Last post I reviewed the book Faitheist by Chris Steadman, in which he tells how he works to encourage interfaith dialogue, even though he is an atheist.
What should we christians think about dialogue with other faiths, and with atheists? Is it a compromise of what we believe?
Tolerance is the new black?
We live in a diverse world. In the west, tolerance is one of the most admired virtues, at least in theory. People should be free to live as they choose, as long as they harm no-one else. We will be tolerant of almost anything except intolerance.
Of course not everyone agrees. In religion, politics and at football games, the true believers know they are right and everyone else is not. The more enthusiastic will try to convert others to their view. And so religion, especially fundamentalism, is often seen as the enemy. Even militant atheists can become intolerant fundamentalists.
Some religious communities have worked for many years to promote dialogue and understanding between the different religions. In the US, Odyssey has promoted interfaith dialogue for over 20 years; in Australia, the Uniting Church seeks to do the same.
The interesting new development is some atheists wanting to join in. Chris Steadman’s NonProphet Status has attracted quite a following among secular humanists “to catalyze a movement in which religious and secular folks not only co-exist peacefully but collaborate around shared values.”
Types of interfaith dialogue
It seems to me that interfaith dialogue and harmony can proceed on several different bases:
- People of different beliefs get together to talk about and act on things they have in common (e.g. a commitment to end extreme poverty globally, or to increase religious harmony in society), without ever talking about their differences in belief.
- The differences in belief are recognised and discussed. The participants may or may not wish to convert the other participants, but discussion would be sensitive and courteous.
- Believers of the different religions endorse the idea that all religions lead to the same God.
- Religion is a way to see the world that has cultural and personal value that can be studied sociologically and neurologically, but has no objective reality.
A christian view of interfaith dialogue?
How much we welcome, or avoid, interfaith dialogue, may depend on which of these approaches we are considering.
Talking and listening
It is difficult to see how anyone could object to talking and listening to people of other beliefs, in a friendly environment. It is an opportunity to break down barriers, correct misunderstandings about christianity and gain new understanding of others’ beliefs. Christians should enter such discussions having prayed about their attitude and the receptivity of their fellow participants.
Some christians are wary of making common cause with atheists or people of other beliefs, but most of us do it all the time – at work, with our family and neighbours, in politics and in community organisations. Working together in a common cause brings people closer together, and creates opportunities for sharing of beliefs and values.
For a christian, discourteous arguments are contrary to New Testament teaching (e.g. 1 Peter 3:15-16 & Titus 3:2 – for more, see Atheist vs christian internet wars). We all have an incentive to have harmony in our culture. Learning to deal with differences with respect and sensitivity are worthwhile for peaceful living.
Dialogue vs evangelism
Does dialogue happen at the expense of evangelism?
It all depends on us. The two are not mutually exclusive, though there may be few who see the value in both. It seems to me that anything that allows christians to mix with non-christians in a friendly environment must have some value. We need to take such opportunities and pray for the work of the Holy Spirit. Friendship, harmony and understanding are good, sharing faith when it is appropriate is good too.
Where I draw the line
But I cannot feel right about blurring the differences so much that we treat all beliefs as valid – as seems to be the danger for example in this Australian conference. It wouldn’t be honest for me – I don’t believe all beliefs are equally valid (I believe Jesus reveals God in ways no other person ever has), nor that they lead to the same result in a person’s life. And in the end it is an insult the beliefs of the other person.
Atheists make it clearer
The inclusion of atheists make these issues clearer (to me, at any rate). Atheists cannot think that all religions are equally true – they are more likely to think they are all equally false! So there is little prospect of confusion here. Dialogue and cooperation can only occur on the understanding that there are large differences between us, but we can cooperate and talk and be friends.
So what’s a good christian boy, or girl, to do?
I strongly believe we need to get out of our christian ghettos and rejoin the world – and show by our lives that Jesus makes a difference. We need to learn to be more sensitive to others, more willing to meet people halfway – without compromising what we believe to be true. If this includes interfaith dialogue, then so be it – and in all things let’s stay faithful to Jesus.
Let us learn to live out the good news, speak it sensitively, and “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
What do you think?