Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Need for More Intrafaith Dialogue

Moderate and liberal Christians have increasingly emphasized the importance of interfaith dialogue. Locally, the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council was formed in 1989 by Vern Barnet (who, I am happy to say, is a Thinking Friend and regular reader of this blog).

“To develop deeper understanding within the community of each other’s faiths and traditions, and to foster appropriate bilateral and multilateral interfaith dialogue and interaction” is the first goal the GKCIC presents on their website.

Here is the second of their five goals: “To model spiritual and religious values, especially mutual respect and cooperation, in a society often intolerant of cultural and religious diversity.”

These are good goals, ones that would be shared by most groups and individuals who work for interfaith dialogue anywhere.

EthicsDaily.com is a division of the Baptist Center for Ethics, an organization founded in 1991 by Robert Parham. BCE launched EthicsDaily.com in 2002 and posts news, columns, editorials and other content each weekday.

(I am also happy to say that from time to time EthicsDaily.com posts my slightly revised blog articles, the last one being on March 29 as you can see here.)

On January 5, BCE Executive Director Parham posted “Prioritize Interfaith Engagement in 2016—The Baptist Way” on EthicsDaily.com. It is a good article, and anyone interested in interfaith dialogue would find it helpful, whether Baptist or not.

I am completely in favor of interfaith dialogue, especially in ways articulated by Parham in the article just cited. But I have come to think that there also needs to be m ore emphasis upon and concerted attempts at having intrafaith dialogue.

Conservative/fundamentalist Christians are not inclined toward having much dialogue of either type, for reasons I won’t go into here. Neither do moderate/liberal Christians seem to have much interest in having dialogue with the former. Some on both camps, sadly, often make denigrating and condescending remarks about those in the other camp.
Some liberal Christians, it seems, would much rather have dialogue with Buddhists and Muslims than with conservative/fundamentalist Christians. That is partly because dialogue with the former is mostly with well-educated, mild-mannered, tolerant people.

On the other hand, there is a stereotype that most conservatives/fundamentalists are ignorant, boisterous, and intolerant. Make no mistake about it: some of them are just that. But there are people exactly like that in other religions also.

All Buddhists and Muslims are not like the fine people in those religious camps who participate in the interfaith councils. But neither are all conservative Christians and evangelicals as ignorant and as intolerant as some we see in the public media.

There are, unquestionably, some conservative/evangelical Christians who are well-educated and good thinkers. Why shouldn’t moderate/liberal Christians be as willing to engage with them in dialogue as they are with those in non-Christian religions?

There are, of course, some examples of good intrafaith dialogue. I think, for example, of Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (1989) by David L. Edwards and John Stott as well as Clark Pinnock’s Crossfire: An Evangelical-Liberal Dialogue (1991).
Pinnock begins his book by writing, “The major division in modern theology is not between Catholics and Protestants anymore but between liberals and evangelicals.” And he goes on to say that “the polarization is often so extreme that it is rare for evangelicals and liberals to talk with each other, much less try to understand one another in a sympathetic way.”

That was 25 years ago, and the situation is probably worse now. So, isn’t there a crying need for more intrafaith dialogue? I, for one, certainly think so.


  1. If we had more intrafaith dialogue, we would learn, I think, that liberal and conservative Christians have more in common than they realize. Maybe, too, many Protestant Christians would become better informed about their own faith. Recently I was on an interfaith panel as the representative of ALL of Protestant Christianity! The topic was on "Violence, Fear, and the Refugee Crisis." In doing my homework, I researched quite a bit in the liberal and conservative Protestant media and denominations. What I found is that, across the board, among Protestant leadership, there is tremendous agreement on a "Christian" approach to the issue of refugees and immigration. As you can imagine, that approach is gracious and hospitable (reflecting the biblical view regarding sojourners and strangers), encouraging love over fear, and arguing against linking terrorism to refugee/immigration policies. The strident negative and chauvinistic views of people like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., are a minority in the leadership of conservative Protestantism, but, of course, they get the most press, especially since they have a highly visible reactionary presidential candidate to endorse. The polls show about half of self-identified evangelicals in the U.S. reflecting these less-than-gracious views of Islam, immigrants, and refugees. But if the typical conservative Protestant would pay more attention to their denominational leaders and the broader evangelical thinkers and organizations, they'd find a different and, I would argue, more "Christian" spirit than is found on the religious right, probably with regard to a great many issues.

