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What is Interfaith Dialogue?

February 14, 2010

What is interfaith dialogue?

I’m not sure if I know what it is and I’m not sure if anyone knows what it is. This is really bad for me, since according to both Mormon Matters’s Niblets categorization (Best contribution to interfaith dialogue) and Main Street Plaza’s Brodies categorization (“best bridge-building with the faithful” [note: several other blogging friends are nominated here AND VOTING IS STILL GOING ON NOW]), I’m apparently a contender (although not a winner, Jack still clobbers me) for being one of the best interfaith dialoguers.

I’ve heard silly stories where “experts” in their fields are asked, “What is this field really about?” and then they answer, “I don’t know,” but I wouldn’t want to be one of those guys.

In my blogging, I have mostly been at the corner of two kinds of major interfaith interactions — interactions between Mormons and Evangelicals (such as at LDS & Evangelical Conversations or I Love Gellies [or I Love Mormons — which one started first, I wonder?]), and interactions between Mormons and “X”-Mormon (where X not only means “ex”, but also post, former, new order, mormon alumni, middle way, etc.,), so I’ll talk a bit about those two now (with emphasis on LDS/Evangelical).

I should probably preface that even within the “X”-Mormon community is a rather noticeable (in my opinion) divide. For example, Main Street Plaza represents a hub of “X”-Mormonism that skews to the secular side (although all MSPers are not atheists, agnostics, skeptics, etc.,), whereas there is of course a significant group of Ex-Mormon Evangelicals, etc., Would Mormon Coffee be the “hub” for these people? I don’t know; I have to admit that the other side of this divide all within X-Mormonism is fuzzy and unknown to me.

All in all, there is a great variety of opinions and positions regarding Mormonism, which is a good thing (even if church correlation disagrees). But insofar as the goals of interfaith dialogue also are varied and many, I can’t really make heads or tails out of what interfaith dialogue *is*. I am unfortunately left unimpressed (at best) and turned off (at worst) by some people’s “goals” with interfaith “dialogue” and their methods for such.

I was struck by Ziff’s comment on the Niblets Analysis post for this year relating to the history of the category “Contribution to Interfaith Dialogue.”

This category hasn’t been used in previous years. In 2008, Bridget Jack Meyers won for “Nicest ‘Evil Villain’ / Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” which might be thought of as a tongue-in-cheek version of this category.

Now, this commentary was perfectly benign (and the 2008 naming of the category “Nicest ‘Evil Villain’/Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” was also benign — although it did make it tough to understand what my loss in the category meant…did it mean I am not all that evil, or that I am an evil villain, just not that nice about it?).

But from seeing some of the stuff that people call interfaith dialogue, I wonder how much truth lurks within such a category name. I don’t want to accuse specific individuals (although I will link to people and it’ll probably seem rather accusatory), but I get the sense that some people use interfaith dialogue as an arena for competition, a means of pointing out flaws in other faiths, or a means of trying to convert people to other faiths.

In all of these, I don’t think many people have an issue at all understanding and taking advantage of the “interfaith” part of interfaith dialogue (getting people of other faiths in one room/blog? I think most people realize that’s a good, lucrative idea.) But what I feel is that we don’t have a shared understanding on what the “dialogue” part entails, and so we interpret it to mean what we want it to mean, which very often serves our individual or institutional goals with our own faiths. Getting a bunch of people of different faiths in one room to try to convert them all seems like a possible direction to “interpret” dialogue if no other definitions are set.

Unfortunately, I think these kinds of goals alienate, rather than invite. And then things just aren’t fun for anyone. I’m not jumping to a definite conclusion, but when Tim says things like “It’s these sorts of characterizations of me on your part that make me want to walk away from inter-faith dialogue and learning more about my Mormon friends entirely” (which is in response to a challenge that Tim’s approach is “based on the premise that nothing good can come from Mormonism”), I strongly wonder what Tim believes inter-faith dialogue is to begin with and what his goals are when “learning more about [his] Mormon friends.” When apparently enough people (or maybe few, extremely vocal people) raise eyebrows at Tim’s approach that he has to dedicate a post to clarifying himself,  I really wonder.

