An Open Question about Inter-Faith Dialogue

This is a question I had for my friend Aquinas, but I would love other people’s insight as well. How we go about engaging in inter-faith dialogue seems to be as much as an issue as the particulars of our individual beliefs.

In as much as inter-faith dialogue and international diplomacy are related, what are your thoughts on President Reagan insisting that Gorbachev “tear down this wall” and President Obama’s expression of “deep concerns” regarding the Iranian election? Do you think these statements were diplomatically wise? Is there room in inter-faith dialogue for similar confrontations or expressions of deep concern. Do these statements have any value in diplomacy and could they have similar value in inter-faith dialogue.

[please note: this is a question about inter-faith dialogue not politics. I don’t moderate heavily but let’s please not debate the war in Iraq. Mention it sparingly and in context of inter-faith dialogue if at all. Also, I am not raising this question in an attempt to compare Mormonism to Communism or the current Iranian regime so please don’t accuse me of such.]


19 thoughts on “An Open Question about Inter-Faith Dialogue

  1. Thanks for the question Tim. However, my initial reaction is to avoid a question such as this. Now, to provide some explanation and reasoning for why I would avoid this question, let me walk through my thought process.

    First, the question is too distracting because while you may want to discuss interfaith dialogue and not politics, you are using a political analogy. In order to reason through the question, a person necessarily must run through some sort of political comparison. So, I think if you use a political analogy and tell people to refrain from discussing politics, it probably won’t do any good or dialogue will be frustrated.

    Second, I feel like we are back to the same question as to whether “confrontational” dialogue has value. You are presenting a statement “tear down this wall” and everyone knows the wall came down. Therefore your question seems to suggest that because a person used a statement “tear down this wall” and then the wall came down, that one was the cause of the other. Even without any knowledge of politics or history bearing on the matter, it isn’t enough to establish a causal link. In order to examine this by taking into account knowledge of politics and history, again you are inviting a political discourse which will inevitably overshadow any discussion of interfaith dialogue. In order to avoid that, I will merely generalize to say that speeches by heads of state serve many functions, but it isn’t clear whether individual participants in interfaith dialogue are analogous to heads of state. In addition, such a question seems to me to overlook other factors as well as the fact that heads of state as well as diplomats often discuss issues privately and removed from public opinion.

    Whether statements are “diplomatically wise” requires one to apply knowledge of diplomacy, history and political science, it may require someone to formulate a theory of international relations. So, if you don’t want the discussion to become “political” you simply can’t ask this question. The quality of such answers necessarily depends on more than simply having a perspective about interfaith dialogue. A person would have to formulate a response to whether such statements are diplomatically wise before they even get to a question as to whether there is some application in interfaith dialogue. And again, by what criteria are people supposed to judge diplomatic wisdom? This seems like an invitation for thread-jacking.

    The better framework and understanding of the relationship between diplomacy among nation states and interreligious diplomacy is that one of the goals is to avoid war and solve disputes without resorting to use of force, and this presupposes that such entities are at war, and not in some eschatological or metaphorical sense, but in a temporal and earthly sense. Interfaith dialogue can sometimes be considered a subcategory of community conflict resolution. While we have been discussing dialogue as a means of developing better relations or persuading each other theologically, in some communities religious conflict is real and severely impacts the quality of life.

    Now, I will say that such combative rhetoric can serve to appease hardliners in one’s political party, and I do see a connection between such rhetoric and interfaith dialogue, not at an individual level but when a person is trying to appease their constituency. When Craig Hazen appeared on the Frank Pastore Show, he was taken to task by Pastore who thought Hazen was being too soft and turning his back on the work of Walter Martin. Hazen was forced into a position where he had defend himself and not criticize his mentor in the process, and often people do that by rhetorical means. Every single time an Evangelical decides to enter into civil dialogue with Latter-day Saints they are chided and criticized by those in their movement. This happened with Owen and Mosser, Blomberg, McDermott, Mouw, need I go on? Therefore, they have to come back and defend themselves and assert that no they do not consider Mormons to be Christian and or part of historic Christianity or something so that Evangelicals can feel better. So, yes, in that sense rhetoric can be useful, but I would much prefer a world where Evangelicals could engage in dialogue with Latter-day Saints without having to defend their actions or offer apologia in anticipation of criticism.