    1. Thanks, Anton, for your substantial comments that are helpful for keeping things in perspective.

      If all Christians could sort of disregard about 10% of the most extreme conservatives/fundamentalists and about 10% of the most extreme liberals, perhaps the middle 80% could get along pretty well.

  2. It is sad to see divisions among Christians. Not exactly what Jesus Christ had in mind for his disciples. He seemed to cut across politics, ethnicities, economics, etc. to draw a world unto himself. I have seen Christian unity a couple of times in my day, but it is certainly not the norm in this country. It will probably take a MAJOR disaster, and a move of the Spirit of God, to see change. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven.

    1. There are certainly some serious divisions among Christians. But there are also many Christians/churches who do quite well in cooperative efforts and who exhibit a great deal of unity.

      I regularly get emails sent out by the World Council of Churches, and there is considerable unity expressed--along with some good references to intrafaith dialogue. One problem, of course, is the unwillingness of most of the conservative churches to become involved with the WCC.

      On a personal note, in the last 14 weeks I have preached at two UCC churches, one with an Evangelical and Reformed background and the other with a Congregationalist background. Even though I had been a lifelong Baptist before becoming a Mennonite a few years ago, I was warmly welcomed by both churches and felt comfortable worshipping together with a shared faith.

  3. I applaud your essay, Leroy. Once, while studying in a liberal seminary, in reaction to the nasty anti-fundamentalist views I heard regularly, I wrote a paper titled, "Please Do No Fold, Staple, or Mutilate the Fundamentalist." (We more highly seasoned persons will know where that title comes from! :-) However, to be a bit more adversarial, there is the challenging hurdle that fundamentalists (in all religions) and probably most evangelical Christians believe their views are not only the correct views but also the views people must hold in order to be approved by God ("saved"). Such people are not easy to engage in civil dialogue, and, I would argue, are much, much less open to dialogue than moderates/liberals than you've represented in this blog.

    I have a lifetime friendship with a fundamentalist-evangelical, and we have huge arguments from time to time about theology. This is all in a loving but strongly confrontative manner because we've been through thick and thin together, and love one another deeply. But, for him, he's arguing with someone who doesn't hold his view of atonement, which he believes must be held to be saved. It makes for some interesting twists in our dialogue.

    1. Yes, it is not easy to have dialogue with fundamentalists, Christians or otherwise. Whether it is interfaith dialogue or intrafaith dialogue being considered, the farther to the right the dialogue partner is, the more difficult is having any sort of meaningful dialogue.

  4. I've already said too much, and I apologize. But you've opened an issue close to my heart since in my life I've been both a fundamentalist Christian and a liberal Christian, and am now on the board of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council. One of my criticisms of most interfaith and intrafaith dialogue is that they are typically not dialogue at all. Rather, they tend to be faith "sharing." What I mean by that is that we in the interfaith and intrafaith communities, are quick and ready to share our views, sentiments, doctrines, etc. But we rarely confront each other with hard questions, questions that challenge one another's perspectives. [I'll quit now; and my apologies to everyone who tries to read the responses to your blog.]

    1. No need to apologize, Anton. I appreciate your significant comments.

      I think that interfaith or intrafaith dialogue probably needs to begin with "sharing"--and with active listening on both sides. The first goal, it seems to me, is to understand what the other person is saying and with what the other persons believes and why.

      You are probably right, though, in suggesting that dialogue often does not go beyond that--but should. Tough issues need to be seriously considered. But those questions need to move in both directions with those on both sides asking and reflecting upon the "hard questions."

  5. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago shares these comments, which are worth considering, as his usually are:

    "Thanks, Leroy for your comments, with which I agree.

    "I would note, however, that conservative evangelicals (I try to avoid the term 'fundamentalist' because of its negative connotations) have much in common with devout Muslims. Both groups oppose abortion, homosexuality, sex outside marriage, drinking alcoholic beverages (there are exceptions to this), gambling, etc. Many in both groups believe in biological creationism and see the hand of God (or Allah) in every phase of life. So a dialogue with a conservative evangelical or a Muslim often covers the same issues. Interestingly, it is conservative evangelicals who seem to have the greatest fear of Muslims and who push state legislatures to ban the use of Sharia.

    "(A professor at BYU once told me that many Muslim parents send their children to BYU because of its strict rules and conservative values.)

    "But respectful dialogue is always helpful--and almost always enjoyable as well. It's when we see each other as human beings."

    1. Eric, I agree that "fundamentalist" can be used in a pejorative sense, but there have been some, such as Jerry Falwell, who took delight in using that term for themselves, and probably there are some who still do.