But Tim really isn’t bad. Contrasted with commenters like TheOldAdam, whose only goal in the interfaith circuit seems to be pointing out the error in Mormonism despite ignorance of the damage they cause to their own faith (as others can point out to no effect), Tim is golden. I still, after all, read LDS & Evangelical Conversations. Even if TheOldAdam has a site, I don’t seek to find it or post on it.

But then we also have another commenter, Gloria, who talks about how rude Mormons are to ex-Mormons like her. As a result, she has stepped away from interfaith dialogue.

Now, I don’t deny that Mormons can be jerks, and I don’t deny that they can’t become jerks rather quickly based only on a change in beliefs. I haven’t read too much on Gloria’s site, but from some of what I’ve read, I really must agree with Seth’s response to Gloria. If interfaith dialogue is using one’s experiences within the one church as a decisive weapon against that church while residing within the pews of another (and then demanding that personal experiences be off-limit to criticism), then perhaps we shouldn’t engage in interfaith dialogue.

I’m not saying that personal experiences are off limit, or using personal experiences in a critical way is off limits. But I wouldn’t call this dialogue. And I wouldn’t expect a shield from my personalization of the diatribe. It may be in the end that we should realize what we are after isn’t dialogue, but a soapbox. Or not dialogue, but debate. Or whatever.

In the end, what is interfaith dialogue? I don’t know, but I have a sense the vast majority of us (me included, most likely) haven’t begun to approach it.

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27 Comments
  1. Now, this commentary was perfectly benign (and the 2008 naming of the category “Nicest ‘Evil Villain’/Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” was also benign — although it did make it tough to understand what my loss in the category meant…did it mean I am not all that evil, or that I am an evil villain, just not that nice about it?).

    It could be any of those things!

    As the person who suggested this category (and, like you, failed to win…), let me explain. I meant it as a friendly, tongue-in-cheek nod to the fact that some faithful see apostate friendliness as some sort of deception from Satan.

  2. I strongly wonder what Tim believes inter-faith dialogue is to begin with and what his goals are when “learning more about [his] Mormon friends.”

    I don’t know about Tim’s goals, but I can answer the equivalent question for MSP:

    You’re right that the site is predominately atheist/agnostic/secular, but we make a sincere effort to welcome other viewpoints, give them the opportunity to make their points without just shouting them down, etc. Inasmuch as we fail in these goals, we’re open to criticism about it.

    That said, deconverting people or “debunking” Mormonism is not the goal of MSP. The goal is to discuss subjects of common interest such as politics and dealing with interfaith conflicts within families.

  3. Thanks, chanson, for commenting.

    I will say that I knew the naming wasn’t meant in a bad way. In response, I’m just asking…what if there isn’t something to it (obviously, I categorically reject that apostate friendliness is deception from Satan, but couldn’t it [or interfaith friendliness] be plain old human deception?)

    Thanks for the clarification on the purpose of MSP, too. At the same time, we don’t have a lot of reach-out to the believers there (well, disregarding Seth and BiV primarily). Is this because we don’t actually have so much “common interest”, because there is no focus on reaching out (e.g., you say that MSP “gives them the opportunity to make their points without just shouting them down.” That seems more of a description of reaction. E.g., they can come to us [and we won’t send them away], but we don’t necessarily invite them here) or from some other purpose (believers aren’t interested, or are more absorbed in their projects, etc.,)?

    I agree though that, ESPECIALLY in contrast to certain other sites, MSP doesn’t seem to be about debunking or deconverting.

  4. This is a great question, Andrew, and something I have been wondering about myself ever since “I Love Mormons” was nominated for the Niblet awards. I have actually been pretty up front and honest that the purpose of my blog is not for ecumenical dialogue (which is what comes to mind when I hear the term “interfaith”), but maybe others have a different definition for that term. I recently clarified the subtitle for the blog from “respectful conversations” to “friendly debates” to help avoid any confusion as to the intents and purposes of the blog. I’ve always had this line in my comment policy: “we are not very interested in ecumenical dialogue… There is always room for gaining an increased understanding of each others’ beliefs, but that is not the primary purpose of this blog…”

    Oh, and by the way, “I Love Mormons” was created first. “I Love Gellies” was a satirical response from my best friend, psychochemiker, who loves me so much I think he wants to marry me.

