Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Faith” is placing our trust in someone or something. “Faiths” are different persons or things where people place their trust. We live in a time of religious pluralism that brings people of different faiths into daily contact with each other. In the hope of better understanding, compassion, and cooperation, we engage in “interfaith dialogue” or conversations to bridge division. At least in Christian theology, the presence of multiple faiths in the world is something we have to interpret. What does the persistence of religious diversity say about God, about us, about our particular faith? It is hard to even think about that question without some personal encounter with other (competing?) worldviews.
Interfaith conversation makes the religious world considerably more interesting and can be a rich blessing. But there are better and worse ways to go about it. It can lead us deeper – or it can lead us shallower. It can bring us into relationship or it can break relationship or it can inoculate us against real relationship by coating over our differences with a false veneer of sameness.
This epistle aims to offer some modest guidance for how to think about other faiths and how to relate to people of those faiths. I for one have no interest in engaging in such a dialogue in the context of a secular nationalism (John Dewey) for the sake of making us all better secular nationalists despite our regrettable religiosity, which we hope to minimize. I approach interfaith dialogue first and foremost as an unabashed (“not ashamed of the gospel of Christ”) Christian. Why would a Christian – because he or she is a Christian – value this conversation?[i]
The Christian Starting Point. We begin with our understanding of God as Trinity. The Trinity is not a structural diagram of God. It is a metaphorical image of God that suggests multiple things about the fundamental nature of reality (God) without presuming to pin God down with a precise definition, that is to say, without pretending to know more about God than anyone can possibly know.[ii] One truth about God we express in this image is that there is an essential unity to all things – but that unity eternally proliferates diversity – a diversity that manifests as the Cosmic Dance.
As applied to religions, that means the religions are really, truly, not just superficially, different. Nirvana and Heaven are not the same thing and to tell a Buddhist his spiritual practice will get him into the Christian Heaven is an insult. But their difference does not deny or disprove the essential unity and coherence of reality. It means reality looks rather like a rainbow, like pure light that de-lights in refracting. That makes a difference for how we talk with each other. The objective is a unity made up of mutual respect and compassion. But it is not uniformity. Uniformity would flatten the religious landscape of the world. It would deny the genuine diversity that makes the world so fascinating.
Two ways of relating across religious lines miss the diversity boat we Christians value. The first is to engage in conversation with the attempt to bring the other person over to our side. Authentic interfaith dialogue is not proselytizing. It is not proving the superiority of our faith over that of the other person. I will argue later that interfaith dialogue should be a process of mutual conversion – but not usually the sort of conversion that leads a person away from her faith tradition to follow another. The goal isn’t to turn “them” into “us” – thereby erasing the tension of difference. We like difference.
The second unfortunate way is to replace the different faith traditions, each of which is a distinctive coherent system, with an interfaith salad bar in which each of us picks whichever beliefs and practices strike our fancy. Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I am advocating a narrow-minded Christianity, let me tell you I was converted from the interfaith salad bar by my late Tibetan Buddhist teacher,[iii] the Ven. Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. Rinpoche used to say, “You must sit on one pillow.” He was comparing our tendency to pick this and that from one tradition or another to trying to meditate sitting on several zafus (meditation pillows) at the same time. He explained that if we pick this and that from various traditions, we must ask, “who is doing the picking?” He said it was invariably the ego – or in Christian parlance, the prideful self – and it will pick only the pieces that fit it, that support it, not the pieces that challenge it – and the whole point of spiritual practice is to transcend that ego (prideful self) to reach the Truth (which we Christians call “God.”)[iv] Rinpoche saw our cherry picking the world religions as a kind of spiritual dilettantism, at odds with any serious spiritual discipline. It is an expropriation of the gems from other faiths for our self-deification, akin to what sociologist Robert Bellah identified as “Shelia-sim.”[v]
One of the great scholars of world religions, and along with Joseph Campbell one of the greatest popularizers of interfaith dialogue in our time, was the late Huston Smith. When asked about mixing and matching pieces of various religions to form one’s own particular brand of faith, he said that we need a basic diet. As for his basic diet, Huston Smith said, he was a Methodist. Indeed he worshiped faithfully with his UMC congregation in Berkeley. But he said he also took nutritional supplements. The world religions provided the supplements. Do you see the difference? Other traditions can supplement, but not displace inconvenient parts of, our own faith.