  2. Reagan was not being diplomatic when he said “Tear down this wall.” In fact, he was being very confrontational. It was how he worked when it came to Russia. He said, “We’re right, you’re wrong, and therefore, knock it off!” It did not help foster a feeling of mutual understanding and respect between Americans and Russians.

    Obama saying he has “deep concerns” is diplomatic, as he is not actually saying, “You’re wrong.” It is saying, “You know, I don’t really approve of what you are doing, but it isn’t my job to tell you what is right and what is wrong.”

    To take this to the interfaith dialogue concept, I think that dialogue is all about diplomacy. It is not about insisting one or other stop what they are doing. It is about saying, “This is what I am doing, and this is why I am doing it. Please share with me what you are doing, and why you are doing it.”

    In the many psychology courses I took while in college, we talked about the difference between debate and dialogue. The moment you tell someone they are wrong, you have ended the dialogue and begun the debate. The two are mutually exclusive. Both should involve a large degree of respect. If you want someone to open up, you must be willing to listen without judgement. That is the key difference between dialogue and debate. The former is open-minded; the latter is judgemental.

    (On a completely unrelated note, my computer apparently doesn’t like my use of non-American English spellings. Go figure.)

  3. I think internal collapse of the Soviet Union had more to do with the Berlin Wall coming down than Reagan’s speech.

    His speech was simply a matter of benefiting from being in the right place at the right time. Not to actually effect change, but to be saying iconic stuff at the moment things were happening for other reasons.

    I personally think success comes from having a stronger internal religion more than external posturing to other faiths.

  4. As someone who has an MA degree in International Affairs, and has studied both International Relations, International Politics, and the contemporary Middle East, I agree with the points made in all three previous posts.
    You know, I spent five years of my life working in an Arab and Muslim Embassy, with the vast majority of my colleagues being devout Muslims. Did I discuss my faith with my Islamic colleagues? Yes, I did, but only under certain conditions. You have to be respectful of the other faith, you have to listen to the person of the other faith, and you have to accept that the other person may not be the least bit interested in converting.

  5. I think we ought procalim Christ and His love for sinners (real sinners) and His forgiveness, and the new life that He promises aside from anything that we do, say, feel, or think.

    And when the ‘yeah buts’ start to fly from those that would add something to the work of Christ on the cross, we ought just hoist up more sails and forge ahead stronger.

  6. I certainly don’t think that a case can be made that the wall came down because Reagan spoke the words. But I don’t think you can also say that Reagan’s speech had no effect. It wasn’t an opportunity for a iconic freebie. I’m sure that there were plenty of people telling the President that such statements would only anger and provoke the Soviets causing them to take a harder stance.

    Pope John Paul II is given a lot of credit for weakening Communism in Poland by visiting and publicly speaking against it. Such statements were not for the benefit of Communist rulers. They were made for the benefit of the reformers under Communist rule. They were made in an effort to encourage the reformers and provide moral support.

    This was the basis for the criticism Obama received for not saying more about the Iranian elections. He feared giving Iran any reason to blame the United States for the protest. He feared the Iranian government would crack down on the protesters. The fact was that America was already being blamed for the protest and the Iranian government was already killing the protesters. A supportive statement could not and would not make the Iranian government feel any worse about America, but it could have inspired and encouraged Iranian reformers.

    How this translates to inter-faith dialogue I’m not really certain of. But I think if we take our faiths seriously and we think they are capital “T” true then we can’t just sit back and say “You know, I don’t really approve of what you are doing, but it isn’t my job to tell you what is right and what is wrong.”

    When anyone distorts the Bible and causes others to sin, I think Christians have an obligation to call for reform, to contend for the faith and to stand for righteousness.

  7. When anyone distorts the Bible and causes others to sin, I think Christians have an obligation to call for reform, to contend for the faith and to stand for righteousness.