  5. Jessica, thanks for the comment. I have always seen your “What is a Friendly Debate” as being pretty straightforward and understandable.” I guess there are different meanings for interfaith dialogue itself, so that even when we don’t think we’re doing it (or when we don’t think that is our chief purpose), others can easily think, “That’s definitely dialogue.”

    If psychochemiker comes on this site and confesses his love on this fine Valentine’s Day, I will officially be creeped out.

  6. but couldn’t it [or interfaith friendliness] be plain old human deception?)

    Yes, that too. That’s the assumption that I constantly deal with when talking to believers — people assume that I have an ulterior motive to deconvert them. Deconverting people is not my objective, but I understand that people have reason to think it might be, and I don’t immediately dismiss them as ignorant or closed-minded for thinking that.

    At the same time, we don’t have a lot of reach-out to the believers there (well, disregarding Seth and BiV primarily). Is this because we don’t actually have so much “common interest”, because there is no focus on reaching out (e.g., you say that MSP “gives them the opportunity to make their points without just shouting them down.”

    I think that’s just it — a failure of outreach. I’m happy to have a dialog with believers, but perhaps in my own mental dialog I’m thinking that (just by being an atheist) I’m pissing them off and making a nuisance of myself by saying even the slightest thing. So I do very little outreach. We could probably use a more gifted sales force. 😉

    • …but perhaps in my own mental dialog I’m thinking that (just by being an atheist) I’m pissing them off and making a nuisance of myself by saying even the slightest thing.

      HAHA, I definitely don’t ever think that, *especially* when I am making a nuisance of myself (by saying quite a bit more than the slightest thing).

      But I wouldn’t exactly see myself as being a gifted sales force. Just “obnoxious”

  7. Jessica ~ Oh, and by the way, “I Love Mormons” was created first. “I Love Gellies” was a satirical response from my best friend, psychochemiker, who loves me so much I think he wants to marry me.

    Then we could have more Mormon-Evangelical Interfaith Marriage bloggers! SWEET!

  8. I guess there are different meanings for interfaith dialogue itself, so that even when we don’t think we’re doing it (or when we don’t think that is our chief purpose), others can easily think, “That’s definitely dialogue.”

    Well, I think that’s why I’ve gone back and forth over whether to view “interfaith dialogue” as a positive or negative term. If the term simply means “discussing [or debating] our differences and challenging each other’s viewpoint in a kind and friendly manner” I don’t have a problem with it.

    If it means “truth is arbitrary and all truth claims are equally valid so let’s all just get along” I obviously see no purpose in that kind of dialogue.

  9. Andrew: If psychochemiker comes on this site and confesses his love on this fine Valentine’s Day, I will officially be creeped out.

    Jack: Then we could have more Mormon-Evangelical Interfaith Marriage bloggers! SWEET!

    LOL! At this point, I am simply hoping for a truce. 🙂

  10. If it means “truth is arbitrary and all truth claims are equally valid so let’s all just get along” I obviously see no purpose in that kind of dialogue.

    Very true. For myself, it’s not about that at all.

    Rather, it’s: “Despite the fact that there are major issues on which we disagree (and will probably never agree), there are also important issues where we have a common interest and can have a productive and useful discussion.”

  11. Jessica, I’d actually have to take a position closer to to chanson’s.

    When I think about whatever thing interfaith dialogue might be, it’s not necessarily “truth is arbitrary and all truth claims are equally valid so let’s all just get along.” Rather, to make a bit of an amendment from chanson’s comment, for me, it would be, “Despite the fact that there are major issues on which we disagree, discussing these issues will probably make us dislike each other more, whereas discussing similarities and common interests, things we *like* about each other, etc., can endear us to each other.”

