Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Inter-religious Dialogue

Today I had the opportunity to participate in an inter-religious dialogue (though there wasn't much dialogue, more like different monologues) at Minnesota State University - Mankato in one of their classes. I was invited as the "evangelical" voice, which I didn't realize until I got there. I tried to clarify what was meant and gathered they wanted a theologically conservative voice in the mix, to which I happily obliged. We were asked to reflect on how we as different religions could harmoniously live together in our pluralized world.

First a Catholic lady spoke. Not much to write home about. She basically said we need to learn about each other and then just get along. Not terribly constructive. She had to leave, which was unfortunate because there were many questions I wanted to ask her. Next a Jewish gentlemen spoke, and he was quite good. He basically shared about the hardship of living as one of 12 Jews in Mankato, and the covertly prejudicial ideas he confronts daily. This was helpful for me to challenge the class, who predominantly described themselves as Christian, to self-critically reflect on the way in which they interact with people in general. Then I spoke. More about that later. Then a Muslim student spoke.

The basic tenor was that we need to respect and accept one another, what could be called the least common denominator approach to inter-religious relationships. I took a different tact. I challenged us to genuinely meet each other in our difference, to enter a truly I-Thou relationship with each other. I argued that respect needs to be embodied in difference, and mitigating difference in the name of respect is not dialogue, but acquiessence to a specific ideaology, which unfortunately permeates way too many of these discussions. This seemed to challenge some of the assumptions of the classroom, and provoke some interest.

I also had the opportunity to talk about distinguishing between evangelism and conversion. The Muslim gentlemen heard me saying that in actually addressing difference we are trying to convert one another. I argued this is out of bounds for any Christian, and entered into a brief theology of evangelism and conversion (mission, if you will). I explained that I understand the calling of Christ for the Christian to mean that we are called to proclaim the good news of God's Kingdom come near in the person of Jesus Christ, and that this is good news for the world. This is that point of distinction from which real dialogue can grow. However, I argued that in this act the Christian is not trying to convert another person for that is the work of God alone. The conflation of these two categories leads to Christians intent on making everyone believe just like them, thereby eliminating any real hope for dialogue and friendship with a religious other. A truly robust theology of the Incarnation, on the other hand, recognizes that in this relationship with a religious other, where the Christian actually talks about the good news, Christ is present, and God may, in God's freedom, convert another. But, this is not my calling nor my task.

This led me to discuss why, for instance, when the Muslim or Jew talks about Jesus as prophet we are not actually on common ground. True, I believe Christ was a prophet, but he was also priest and king, God in the flesh. For me to lay aside this central conviction is to embrace a different Jesus, and let go of the real me, thereby obliterating any hope for true dialogue, indeed relationship with the religious other. I may be heartened by their admiration of Jesus, and we may agree on Christ's social teaching, but the Christian cannot stop at that, not even in the name of inter-religious dialogue and harmony, because it is disingenuous to who they truly are, and therefore is dishonest, which undermines a centrally important feature of any inter-religious conversation, honesty.

In sum: it was a fantastic experience, but once again affirmed one of my central concerns about inter-religious relationships, which is that they are easy. Living in a pluralistic world in peace, with respect and understanding of other religious peoples takes considerable effort and care. It is not, as it were, as easy as saying we are all worshiping the same God with different names.


At 6:30 PM , Blogger WTM said...

Eric - well done! I would have liked to be there.

Check out what Pannenberg says about 'tolerance.'

At 10:29 PM , Blogger jlee said...

Eric - solid work (that's my John Flett quote of the day) with your response. I am encouraged by your statements about Jesus not being the same Jesus if we subtract the priest and king and how that impacts our ability to have a true dialog (assuming that that a true dialog includes two true individuals expressing what they really believe).

Your experience reminds me of my CPE experience where we had "inter-religious" worship services. In those worship services, "inter-religious" equaled "No Christianity, except a Psalm here or there." The lowest common denominator approach often equals removing all Christian references as well.

Keep pressing on!

At 10:37 PM , Blogger Erik said...

To both Jeff and Travis -- thanks for the encouragement and props. Yet, if we are to have a truly relational blogologue then you need to truly meet me as me...that is, as ERIK and not ERIC!