      In spite of some common concerns, such as those you mentioned, there is certainly an unwillingness of many conservative or evangelical Christians to have dialogue with Muslims. I was just reading an article yesterday that cited a survey saying that "87 percent of evangelicals avoid Muslims."

  6. Leroy, yours is a thoughtful blog. I don't disagree, but I think that one fundamental reason for engaging in interfaith dialogue is so people of faith can learn a method to use in intrafaith dialogue. One of the best books I've read on interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims is by Muhammad Shafiq and Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Muslims. If Christians could learn their methods, it would be a boon to the intrafaith dialogue to which you call us. At the same time we must be mindful of arguments such as Robert Shedinger's, Was Jesus a Muslim, who makes some very astute observations about the problem of thinking about such dialog as occurring between practitioners of religion. To him, conceiving of these rich and ancient traditions as religions (in the sense of clearly demarcating sacred from secular) is problematic.

    1. Thanks, Milton, for taking the time to read and respond to this morning's blog article. This blog is always enriched by your comments.

      I am not familiar with the books/authors you mentioned, but it seems that Muslims need much more intrafaith dialogue as do Christians. I'm sure Muslims could raise the same sort of question with regard to Christians, but what is the meaning of interfaith dialogue in a religion with such division and even warfare as is seen between Sunnis and Shiites? No doubt much of that struggle is political more than religious--just as was much of the fighting between Catholics and Protestants in the past.

      Concerning your last point, I agree that "religion" is a fairly new and inaccurate term. That is the reason I much prefer speaking about interfaith dialogue rather than interreligious dialogue.

  7. Thinking Friend Bob Hanson in Wisconsin sent an email with the following comments, which he gave me permission to post here:

    "Very timely as always Leroy. I am leery of the use of liberal, conservative etc. in this conversation but I suppose we have to label sometimes. What is important for me is the word 'practice.'

    "I have used this here at Hope Lutheran in terms of our practice of the faith. Also as I sit in meditation with my inmates, dhamma brothers, we are about practice. This becomes a thread in all spiritual paths, meditation, prayer, and chanting.

    "I would strongly ask your thinking friends to check out the Parliament of World Religions site. Having been to four of the six events since 1893, I have found their work very helpful in understanding and experiencing the other.

    "The other part of this conversation in one a colleague of mine, Paul Knitter has been working on with many, dual practice. I see myself, an ordained Lutheran Pastor, in my 50th year in 2016 and one who received Precepts in the Zen Buddhist path 15 years ago at the Syracuse Zen Center on a dual practice path. It is an enriching one.

    "My wife the Rev. Karen Ingvoldstad, a grad of One Spirit Seminary in NYC, and ordained as an interfaith pastor has had the same enriching experience. The presence and the reality of the other is a wonderful spiritual gift for all beings.

    "Your article certainly helps us to understand that Leroy, blessings and peace brother!"

    1. Bob, I also appreciate you taking time to share significant comments.

      Yes, there are problems with using labels. As you probably have heard it said, "All labels are libels."

      Still, there are religious and political differences between people that take too long to describe each time. Think, for example, of the religious and political differences between Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz.

      It saves a lot of time to refer to Clinton as moderate/liberal and Cruz as conservative, and I don't think either are misrepresented by using those terms.

  8. Hi, Leroy. Thoughts. I'm just speaking from my experience. I have tried to enter conversation with conservatives on their own turf (I'm thinking mostly of my sister's house), and it always turns to how I am wrong, and the eternal consequences of that wrong-headedness. Agreeing to disagree is not an option, because scripture obligates them to convert me. It's the kind-hearted and Christian thing to do for someone you care about, and, for that matter, "love your enemies" obligates them to save people they don't care about. "Dialog," to many conservatives, means conversion first, then they can talk about anything you might want. Without that conversion, any God talk can only go as far as gratitude for sustenance and beauty. That's the extent of the common ground.

    At Central Seminary, I have been part of conversations that are respectful, free-ranging and productive, and have added a lot to my faith journey. As a Mennonite, I have found a lot of common ground with black conservatives because they are in touch with or on the front lines of liberation theology.

    Upshot: I really don't think there is such a thing as neutral turf and there's no talking on their turf, unless we convert. Vern Barnet's group is progressive, any way you slice it. I think the first place to start is to recognize the enormous thing we are asking of our conservative brothers and sisters. My conservative colleagues at CBTS, who enter the conversation with us, are enormously courageous. One woman shared with me that her pastor and other church members had cautioned her that Central would destroy her faith and potentially teach her things that would pave the way to Hell.

