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Matters arising

9 October 2008

There are some matters arising from this month’s on Interreligious Dialogue that are easier to discuss in a separate blog post than in comments on any particular posts.

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).

18 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 October 2008 7:26 am

    I personally find the distinction you’re making between evangelism and proselytism quite interesting and rather helpful. I also like the following quote from the article you linked to:

    In proselytism there is a strong element of telling people how bad or wrong their present beliefs are. Telling people that their beliefs are wicked or wrong does not appear as “good news ” to them. If we evangelise, we are not saying “Our religion is better than your religion”. We are not setting ourselves up as morally or spiritually superior beings, and trying to get people to leave their religion and join ours so that they can be superior like us.

    Based on your explanations, I’d say that a significant portion of the “evangelism” I’ve been exposed to was actually mislabeled proselytism. I’d personally have no problem with the kind of evangelism that you subscribe to.

    On the subject of change, I would note two things. The first is that I think it would be somewhat problematic if one were to enter into dialogue of any sort where one expected others to change while being completely closed to the possibility of changing oneself. The second is that when it comes to dialogue, there are many different kinds of changes that can occur within the participants. It would be a shame if we only focused on big changes, like conversion to a different religion or abandonment of a particular belief. Sometimes, the only change that is necessary is for one person to be able to say, “I still disagree with you, but I can better understand why you hold the position you do.” And I’d hope that anyone involved in any kind of dialogue would be open to that kind of change.

  2. 9 October 2008 7:39 am


    About change, yes. If I hold misconceptions about someone else’s religion, then I would hope those would be changed! I might even gain a deeper insight into my own. I just find it hard to think of those kinds of changes in terms of “risk”.

  3. 9 October 2008 7:50 am

    Amen; evangelizing and proselytizing are two different things, and I fear Yvonne has had too many bad experiences with proselytizers disguised as evangelists.

    I suspect—I could be wrong—her comment, “Even if you think it’s not you doing the conversion, but Jesus” suggests she believes I intend to somehow channel Jesus, proselytize, and claim that was Jesus speaking through me. I may be Pentecostal, and we’re definitely known for embracing the wacky, but any Christian who claims they can do such things is either lying, psychotic, or demonized.

    I convert no one. Election and redemption are entirely under Jesus’s purview. All I can do, and do, is share Him. Isn’t sharing the point of an interfaith synchrobolog anyway?

  4. 9 October 2008 11:01 am

    Hi Steve

    Yes, I think the distinction between evangelism and proselytising is important.

    I too would have no problem with your definition of evangelism — to me, that is just describing your faith, and not evangelism at all.

    To me, evangelism is when someone comes up to you and says “hi, have you heard the good news about Jesus? He died on the cross to save you from eternal hellfire as a punishment for your sins”. (To which my response would probably be a verbatim repetition of your marvellous post about why penal substitution is a heresy.) OK, so that’s actually bordering on proselytising, but most western Christians don’t seem to know the difference.

  5. 9 October 2008 11:02 am

    Hmm, actually, that last bit “most western Christians” is a bit unfair – should be “most evangelical Christians”, sorry.

  6. 9 October 2008 6:03 pm

    Hello All – I am enjoying the “dialogue” here and thought I would chime in.

    Steve – I understand what you are saying about the difference in evangelizing and proselytizing but I think you would be hard pressed to find many Christians that see or practice the two differently. In addition, I think you would be hard pressed to find Christians who are “evangelizing” that don’t have a conscious agenda of conversion. Even the dictionary supports this:

    Main Entry: evan·ge·lize
    transitive verb
    1 : to preach the gospel to
    2 : to convert to Christianity

    The main difference that I see is that Evangelism is directly related to Christianity and proselytizing is more general (to convert or recruit to religion, cause, party etc.). For me the idea that evangelism and proselytizing being different has come about because evangelical christians want to find a way to be more politically correct (and soften up the idea of what evangelism is) and not be lumped in with a group of radicals.

    One of the problems that I had with J.R.’s condition regarding agendas was his statement:

    “My agenda is to share the salvation hope that comes only through the death and resurrection power of the Messiah–Jesus. ”

    For me (a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ) the statement sounds full of the kind of pride and certainty and superiority that builds barriers instead of bridges between Christians and non-Christians. I am not asking for someone to be dishonest or to hide their agenda and do not want to exclude someone from the dialogue because they have an agenda but my opinion is that this is a self centered agenda – for me this statement says I know I am right and I want you to know it – for me this statement is not other centered (even though I was taught that it was because I cared so much about the destiny of other’s souls).

    I am not insensitive to J.R.s position on this issue. As I said I have spent most of my life in the evangelical christian circle and was very active and committed to the system. But my experience was that one day I got sick of the “us” and “them” – the “you’re out” and “I’m in”. I was tired of feeling like I was prostituting my friendship and I wanted to be a bridge not a barrier and so I began to question a lot of things.

    What I would ask of J.R. and others who hold his position is to consider being less bold (and more humble) in their preaching / speaking / telling / knowing and more bold in their loving / serving / caring / listening / respecting.