Seriously, though thanks for the encouragement. One other funny little anecdote: when I introduced myself to the professor as a youth pastor, he sort of dismissed me and moved to the next person (a faculty member). Then when I introduced myself and shared where I went to school (as we all did), he kind of snapped to attention. I later found out he is Presbyterian, so he knows PTS is a solid place, and admitted some stereotyping of youth pastors. I'm guessing he thought I was just going to be the fun-loving, everybody-love-Jesus kind of guy, with no real substance. I'm used to it, so its not a huge bother.

At 2:48 AM , Blogger Brit said...

brilliant post my friend. sounds like an amazing conversation that took place and you did a great job guiding the conversation. cuddos

At 5:33 AM , Blogger Lindsay said...

to add to the Jesus = prophet, priest and king...I agree and this is also why I have trouble identifying Yahweh as Allah. Don't get me wrong I love peace and everything that Bono wants to coexist, but it strikes me that trinity necessarily makes the Christian God distinctive in identity.

I can't imagine someone doing this better than you. Congratulations on the opportunity.

At 5:34 AM , Blogger Lindsay said...


lindsay = carney

this is what I get for using her computer

At 7:07 AM , Blogger Erik said...

Josh, I think you posting as Lindsey is the pomo embodiment of "the two shall become one flesh..." By the way, I knew it was you.

At 9:04 AM , Blogger Don said...

I'm curious to know if they made a recording or transcript? How is Minnesota State's technology?

I too am sick of having people pretend that a "lowest-common-denominator" approach to dialog is anything but dishonesty. If I can't listen to you and your opinion and recognize it as different from my own, than I'm not in any kind of dialog. While I'll admit that there are certain view points that need to be immediately and heartily shouted down ("x people group should die" or "there was no holocaust") - if we don't accurately understand a position we cannot denounce it and end up with something that is even worse.

Well done EriCH

(sorry, k was a new construction in the English language - well after my keyboard was made, so I did the best I could or meeting you where you are!)

At 9:26 AM , Blogger Erik said...

MSU's technology is quite good. They had a smart-board in the room I was in, and I found out its in all the rooms. However, it was a relatively small class -- about 40 -- so they didn't record it. I think if it were a more formal, university wide panel, rather than just a class, it would have been recorded. I was well-received by the professor and he mentioned that he'd love to have me sit on another panel sometime, so maybe something like that could be in my future again.

At 11:33 AM , Anonymous pomerville said...

Excellent dialogue, my friend.

I'm curious to hear more of your adventures in "north woods faith."

Take it easy,

Andrew P

At 5:41 PM , Anonymous Jessica HB said...

Erik, remind me again how you are Baptist?? J/K...thanks for a thought provoking post :-) Jess HB

At 12:08 PM , Blogger Don said...

Erik's baptist the same way he's a Packer's & Cubs fan!

It all has to do with History & Functionality.

He likes to be able to drone on & on about the Anabaptist tradition & his Viking roots and he likes the idea of not having to answer to a higher "power" who either wears a robe (Catholic/Anglican/Lutheran) or can be fickle & divisive (Presbyterian, etc)

Or, at least that's my best guess!

At 9:59 AM , Blogger David Hallgren said...

Hi Erik,
Great post. I had a brilliant conversation with my pastor (Earl Palmer here at UPC). We discussed how to converse with people of other faith traditions. He pretty much said what you were getting at. That we cannot have honest conversations about faith without being who we are, believers...in somthing. He shared a story about riding a train in Russia with a Muslim man and an atheist. He and the Muslim man shared their deep devotion to God and how God had transformed their lives, respectively. After the conversation they their faith with each other and Earl challenged the Muslim man to consider a God who was not so fragile that he could be easily offended and was challenged to see a God who was to be more revered. Both grew in their faith because of their profound and confidently disclosed differences. He also shared a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: "Tolerance only means something to those people who believe something". Tolerance without belief is pretty weak.
Good job sharing your beliefs.

At 11:25 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done, Erik. Well done.

At 4:04 PM , Blogger Samuel Maynes said...

If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at www.religiouspluralism.ca, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

* The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

For more details, please see: www.religiouspluralism.ca

Samuel Stuart Maynes


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