IRD Intro

I decided to make some minor updates to my book, “Dialogue in Diversity: Christians in Conversation with a Multi-faith World” during quarantine.

I decided to put the Introduction here.

Imagine that you have a toolbox. Maybe you are a carpenter, but 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 carpenter would be exhausted and the constructed house would be a disaster.

A wise carpenter has three things:

  • What. A toolbox with a variety of tools associated with his craft
  • How. Skills to use each of the tools effectively
  • Which/When. Wisdom to know the right 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 meditation. 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 each tool well. A carpenter may own a power saw, but still need considerable training to use it expertly. A minister may “know how to preach,” but still there is a great distance between 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 something in addition to 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 or 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 interreligious dialogue.

Philosophically, this book sees interreligious dialogue as seeking understanding. This is in contrast to those who see it primarily in terms of either focusing on similarities (“common ground” or relativizing approach) or on differences (apologetic approach). 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, teaching, or 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.

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.

More Rules of Dialogue

I had asked my students to create their own rules of interreligious dialogue (IRD). They were allowed to research and borrow from others, but the end result and explanation should be their own. I was quite pleased with the results.  Here are a few of the lists (minus the explanations):

1.  Converse Despite the Differences

2.  Converse with Knowledge of One’s Own Identity

3.  Converse to Seek Understanding (of the other’s perspective)

4.  Converse with Open Mind and Heart

5.  Converse with Silence (focus on listening)

6. Converse to Strengthen One’s Faith

7.  Converse to Build Relationship with the Other

8.  Converse as an Act of Glorifying God

 

D-I-A-L-O-G-U-E   (Acronym)

Don’t Lie (be sincere)

Involve the Church

Assume Not (what the other believes)

Learn and Grow (be open to change)

Observe Self-reflection (be open to challenge in the process)

Go with Respect (demonstrate courtesy)

Understand Your Own Belief

Equal Your Footing   (demonstrate fairness and mutuality)

 

  1.  Preparation and Prayer (God is part of the conversation)
  2. Demonstrate courtesy to the other
  3. Build confidence and trust in the conversation
  4. Draw the net slowly. Don’t just pull the conversation quickly to your own favorite topics.
  5. Exchange belief. Listen and Share
  6. Be respectful of individual differences
  7. Interpret one’s belies in a manner that would be understandable or “make sense” to the other
  8. Have a good conclusion.  Highlight good and true points and show appreciation for them.

 

I will give just the above three lists. However, from others in the group were some good rules to remember as well. Here are some.

  • Choose dress and behavior that will not offend or harm the relationship
  • Start conversation with areas of commonality before addressing differences
  • Bridge the language gap speaking to their language and language level.
  • Demonstrate gratitude for their time and their sharing and listening
  • Have a good introduction… words and behavior that help the person want to have a dialogue with you rather than want to leave.
  • Have a limited time frame. Conversation should not be forced into a small timeslot… but there should be limits so it doesn’t just wander aimlessly.

 

 

 

 

…And Then Sometimes They Just Get It

I teach a class in Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD). Since I am a Missions professor at an Evangelical missionally-minded seminary, I like to challenge the notion that IRD is anti-evangelistic. IRD is not preaching (1-way communication to change someone’s mind) or apologetics (2-way communication to change someone’s mind).  IRD focuses on understanding, but I point out that, much in line with Dale Carnegie, one does not influence another person by trying to win arguments. Mutual understanding builds trust, and opens the door for more effective sharing of one’s own beliefs.

Part of that class was to have my students practice Inter-religious Dialogue. They were to have two good conversations with individuals of another faith.

Most did okay enough. There were some issues:

  • Some really did not talk to those of another faith, but of a different Christian denomination. Why? In some cases, they may have been shy about making a conversation with someone from a different faith. For others, I don’t know. This is a Baptist seminary, and there is a temptation (a very unhealthy temptation in my view) to identify people from other denominations as people of other faiths.
  • Some did a conversation more like a quiz. “Can you answer me these following questions about your beliefs?” and “Okay… thanks for your time. Good day.” That is not the worst thing. Evangelicals sometimes almost revel in their ignorance of other faiths… so I can’t really complain that they took time to listen. But perhaps they could have done more to build relationships.
  • A few quickly fell back into argument— trying to ask clever questions, or make poignant statements that would leave the other at a loss and realize that their faith is invalid. That rarely works. But I know that argument is commonly taught as if it is a great method of sharing one’s faith. Just this morning, I saw a tweet from a Christian author that said something like. “Evangelism today is spelled A-P-O-L-O-G-E-T-I-C-S.” Personally, in a post-modern society, most real (inter-religious or inter-faith, rather than inter-denominational) evangelism should be spelled D-I-A-L-O-G-U-E. But I know that the desire to be clever and “score points” can be strong… and there are valid roles for apologetics.

One student in particular really got my point. When I first started teaching the class, he seemed rather skeptical thinking that I am disrespecting Evangelism. This is not surprising since Dialogue as promoted by John Hick, Raimon Pannikkar, and others on the Relativistic side of the spectrum of Dialogue thought certainly did not support proselytization… and often found it to be anathema, or at least inconsistent with dialogue.

But over time, my student came around to the idea that there may be benefit in using dialogue to reach some people.

He presented a case where it was very helpful. He was having a conversation with a person from another of the Great World Religions. That person was quite cautious and suspicious of my student. My student was very non-combative– he did not preach, he did not argue. They talked about life and faith. Over three or four meetings, they were able to get to the point where they could talk about issues of faith and faith allegiance in a mutually safe environment. The other person decided to become a follower of Christ. My student is now mentoring that person… but is for now cautious in integrating that person into a church. (Sadly, there are far too many horror stories of well-meaning Christians who destroy young Christians from other religious backgrounds because they don’t know how to respond well.)

So does that mean that Dialogue can work in Evangelism. Absolutely Yes. Is it the only thing that works? No, but for a person from a radically different faith background, canned presentations, clever arguments, and polemics are likely to create a hostile response, not the desired response.

My student was thankful for the class because it helped him respond in a way that the other person was prepared to respond well to… rather than react against.

I find it amusing sometimes, and sometimes disappointing, when I teach a class and my students do almost the exact opposite of what I recommend. It is their right, and I don’t really trust professors who feel that their students must mimic their own views and behaviors. Still, one hopes that the students at least struggle with what they learned from the course trying to figure out what to value and practice, and what to set aside….

… And then sometimes they just get it.