    Tim, there is a time and a place for everything. If you are trying to be diplomatic and foster dialogue, that is not the time to tell folks they are wrong. If you are trying to convert them to your way of thinking, and your way of thinking includes the notion that they are being led to sin, then yes, you’ll need to tell them that they are wrong. They may not agree, but it isn’t your job to make them agree. It is your job to tell them and let them decide.

  8. Tim: I like hearing clear statements in inter-faith dialog more like what Obama said—“I have concerns about X”—and less like Reagan—“You must do Y.”

    You want to tell me what you don’t like about my religion? Cool.

    You want to tip-toe around all our differences or even ignore them altogether? Waste of my time.

    You want to tell me what I must do or change? That’s not dialog anymore.

  9. “When anyone distorts the Bible and causes others to sin, I think Christians have an obligation to call for reform, to contend for the faith and to stand for righteousness.”

    I certainly agree that Pastors and other Christian leaders have every right to educate their congregations about what is orthodox Christian doctrine vs. what is false teaching. It has been said that much of the anti-Mormon literature is geared towards keeping Christians in the fold more than it is trying to convert LDS (or RLDS).
    I know you have mentioned in the past the distinction between looking at LDS/RLDS as false prophets vs. looking at them as lost sheep, and the difference in approach that might come from the different outlooks. With regards to looking at LDS/RLDS as “false prophets” I have to say that, for many of the RLDS anyway, we did not sign up to be your “false prophets.” A large number of us (not sure how many) are following the religion of our fathers and grandfathers, and their grandfathers before them. The only church history I ever learned in my life started with Joseph Smith going to the Grove to pray. So, when the Evangelicals come at someone like me with, “You don’t believe x, y, and z, you’re not Christian you’re in a cult.” it can be confusing and bewildering for the person who is just trying to live their life and follow the faith they were raised with. I just don’t believe rudeness or cruelty when dealing with people of other religions is ever acceptable.
    I can remember a couple of instances, before I became born again, when a Christian person would ask me what church I belonged to, and I would give the churches full name, “Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” and they would say, “Oh, I’ve heard of that cult,” and never speak to me. They would look at me like I was the child of Satan or something. I guess I was according to them.
    I can understand there might be worry on the part of Ev leadership when the situation is between LDS and Evangelical because the LDS do have an active missionary corps that visits Evangelical homes. Even so, I don’t believe arrogance or rudeness is ever acceptable. It’s one of the reasons I’m no longer Evangelical. Even in my most on fire “born again” days, I never said bad things about Joseph Smith. I didn’t believe in him anymore, but I refused to disparage him either. I value my heritage very much. When I am in Independence, I visit CoC Mound Grove cemetery and place flowers on the graves of my ancestors, who lie at rest maybe twenty yards or so from the grave of Joseph Smith III.
    I just think that establishing true friendship is the best way to go about establishing a framework for inter faith dialogue. If someone knows you do care for them, then you can tell them the harsh truth and they will be better able to deal with it.
    I did have some honest and frank discussions over the years with my Islamic colleauges. Most all of my colleagues were sincerely devout, and did not at all believe in the Truth of Christianity, although they did respect me. One instance that really haunts me is when a daughter of one of my colleagues was about nine years old, she was jumping up and down in the kitchen and saying, “I want to know about Jesus. I want to learn about Jesus.” My heart just about stopped, because I knew that if I told her the whole story, she would have accepted Christ as her Saviour on the spot. There is no doubt in my mind. But her parents were devout Muslims and I was a guest in their house. I chose to remain her friend and her parents’ friends and pray for her. It haunts me that maybe I did the wrong thing, but I did what I thought was right. I believed, and still believe in a God that will not turn anyone away who is sincerely seeking Him. I also believe in a God of second chances, and that maybe if I am kind and loving to a person, maybe in God’s time that person will be led by the Holy Spirit to convert although I may not see it.

  10. I think Tim’s idea of Interfaith Dialog is a lot like diplomacy. i.e. Tactfully or artfully communicating to gain position in a struggle without resorting to belligerence.