    Perhaps J.R. might even consider adjusting his agenda (we do have choices about our agendas) to include other elements such as understanding why others think so poorly of Christians or how others think Christians should handle their belief that their way is the only way.

    What do you guys think?

  7. 9 October 2008 6:11 pm

    Jarred and Steve – I just wanted to comment on the discussion on change and say that I have to agree with Steve … there is not much risk in the change that Jarred mentioned:

    “Sometimes, the only change that is necessary is for one person to be able to say, “I still disagree with you, but I can better understand why you hold the position you do.” And I’d hope that anyone involved in any kind of dialogue would be open to that kind of change.”

    I refer to you to my post where I state:

    “I believe that it is risky business because the very ideals of interreligious dialogue demand that we are willing to embark upon a personal journey that has no clear destination in mind. A journey that may lead us to an internal debate about our own beliefs and traditions.”

    You notice I say the “ideals”. And the ideal is that this dialogue would be more about the other risky things I mentioned near the end of my post:

    “Yes, I believe that interreligious dialogue is risky business. It is risky like love and forgiveness and mercy and grace are risky.”

  8. 9 October 2008 9:36 pm

    Liz and Steve, while I agree with you that being willing to change our perceptions of others’ faiths doesn’t involve risk, I’ve found that not everyone seems to agree with us. I have met people in the past who have refused to learn anything about other belief systems on the grounds that they “might ultimately be led astray.” At one time, a close family member was one such person.

  9. 9 October 2008 10:37 pm

    I like what Liz has written, and it’s very similar to my own view. Whilst I hope that the result of interfaith dialogue will be a willingness to accept that other people have different paths to the Divine, I am aware that this is something people have to decide for themselves. My more immediate concern is persuading people that Pagan traditions are valid religions deserving of respect (and not fear, suspicion, etc.)

    My point was that in interfaith dialogue, I must be open to the other to the point of being willing to change my beliefs, and they need to be similarly open to me – but neither of us should be trying to force our views on the other.

  10. 9 October 2008 10:54 pm

    It is interesting to read St Paul in Athens, and various other places in Acts – very much Evangelism as per your definition.

  11. 10 October 2008 6:37 am

    enjoyed the summary. I posted part of your summary in point #1 in the comments section of my post and encouraged everyone to come read your whole post.

    As a side note, my Grandmother and Great Uncle were Russian Orthodox and I used to go to church with them when I was young. I love a lot o the richness in iconography. Orthodox weddings and funerals are wonderful worship experiences to me.

    I spent a little time doing missions in the former Soviet Union and worshipped in many different Orthodox churches. It was there, among my Christian Family who spoke a different language, that I grew to love the shared communion cup.

  12. 10 October 2008 12:37 pm

    I suppose the boundary between evangelism and can become blurred at times, but it is still important.

    And some of the important distinctions are: indicative/imperative. The moment we start speaking in the imperative we are not evangelising but moralising: “You must be born again.”

    OK, Jesus said that to Nicodemus, but Nicodemus was asking him questions that led up to it.

    He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” not “You must be poor in spirit”. It was mainly when people came asking specific questions that he told them what to do: “Go thou and do likewise”.

    The other thing (I’m speaking to Christians now, in case anyone hadn’t already noticed) is that we have this treasure in earthen vessels. We are not commending our religion, our God, our superior knowledge. It’s not “ours” — we wouldn’t have it at all if it hadn’t been given to us. So we can’t claim superiority. Saying “My religion is better than yours” is proselytising, and many people who think they are evangelising manage to give the impression that that is what they are thinking, even if they don’t say it in so man words.

    So the analogy of one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread is a good one (and I heard that one from a very evangelical Presbyterian).

  13. 10 October 2008 6:59 pm

    This has been good – I feel like I am getting to know some of you. I’m looking forward to our next synchroblog topic.

  14. Ploni Almoni permalink
    12 October 2008 8:46 am

    Hello, this is Joshua from ReligionRap. I enjoyed this post quite a bit. I think the main condition for interfaith conversations is clearing away prejudice or even where prejudice is rare towards a religion, misconceptions. It is important to share I think for that reason, we are less likely to hate, or distrust, or feel bitter towards, something that is being presented factually and without pressure rather than judgmentally. It is not so much “I am here to change you” or “I am here to be changed” to me, it is “I am here to trust, and be trusted.” That to me is also a genuinely religious position, as my religion teaches that it’s G-d who determines what religion you are, not man.

  15. 12 October 2008 9:16 pm

    Interesting perspective, Joshua. Interestingly a Sikh lady also told me that God chooses our religion for us — but where does that leave those of us who change our religion — were we born into the wrong one and had to find the right one by trial and error? or did God make us go looking for a new one…? Not being flippant, just curious as to where that view leads. I’ve also heard polytheists say that the deity with whom they have a special relationship chose them, and not the other way around, which seems like a similar concept.

    Anyway I get the difference between proselytism and evangelism, but I still don’t get the difference between just telling people about your religion and the Steve style of evangelism.

    Also, if you decide to trust someone, that is a form of change – you have decided they are trustworthy, and opened up to them. That is the kind of change I would hope for from interfaith dialogue, too.


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  3. Matters on Interfaith Dialogue « More Than Cake

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