    Unfortunately, I agree that this doesn’t always let us do what we want to do (e.g., point out the glaring errors we perceive in others’ belief systems…”How can you believe that?!” — which is important for high stakes issues), it does keep blood pressure down.

  12. I want to clarify something about commenter and blogger gloria.

    My response to her pointed out that if you use personal details as “Exhibit A” in a case against Mormonism, you can expect that personal life to come under scrutiny.

    However, I don’t want to convey the impression that that kind of scenario is representative of all gloria’s exchanges with Mormons. She has encountered some rude Mormons (I think she may have had a run-in with the spamLDS crowd at one time or another) and some of us regulars have gotten a bit unnecessarily snippy with her on occasion. She’s as much to blame for it as the other side, in my mind.

    But she’s not solely to blame either.

    Just thought that clarification based on my history with her should be made.

  13. Thanks for the clarification.

    I can say, from limited interaction with the spamLDS crowd that they are…a different league.

  14. On the actual post topic…

    I don’t think those categorical reasons for dialogue really describe my motives in interfaith dialogue. I mean, they factor in. But my main motivation lies elsewhere.

    I tried to outline my motivations here:

    http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Interfaith-Dialogue-as-a-Struggle-for-Identity.html

  15. Wait…you have articles at Patheos?!

    Dang, you really DO write everywhere except your own blog.

  16. Thanks for acknowledging that I’m not that bad.

    Seth I really liked this:
    I found that I did my best thinking when other voices were being heard.

    I’ve stated elsewhere that I’m not interested in inter-faith dialogue that coldly examines other people like they are lab specimens. Ideas have consequences and sometimes there is a “chemical reaction” when ideas are mixed together. I want to see what those reactions are. Some of them are destructive and should be avoided, others of them create something new and interesting.

    I also think it can be quite patronizing to tell someone “what ever works for you is fine by me”. Religion, truth, ethics and values are much more significant than ice cream. They are topics that have consequences and they are topics that have great importance for people. It’s respectful to treat other people’s ideas with the level of importance they assign to them.

    People who love something naturally want their loved passed on to others.

    I’m aware that there are inter-faith dialogue purest would prefer I not associate myself with the discipline. If they are the owners of the definition then I’m sure what I’m more interested in is something like Jessica’s “friendly debates” or “respectful conversations”.

  17. Tim, no problem.

    It seems that when you say you want to “see what [the] reactions are” to the “chemical reaction” of ideas being mixed together, you use language that is exactly like what you say you want to avoid — treating individuals like lab specimens. That’s just a funny thing I noticed (where do chemical reactions take place? Well, hopefully, in the lab.)

    I can see what you mean by the patronization of a “whatever works for you…” attitude. But for me, for that to happen, it has to emphasize the “whatever.” For example, when I was growing up, I often noticed that for the vast majority of my (or my brother’s and sister’s) requests, she wouldn’t say “yes.” That didn’t mean she said no to all of them. However, her affirming answer was, “I don’t care.” Only when we asked questions about more serious things than, say, permission to eat cookies for dessert, would the “I don’t care” be put away and replaced with a yes (or no).

    So, I get the idea of differing levels of gravity. However, in my mind, when we say, “What works for you is fine by me” (or something similar), then the goal shouldn’t be to say this with emphasis on “Whatever” or “I don’t care,” but with sincere appreciation and acceptance. I guess this is really problematic if you believe certain truth claims about religion (which is why I think interfaith dialogue is *not* what some people are even after), but I think the goal SHOULD be to understand and appreciate the positives and strengths of another’s religious views so that they can accept that the other person has it and affirm them in it.

    I understand that there are some non-negotiable issues that, when confronted, one must stand by. But in my (biased nonbeliever) opinion, what happens after someone dies shouldn’t be one of these. I understand that for true believers, this is horrifyingly unacceptable.

    On the other hand, your final paragraph strikes me. Who can “own” the definition of a term?

