my blog. I suppose it is because I take a topic that is quite divisive, “interreligious dialogue,” and take a moderate view. While in many cases, taking a position that is inclusive is a good idea, in religion, that is often quite risky.

One side often sees interreligious dialogue (IRD) as problematic. What they may see as IRD, is really proclamation and argument. For these people I argue strenuousl that not only are the goals of proclamation and argument not supposed to be goals of IRD, but the goals that these people do have are commonly not achieved well with the methods of proclamation and argument.

On the other side, there is a tendence to relativize truth in interreligious dialogue, looking for “common ground.” For these people I argue strenuously that those who practice their faith as true can and should desire people to share a similar commitment. Therefore, even if they hold dialogue for mutual understanding, this mutual understanding is foundational to breaking down barriers that prevent conversion.

In other words, the book is pretty much written to make no one all that happy. But I am not so sure that books are supposed to make people happy— at least generally. Generally, books should make people think. Hopefully, my book achieves that.

As of 13 January 2011 only the Kindle version is available online HERE. Hopefully, in a few hours the paperback version will be available.

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.>

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.