    This is better than the standard “propaganda” approach generally taken by Evangelicals, where there is no attempt at understanding.

    This differs from the more neutral searching/academic approach advocated by Aquinas. He seems to advocate understanding while suspending propaganda or even diplomacy.

    For example: A professor of Communist theory can think it is all hogwash but when he is finding out about communism from communists, its best to leave the agenda at the door, otherwise you are going to be studying communists with their guard up rather than their positions in their “natural” state.

    When you come to the discussion with an agenda, you often will get the other sides reaction to the agenda rather than the full view of the other side.

    Tim’s approach is very diplomatic, but ultimately I think it will fail this sort of test for “true” dialog since the agenda behind the diplomacy is clear, and this will hinder some of the understanding that could be found with the more “academic” method.

  11. I like it Jared. I think perhaps the question is “what is your goal?” Aquinas’ goal is to gain understanding, mine is to advance my views. (whether I’m successfully doing that may be another question all together)

  12. I think a good goal of dialogue would be to not perpetuate propaganda and to studiously eliminate it from your views of others.

  13. If one’s views are truly better, propaganda is not needed to reinforce them. You can certainly diplomatically argue a position without resorting to mis-characterizing the other side or its view.

    However, when you think you are in the right, propaganda is a tempting alternative to honest analysis and discussion. Ultimately its is going to be anti-social.

    I think a problem that Aquinas has raised with Tim is that some of the posts/comments on the blog seem to perpetuate anti-mormon propaganda. The rub is that, Of course Tim does not want to buy into or perpetuate pro-mormon propaganda, and it is often hard to determine what constitutes propaganda without a charitable understanding of the other side.

    I think part of dialogue is to understand where you are crossing the line between explanation and understanding, and propaganda.

    One reason I am drawn to this discussion on this blog is that I have had such negative views of Evangelical theology (still do in many areas I am afraid) but I really want to understand the core good in their faith. My own ill-informed views would (or would have) probably come across as flawed anti-evangelical propaganda without an attempt at understanding.

  14. Jared said:
    So, a Mormon would instantly hear the information and wonder how the “heck” it got so twisted and search for a more plausible explanation. However since we don’t have the little details of the inside information we are just left with what we hear on this end of the game of “telephone”.

    As a reference, this characterization seems almost less believable to me than the the 911 conspiracy theorists.

    I’ve recently removed a number of comments from the blog. In my experience, Jared is not one to use hyperbole. In relationship to an “inside” story I shared he stated that it was less believable than 9/11 conspiracy theories.

    I stand by my sources and believe the story to be true, but if it is that incongruous to LDS perceptions then I don’t want to be responsible for publishing it as it will get back to the sources. I’m removing the story and the debate about it for the sake of people whose work I support.

    For anyone curious, the story had nothing to do with anyone doing anything illegal or harmful. It was just about politics in LDS leadership.

    I’m sure some will say this action is unnecessary or an over-reaction and that’s fine. I’d rather take a little online scorn than hurt other people’s relationships by sharing information that was intended to be confidential.

  15. Tim: blog threads are valuable records for later visitors…if those threads contain useful info. I think you, aquinas, Jared, Clean Cut et al hashed out the tangent well enough to put it to rest; i.e., delete it and get back to your o.p. (I will say: There were some interesting tidbits in that tangent that could be extracted and used for a new post.)

    I would like to draw attention to something you wrote:

    “Aquinas’ goal is to gain understanding, mine is to advance my views.”

    Since this post is about inter-faith dialogue, I’ll register my concern that carrying on dialogue while also trying to advance one’s views is a delicate balancing act—or perhaps even impossible (?).

  16. Or Snarfer 😉 Mwuahahaha !

    Which proved helpful since I’ve had a heck of a busy week.

    I couldn’t help but think about an analogy which involves Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic Church. I’m sure the thoughts “It is impossible and preposterous that an ordained monk would say these things” must have risen in some people’s minds in the early 1500’s 😉

    Oh well… water under the bridge now…


    PS: Tim, I do appreciate your concerns and removal of the posts

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