1. Change or be changed
Liz Dyer, posting on Interreligious Dialogue is a risky business, has this quote about willingness to change:
In dialogue each partner must listen to the other as openly and sympathetically as he or she can in an attempt to understand the other’s position as precisely and, as it were, as much from within, as possible. Such an attitude automatically includes the assumption that at any point we might find the partner’s position so persuasive that we would act with integrity, we would have to change our own position accordingly. That means that there is a risk in dialogue: we might have to change, and change can be disturbing.
K.W. Leslie, in Gathering with the pagans, says almost the opposite:
I suppose I need to explain to everyone why on earth I’m doing this. My fellow Christians are likely gonna make the assumption that, because I’m interacting with pagans, I’m endorsing them in some way. I’m not. I have an ulterior motive—just like every Christian who interacts with pagans has an ulterior motive. I want to tell them about Jesus.Lest you think, “Aw, nuts; the Christian guy is gonna try to convert me”—no. Jesus didn’t tell me to convert you; that’s His job. He told me to tell you about Him. Jesus told His students—which includes both His students in the first century and His students today—to go everywhere and teach everyone what He taught us. My job is to tell you; His job is to change you.
And Yvonne Aburrow said in the Religionrap discussion forum (because K.W. Leslie’s blog does not allow comments)
I really don’t think that interfaith dialogue is a dialogue if your intention, whether overt or covert, is to convert the other party. (Even if you think it’s not you doing the conversion, but Jesus.) Perhaps it’s a conversation (one in which the other participant will probably be walking away, shaking their head sadly) but it’s not a dialogue.
And in her own contribution, Only connect, Yvonne says
I do think, however, that the basis for interfaith dialogue has to be mutual respect, with no hidden or overt agenda of proselytising or evangelising. In listening to the other points of view in the dialogue, I should be open to them to the point of willingness to change my own position, but they shouldn’t be trying to convert me. It’s rather a paradox, but it’s the only way to make it work.
So which is it?
If we enter into dialogue with people of different religions, should we do so with the hope that they will be changed? Or will that destroy dialogue? Is willingness to be changed ourselves a precondition for dialogue?
I think J.R. Miller, writing on conditions for interfaith dialogue, gets it right in saying:
Condition #2. Express agendas with honesty
There is nothing wrong with having an agenda. Dialogue demands that we do not check our agendas at the door. Anyone with a deeply held faith or tradition understands that agendas are part of who we are and what makes our faiths meaningful. Hiding agendas, or pretending they are not important, is destructive to interfaith dialogue.
My agenda is to share the salvation hope that comes only through the death and resurrection power of the Messiah–Jesus. This, for me, is the context for interfaith dialogue.
The fact is that some are willing to change and some are not. Some want to see others changed, and some do not.
And this is where I disagree with Yvonne’s point. Evangelism is part of what the Christian faith is; it’s part of what Christians are. Demanding “no evangelising” is saying in effect, “You must change and abandon part of your faith before I will talk to you.”
I do agree with Yvonne about proselytising, though. I believe that evangelising and proselytising are two different things. I’ve written about that in an article on evangelism and proselytism, so I won’t go into all that here, other than to say that the Christian faith and Christian evangelism are indicative and not imperative. We say “This is what we do; this is what we do not do. This is what we believe; this is what we do not believe.” That is evangelism. We do not say, “This is what you must do; this is what you must not do.” That is proselytism.
One of the participants in the Religionrap forum is a Hasidic Jew. I don’t think he is willing to change his views and beliefs. But he participates in dialogue, and I’ve learnt quite a bit about Judaism through him. If willingness to change were a precondition for dialogue, then he wouldn’t be there, and I wouldn’t have learnt as much as I have.
So we don’t all engage in interreligious dialogue for the same reasons, we don’t all have the same agendas. But we can acknowledge that we differ in that as we differ in other things. Dialogue can continue, as long as we treat each other with respect. We can disagree without being disagreeable.
2. Faith and interfaith
Matt Stone writes about Is interfaith interfaith enough? and says:
the question that emerges for me is, is all this talk about “interfaith” too Christocentric to begin with? I mean, faith is a very Christian word when its all said and done. Few pathways emphasize faith as much as Christianity. Judaism and “Pure Land” Buddhism and certain strands of “Bhakti” Hinduism come to mind, but not too many others. So the very language of “interfaith” is something I find highly problematic
I agree with Matt there. Robin Lane Fox, the historian, says in his book Pagans and Christians:
Paganism is a Christian coinage, a term that suggests a system of doctrine and an orthodoxy as Christianity knows one. But pagan religion was essentially a matter of cult rather than creed. No group of pagans ever called themselves “the faithful”. There was also no pagan concept of heresy – to pagans the term meant a school of thought rather than a false and pernicious doctrine. Among pagans, the opposite of heterodoxy was not orthodoxy but homodoxy, meaning agreement (Fox 1987:31).
I’m not even sure that Judaism can be included. In one interreligious discussion a member of the Baha’i faith spoke of “the Jewish faith” and “members of the Jewish faith”, and some Jews were quite offended at that, and pointed out that the preferred terms are “Judaism” and “Jews” respectively. They also found the term “Judeo-Christian” offensive, and regarded it as a sneaky Christian attempt to coopt Jews.
There’s an organisation I belong to called the South African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute. I even helped them to set up a blog so that they could communicate more effectively with their members and the world at large.
But I have ambivalent feelings about it. I think it’s good to be concerned about the environment, but I often wonder if it wouldn’t be better to join a secular outfit like Greenpeace. Why should the world be concerned about what “people of faith” have to say about the environment? Why exclude people of no faith?
I think that it would be better if my own religious group (the Orthodox Church) had its own way of tackling environmental problems and encouraging members to do so, but if they wanted to work with wider groups, then “faith” or the lack of it would make very little difference.
Some “interfaith” bodies do have their uses, however. There is one called the “World Conference on Religion and Peace”, and at the time South Africa’s new constitution was being drawn up, the section on religious freedom was referred to the WCRP for discussion and comment. This meant that the concerns of different religious bodies could be reflected in the final draft.
But on the whole, though I’m interested in interreligious dialogue, I have little interest in “interfaith” organisations and activities. Like Matt Stone, I have reservations about religion and religions as well, though perhaps for somewhat different reasons.
One of my quibbles with Western Christian “theologians of religion” is that just as “faith” is a Christiancentric term, so is “salvation”, which these theologians of religion claim to be able to find in “other” religions. As I once said in another post
The idea that religions are about “salvation” is primarily a Christian one, and the ideas of “religion” and “religions” arose in the milieu of Western modernity which was also Christianity-centric (the book to read is Peter Harrison, 1990. “Religion” and the religions in the English Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 0-521-38530-X. Dewey: 291.0942).