Conversion. In order to have a good interfaith dialogue, we start with two things: first, enough respect for the other person and their faith tradition to listen with an open mind; second, enough respect for and knowledge of our own faith tradition so that we will have something to bring to the table. When all parties to the conversation approach it in that spirit, we will find some of our beliefs challenged – not attacked but challenged. That is a good thing because it pushes us deeper. It makes us refine our faith. For example, there is language in John’s gospel that makes “everlasting life” depend on believing in Jesus. But there is also language in Paul that prophesies the redemption of the whole cosmos – “for God so loved the world” even John said – and would God decide the fate of those he loved based on their getting the right answer on a religious multiple choice test? I do not propose to answer that here. It is just an example of how interfaith dialogue pushes us to question our faith – and if we value our faith, we must take it seriously enough to question it.
If we have a good interfaith conversation, there is always the risk that we will find ourselves changed. And if we are changed there is no guarantee what we will become. But a Christian talking with a Jew should hope to become a better Christian and to help the Jew become a better Jew; the Muslim, a better Muslim, etc. Then both diversity and unity will be served. That is the kind of conversion we hope for – a conversion not from one belief system to another but a conversion from a shallower form of faith to a deeper one, and a conversion of our hearts to one another.
The “good Samaritan” did not become a neighbor to the Jew by becoming a Jew himself. He became a neighbor by lending a hand. Jesus had no interest in the Samaritan becoming a Jew; nor in the Jew becoming a Christian. He invited us to become neighbors across our lines of difference.
Theology Of The Hammer. We are blessed to be in conversation with each other. We can learn more about each other’s faiths and about our own from such conversation. But that conversation will be so much mind gaming unless it is rooted in an earthly, real world context. Another of my former teachers summed up this earthy context beautifully. This teacher came much later in my life. He was a South Georgia Baptist named Millard Fuller. As director of Habitat for Humanity, Millard Fuller called it “the theology of the hammer.” He meant that we can believe what we want on Sunday morning or Friday night, whenever we meet for worship. But what counts is coming together to saw planks and drive nails to build houses for poor people.
I have treasured this past decade spent with the Episcopal flock in Nevada. But to be candid, living in our little Anglo-ghetto might have been less enlightening, less of a growth opportunity – even in colorful Nevada, even with the flowering of ethnic diversity in some of our churches thanks to Latino ministries -- it would have been less memorable had it not been in the interfaith context of our work with Nevadans For the Common Good, where Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews have joined hands to combat child sex trafficking, support public education funding, provide home health care to the disabled, and expand Meals On Wheels. We have talked about our different faiths. We have not pretended we all believe in the same thing. Finding common ground is all the more precious because we have our differences. We look past the differences for the common good, and in the course of working for the common good, we have become friends.
Good And Bad Religion. Now lest I seem too sanguine – you know me better than that – let me also add a note of judgment. Respect for each other’s faith traditions does not smooth over – in fact it casts in sharp relief – the distinction between good religion and bad religion. We cannot prove our faiths by science or logic, so you may well ask: how does one judge between good religion and bad religion. The test is moral. We can discover morality from reason (Kant) and from the common sentiments of human hearts (Scottish moral philosophy). Morality is our plumb line.[vi] Some religion makes us kinder, more honest, more compassionate, more respectful of each other, more reverent for the mystery, more at harmony with the earth. Other religion is bigoted, hateful, violent, cruel, arrogant, and crude. We disregard the distinction between good and evil at our peril – especially the distinction between good and evil religion.
But the distinction between good and evil does not correspond to the boundary lines between the world religions. It is a fault line (pun intended) running through each of our traditions. There is a good Christianity and an evil one; a good Judaism and an evil one, a good Islam and an evil one, a good Buddhism and an evil one; etc. There is no religion with clean hands and I have not yet studied a religion without its share of virtue. So – and here’s the uncomfortable part –how good is our religion? It is rather hard to tell from the inside. The challenges to our religion we need most to hear are the moral challenges. And we are not likely to hear those from our co-religionists. We are likely to hear such challenges from people of another faith. That is what can push us deeper, call us to conversion.
[i] As for why a devotee of another faith would value the conversation, that is for the members of each faith to say. But it will be a far better more interesting conversation if we each approach it from our own distinct perspectives rather than a bland “aren’t we all Americans” bland commonality.
[ii] Some have, rightly I think, defined “irreverence” as just such a presumption.
[iii] This was a long time ago in a state some distance away.
[iv] St. Augustine and the architects of the orthodox Christian faith would readily concur.
[v] In Habits of the Heart, Bellah related an interview with a young woman who identified her religion as “Shelia-ism” meaning believing in and practicing whatever fit for her.