What is the Point of Interfaith Dialogue?

There are people in the world who will take extreme umbrage at this question. There are others who will laugh. This question is not intended to evoke either response. This question is absolutely real: Why engage in interfaith dialogue? 

A report of a recent gathering at the University of Chicago entitled “Coming Together 6” led me to this question, because the author asked how people with multiple spiritual and religious identities participate in interfaith dialogue. It was the first time I had ever considered the possibility that someone might choose not to choose a faith at all – that someone might choose to attempt to glue together a number of different religious or spiritual worldviews. Choosing whom to serve has always appeared to be a rather exclusive decision because as Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters.” It appears that there are a number of people who try to do exactly that. 

That choice appears at first glance to be an irreconcilable contradiction. How can someone, for example, be Christian and Muslim and pagan all at once? Yet the author of the report quotes a friend who is studying in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her friend says, “I identify with whatever moves me. Sometimes that means Islam, sometimes that means Christianity or Buddhism. Sometimes it’s not even a religion. Wherever I find something that impacts me deeply, makes me wonder about my own identity, that’s spiritual to me. I’m looking for truth where I can find it, via the Vedas or a physics book. And I claim that openness, that exploratory urge, the seeking for “the more,” as my spirituality.” After reading this statement several times, it is still difficult to imagine what this person means by faith when engaging in interfaith dialogue.

The key word may actually be not faith but identity. This man starts talking about religious pluralism (the focus term in Jem Jabbia’s report) by saying “I identify with whatever moves me.” This response is not the way converts to Christianity, for example, describe their experience. The teaching of Christianity is, first of all, that Christ calls people to confession and forgiveness of sin through Christ, and then if people receive Christ and his forgiveness, the ensuing relationship is exclusive. It isn’t about choosing a club to belong to, and wearing those colors on the club meeting day while being free to belong to other such clubs and to wear the colors of other clubs on other days. The same exclusivity applies to Islam. The idea of a spiritual decision as the recognition of identity does not ring true for Christianity or Islam, the first two religions or “faiths” named in the friend’s response.

The notion of loyalty based on identity is more commonly expressed in politics. During the recent presidential campaign, two women were talking about the candidates, and one said to the other, “I can’t identify with some rich guy who doesn’t live on a budget like I do.” Some of the political announcements were testimonials by people who made comments to the effect that they found they could identify with some candidate because of the candidate’s views on a topic that was important to the voter. In other words, the voter appeared to be choosing the candidate most like himself. The identity mentality of voters might well explain the degree to which candidates sometimes contorted themselves in relation to certain subjects; they may have been trying to express identity rather than commitments.

Is it easier now to answer the question: What is the point of interfaith dialogue? If people connect with a faith, which in the context of the term interfaith dialogue is more commonly called a religion, on the basis of the way they identify with it, then it appears as if the religions are all in a campaign for the favor of people. If a religion wants to grow in numbers of adherents, then it would need to find ways to express its identity with a lot of people. In fact, it might need to find identity with many different views, just a politicians campaigning for office seem to think must be done. It is a very different way of looking at religion. If Jem Jebbia speaks for the 120 participants at Coming Together 6, then those people are not looking for someone or something to serve. What, then, are they talking about?

The report listed some organizational questions that came up. That is understandable. Any conversation needs ground rules, even if they are more or less assumed. The easiest way for a conversation to be transformed into combat is for the parties to operate according to different rules. This sort of questions calls forth images of navel staring, but it is more or less necessary.

There were a few meatier issues:

  • What does it mean to be spiritual and not religious? Are these concepts mutually exclusive?
  • How do I represent my own faith at the table when engaging in interfaith dialogue?
  • What about those of us who inhabit multiple spiritual and religious identities?

It is fairly easy to imagine the group discussing the first two topics, although neither question will get to the answer of the title question: What is the point? The third question brings up an issue that is likely not very familiar to many people. How many people “inhabit multiple spiritual and religious identities?” What does that even mean? 