  18. ah, good point. I’m hoping to do my own lab experiments. My analogies always break down way earlier than I want them to. I want to actually interact with the elements. I don’t want to just read Wikipedia entries.

    as to appreciation and acceptance, I think the contemporary version of “tolerance” is a bit twisted. I’m not at all interested in forcing anyone to take on my views. I accept that other people have differing views and I appreciate that they should be able to make up their own minds. But there are ideas that I can not accept or even appreciate that other people have them. The notion that flying an airplane into a skyscraper gets you closer to God being on the top of the list. Such ideas I will challenge and not be content to live and let live.

  19. Tim,

    I agree that the contemporary version of “tolerance” is a bit twisted (or rather, that it is not twisted, but it was never adequate or sufficient). I probably disagree for a different reason, though.

    I agree that I’m also not interested in forcing anyone to take on my views. In conjunction with your sentence after that, I’d probably add something like, “I appreciate that they should be able to make up their own minds, and on issues I find important, I really wish that they, of their own volition, would make up their own mind and happen to agree with me.”

    I agree there are ideas I cannot and will not accept or appreciate. But here’s the thing: whenever I find these ideas, I don’t say I’m going to hold inter-(insert thing here) dialogue on them. If I were going to hold interfaith/opinion/belief/worldview/whatever dialogue, then it would be on the areas that I could accept/appreciate, rather than on the areas that I know would be contentious. On the other hand, maybe I’d decide interfaith dialogue wouldn’t be for me at all and instead I’d want to proselytize.

  20. Um,

    Jack: Interfaith Marriage, Not for me.

    Andrew: Jessica saying I want to marry her, That was also satire.

    Jessica: We’ll always share satire.

    And FTR, Valentine’s day was very good to me.
    -Peace out.

  21. I personally think it’s nice that people are talking. Whether or not they agree, agree to disagree or can find common ground. It seems to be a far cry from the past where 1 – no one ever left the LDS church or 2 – no one ever had any problems with it. It was black or white to me – no room for grey.

    Now, I’m interested by this vast community (communities) full of people with all different opinions on mormon culture, LDS theology, philosophy- and various approaches to faith and religious study.

    So. What is interfaith dialogue? I don’t know, but I do know, whatever it is was not happening before.

    Some people felt like reading certain books or talking with people who left would diminish their testimony, others felt like believing members would never respect them or understand their position.

    I think (hope?) some of that has changed. And I believe it is because of various bloggers and people (like you IDG, and others) who have tried to build those bridges and make those changes.

  22. psychochemiker:

    OK, good. I don’t “get” satire on the internet.

    aerin:

    I like your comments. Whatever interfaith dialogue is, it wasn’t happening that much before. Hopefully, things can continue to improve and change so that within years we can look back on today and say, “Whatever interfaith dialogue is, it wasn’t happening that much before, but it’s been getting better and better ever since.”

  23. Interfaith Marriage, Not for me.

    Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, my friend.

  24. psychochemiker permalink

    Jack,
    Whenever someone tells me that, this is how I usually respond.

    Yeah, like drugs, suicide or murder.

    Just kidding,
    I don’t think you or Paul have done anything wrong, I just recognize it’s very hard, and that it probably isn’t for me.
    I mean, heck, I wouldn’t even marry a democrat!

  25. I mean, heck, I wouldn’t even marry a democrat!

    Ah, finally, something we can agree on.

  26. FireTag permalink

    I guess I qualify as part of the interfaith dialogue — at least I’m viewing the LDS scene from a mirror universe.

    I simply responded to the persisting “still small voice” that nagged at me for several months to start rereading the Book of Mormon. So trying to do what I felt led to do in MY life led me to the borderlands between the very conservative LDS and the very liberal CofChrist. There I found others — regardless of their religious origins — also living in or passing through these “in-between places”.

    Sometimes they have things I need; sometimes there are crazy ideas I can offer them. Sometimes I can point them to a new home or help them appreciate their old one from a new perspective. But I actually suspect I’ll be spending the rest of my life in the in-between, and enjoying most other people who can be quite comfortable there.

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