    Productive conversations happen when conservative Christians are on the foreign turf and they consent to step around the "first hurdle" of personal conversion. I think the best thing we can do as progressives is provide the two common elements: sustenance and beauty. We create a beautiful environment with good food (and we dare not call it what it is -- communion). Invite the conservatives to come, acknowledge that it's an act of courage when they do, and pray that they'll take us up on our offer.

    1. Debra, thanks for sharing your views that have sprung from personal experience.

      I fully recognize the difficulty of initiating meaningful dialogue with conservative/fundamentalists. That is why I wrote in the article, "Conservative/fundamentalist Christians are not inclined toward having much dialogue of either type, for reasons I won’t go into here."

      I also wrote, "Neither do moderate/liberal Christians seem to have much interest in having dialogue with the former." But as you indicated, there are those, such as you, who are interested in dialogue--and I am grateful for such efforts.

      I concluded that paragraph by writing, "Some on both camps, sadly, often make denigrating and condescending remarks about those in the other camp." I am particularly troubled with those denigrating remarks coming from the moderate/liberal camp, and such remarks are not uncommon.

      Even on the academic level, I am not sure some liberals are willing to dialogue with the ideas of non-liberal theologians such as Lesslie Newbigin, whom I mentioned in my previous blog article.

  9. Leroy, thanks for a good opinion. i worked with the Interreligious Council of Washington DC when i was on the staff of the National Capital Presbytery representing the Presbyterians. i enjoyed it and appreciated it a lot. it was really an enriching experience. Thanks again always for your enlightening ideas.

    1. Thanks, Ed, for your comments and for sharing about your past experience in interfaith dialogue. What experience, I wonder, have you had in serious intrafaith dialogue?

    2. its been quite some time ago. what i remember mostly was happy and pleasant discussions and sharing. a bulk of issues and businesses we dealt was supporting and funding youth programs. it was really a enriching experience of sharing with people of other religions.

  10. The Enlightenment was born in what amounted to a vast divestiture by competing religions, the spin off separate specialized religions that we deemed secular, and thus kept apart from what we kept as "sacred" religion. Most of the world has never done this, so interfaith dialogue with non-Christians begins with a mismatch, which the West tends not to understand, for we have forgotten that our spun-off religions are still religions, even if they are secular.

    Think about economics. What passes for economics is not scientific. It is a collections of competing religions. Some of them are even cults. I would argue that neo-liberal economics is a cult, indeed, a death cult. The "invisible hand" is its God. "Red of tooth and claw" is its theology. Self-serving are its high priests and kings. Deadly are its effects on those around it. Orwellian are its pronouncements. Dangerous are its fatwas on those who dare to question its orthodoxies. Read "The Shock Doctrine" and "This Changes Everything" by Naomi Klein or "Debt: The First 5,000 Years" by David Graeber (available free online). If ever there were need of an interfaith dialogue, it is between Christianity and its forgotten sibling, neo-liberalism. Without the anchor of responsible faith, economics has drifted off into a place where much of it is just elitist jingoism, camouflaging the neo-imperialism hiding in its heart.

    I believe that much of the challenge in interfaith dialogue, particularly between Christianity and Islam, is not so much about the technical theological differences as it is between the economic principles imbedded in Islam, and the radical "free market" ideology dominating our Western world. Think about it, the infamous attack of September 11 was not on a church or temple, it was on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and apparently, intended to be on the Capitol. Attacks on places of worship are secondary, and mostly mosques are bombed by Muslims, even as in the United States churches are bombed by Christians. Americans have a tendency to not see the forest for the trees.

    To quote the verse made famous by former President Clinton, "Where there is no vision, the people perish . . . " (Proverbs 29:18)

    For a link to Graeber's book, check here: https://libcom.org/files/__Debt__The_First_5_000_Years.pdf

  11. William Hull near the end of an exceptional life of ministry, in the last stages of ALS, but with clear mind wrote, "Conservatism and Liberalism in the Christian Faith." He calls for the need of each to listen to each other as noted by Bill J. Leonard of Wake Forrest University.
    Les Hill

    1. Les, thanks for sharing this. Although I didn't enroll in any of his classes, I greatly admired Bill Hull when he taught at SBTS and remember him giving excellent Chapel talks.

      I was not aware of his 2015 book that you mentioned. I was glad to learn about it--and to read, just now, my friend Bill Leonard's Foreword.