Our world is undeniably diversifying. Our “tribes” of people who used to be separate and not in contact with one another are now rubbing shoulders more often, working at the same workplaces, living down the street from each other. There is still resistance to this encounter with the other, of course, but it seems inevitable that this pattern will only continue this way in the long run. One question this can raise for people is: what do we do about encounters with people of other faith? Do we pretend they don’t exist? Do we convert them? Will they convert us? Or is there a way to engage in productive conversation and respectful learning from one another?
Susan Strouse, author of INTRAfaith Conversations: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters?, has created a guide for church members and leaders who are interested in doing the work of inter- and intrafaith learning. Strouse was (at time of writing her book) a Lutheran minister in California who is passionate about facilitating interfaith conversations. She has her DMin (doctor of ministry degree), and it appears much of her research for her doctoral thesis made it into the book. The pages are replete with all kinds of references and there are helpful appendices at the end. That being said, her writing is scholarly but not stuffy, and the book is very approachable. (My regret is I wish I had the hard copy version instead of the electronic version, because there’s so much information packed in!)
Having an interfaith conversation, or learning about interfaith matters, is altogether distinct from having an ulterior goal of wanting to convert the other faith-holders. Thus, for Christians (for whom evangelizing is often a big concern), there are many resistances that might be had about doing interfaith conversations. Strouse adeptly addresses questions that arise, such as “How do I stay true to my faith if I’m not trying to convert the other person?” or “But what about how the Bible says, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?” She encourages the questions to be vocalized in congregations, because that is the whole point of an intrafaith dialogue. There are no single answers to the questions; no one “right” perspective to hold.
Strouse lays out some different frameworks for thinking about religious diversity. One such framework is pluralism spectrum: one end being exclusivist (e.g., faith in Jesus as described by Christianity is the only way for salvation); a middle ground of inclusivism (e.g., other faiths can hold their own beliefs, but it is the saving grace and way of Jesus that ultimately saves them, for that grace is for all regardless of if they choose it), or pluralistic (other religions are authentic paths on their own terms, regardless of if they include Jesus or not). Simply to have a framework to form one’s thoughts within can help people identify more clearly where they are at and be able to communicate to others their stances on issues. No position is declared right or wrong in the interfaith dialogue, but the intrafaith conversation allows for deeper self-understanding.
Strouse goes much further into other issues on the interfaith and intrafaith landscape, including the rise of the spiritually independent, how to do theology in an interfaith context, mysticism and the contemplative heart, and more practical aspects of how to actually host the dialogues.
I strongly believe one of the best antidotes to fear and hatred of the other is having actual person-to-person contact with the other, or at least taking the opportunity to be directly educated by the other (letting them teach you about their experiences. We can do this through reading if need be.). Strouse points out that we must not compare our best with their worst, but our best with their best. In an era seeming beset by division and skepticism about the “other side,” I wish that we could all be as humble and gracious to learn from others different us, yet as grounded in our own tradition to teach others the best of our best.
I wonder what you, my reader, think of the inter- and intra-faith dialogue. I wonder if these are issues you have thought about, or if you have wrestled with the theology behind it (I’m aware not everyone gets as excited about theology as I do…). What symbol might you choose to represent where you are? Would it be a picture with multiple religious symbols? A symbol of only your particular religion? Maybe a cross-shaped umbrella, sheltering all other religions (the “inclusivist” position)? Wherever you find yourself, this is a conversation worth having!