The story of the Israelite escape from Egypt and from slavery, the trek through the wilderness, and the subsequent invasion of the Promised Land under God’s leadership is replete with moments when they were expected to make choices. After they had made some headway in conquering the inhabitants that had been in residence in the Promised Land, Joshua called them to Shechem where he said, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) There is plenty of evidence that even though the people had been led through the wilderness by the Lord, their loyalties to their Provider and Protector were not unwavering. Joshua, however, called them to make a choice. He said they could serve whomever they chose, but they could not serve all the different gods that might appeal to them. The relationship with God Almighty who had taken them out of Egypt was an exclusive relationship, just like marriage. In fact, in other places in the Bible, the relationship between God and his people is precisely and exquisitely described using the model of the relationship between a man and a woman – a marriage, an exclusive relationship.

Islam calls people to the same sort of exclusivity. In fact, in Islam-dominated countries, the very idea of someone following two religions, of which one is Islam, would be considered blasphemous. In such countries, nobody is permitted to convert away from Islam, either. Being a Muslim is not about finding a god with whom a person can identify. It is about serving one god.

There are religions in the world that have no barriers to pluralism. Buddhism is often the religion people turn to as a model for tolerance and open-mindedness, but then Buddhism does not actually claim to be a religion and does not actually worship a god. Religions that worship a pantheon of gods are not usually exclusive, either, but the gods want what they want and are usually reputed to take terrible vengeance if they are offended. Where do people pick up the idea that it is their job to approve the religions that they identify with rather than that religion involves obedience and transformation?

It may actually be a product of cultural changes associated with rising secularism. Among the attendees at Coming Together 6 were people who self-identified as agnostic, seeking, or even none. In a traditional view of religions and conversations among people of faith, it would look peculiar to include participants with no connection to any religion. However, in the context of the interfaith dialogue at Coming Together 6, nobody seemed to think it odd. Does any of this information answer the question: What is the point of interfaith dialogue?

This gathering is likely a sign of things to come, maybe even a sign of things that have already come, things that have slipped into the culture while Christians were not looking. It appears that some people have scrapped the whole idea of religious faith as an expression of adherence and obedience to someone greater than self. The idea of becoming subject to transformation by that higher power is even less palatable. Why would anyone who chose his or her faith because he could identify with it or simply because it moved him at the moment ever let go of himself in favor of being transformed?

Many other questions come to mind after reading about Coming Together 6.

  • What is a faithful and loving Christian response to someone who says, “I can’t identify with a religion where somebody is brutally executed.”
  • Or this, “I can’t identify with a religion that tries to invade my body and tell me what I can do with it.” How do Christians respond? 
  • What is the Christian message to people who are trying to glue Buddhism and Cherokee shamanic practices into a personal spirituality? 
  • Is there really a difference between spiritual and religious?
  • Is there really a difference between Christianity and all other religions or faiths?
  • Is it possible for someone to be a Christian as a consequence of identifying with Christianity?
  • What might be the difference between identifying with a religion and living by a religion?

What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “What is the Point of Interfaith Dialogue?”

  1. For me, it’s clear…

    Supposed ‘interfaith dialogue’ is usually designed to condition christians into NOT sharing the Gospel of Jesus as the only “Way, Truth, and Life”. Christian ministries and ministers who ‘buy into’ this kind of ‘dialogue as equals’ are not really respected AS equals by the other religions they are ‘dialoguing’ with. In reality, they are seen only as, in Communist Soviet Lenin’s words for American sympathisers during the Cold War, “Useful Idiots” to be manipulated in order to lead christians away from the Gospel.
    But there are always going to be ‘christians’ who shrink back from the ‘offense’ of the Gospel and would rather “… all men speak well..” of them as Christ warned His followers to beware of, than be seen by the World as “Insensitive, Judgemental and Exclusive”.
    I say these are ‘christians’, ‘ministers’ and ministries are Enemies of Christ and the True Gospel. And Ultimately Enemies of the people of God (as false represetatives) and Enemies of Mankind who can ONLY be saved thru the True Gospel of Jesus Christ. (acts 4:12)


    1. You make an excellent point. A Christian who espouses the exclusive claim of Christ would not be very welcome in such a conversation.
      I love the example of Paul in Athens. The Greeks were masters of argumentation and dialogue. Paul walked around and listened and learned for a while. His inquisitive attitude no doubt earned him some respect in a culture where learning was valued. But he did not backpedal his faith. He learned how things worked in Athens, and then he used their own forum and their own culture to present the gospel in an unforgettable way.
      What do you think Paul would have done at Come Together 6?


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