theology is not only about understanding the world

why inter-faith dialogue is something easier than intra-faith dialogue.

kathyescobar church stuff, faith shifts, incarnational 2 Comments

Last month the Refuge hosted an Interfaith Learning Party at The Refuge. It was so beautiful and fun and one of my dreams for this year. We had a full house and 4 leaders on the panel, mainly from the Interfaith Group I am part of in Denver–a Palestinian Muslim woman who leads an educational organization in Denver, a Jewish Rabbi, a Buddhist Monk, and a Hindu community educator.

The purpose was to create a container for Christians to learn and break down some of the walls between us that come from so much misunderstanding. We learned about core tenets of each of the faiths, spiritual practices, and sacred texts. We listened to how their different faiths are sometimes misunderstood by Christians and what they hoped for us to consider. Of course, it only scratched the surface; time flew by far too quickly but we had to start somewhere. It really was a gift to everyone who attended, and each and every person left with a challenge or gem or new insight or learning.

Afterward, I was in multiple conversations about it and one of the biggest themes that emerged was how inter-faith dialogue is sometimes far easier than intra-faith dialogue.

It’s often far less complicated to offer grace and openness to a religion that’s completely different from ours than to our Christian brother or sister.

We’ve addressed this a little in a Faith Circus episode, but after some really brutal conversations in this past season I realize how truly difficult safe, brave, forward-moving intra-faith conversations can be between a range of Christian beliefs.

Oh, they touch such a deep and painful chord.

They stir up such strong feelings not in our mind but in our guts, our souls.

They trigger past experiences.

They tie into former relationships and church situations.

They call us to question not only our old beliefs but our new ones as well.

They can make us mad.

They can make us scared.

They can make us tired.

They can make us want to leave the Christian faith altogether.

They can make us sad for someone looking or listening in.

In my opinion, intra-faith dialogue is one of the most difficult issues facing the church right now. It’s one of the reasons so many are leaving it.

How do we talk about some of these important issues without flipping a gasket?

How do we maintain our integrity on our beliefs and not slam another’s?

How do we honor our differences among the Christian spectrum in love?

How do we live in community with people who believe vastly different things but follow the same God and believe the same Book?

Even as I write this, I can feel in my bones how difficult it is not from a distance but from an up-close and personal place.

I know I am far better in inter-faith conversations than intra-faith ones.

It’s caused me to take a step back and listen a little more closely to why. Here are a few short reasons that came to mind today. I’m sure there are many more, but here are a few reasons intra-faith conversations are much more difficult than inter-faith ones.

When there’s conflict, it hurts more from a family member, from someone close. In intra-faith conversations, it’s somehow our tribe, even if it’s not a close one. There’s shared blood, heritage, language, and history. It’s our brothers and sisters not someone distant and different.

Dualistic thinking is embedded in much of humanity, and especially Christianity. It’s so hard to live non-dualistically, in paradox, in both/and instead of either/or. This just isn’t hard for those Christians who lean toward the right. It’s just as hard in a different way for those on the left.

Issues of justice and truth touch deep parts of our soul. We get along pretty good when it comes to surface-y things, but when we start talking about “justice” and “truth”, we’re talking about our guts, our guiding values, our souls. And when we disagree on these things in deep and tender ways, yikes, it triggers all kinds of emotions.

A lot of the Apostle Paul’s examples are about bringing the other person “back”. I am going to do some more specific study on this this week and how my lens might be totally skewed, but it seems like so many of the scriptures that come to mind that have been used against each other in intra-faith conversations tend to come from a place of one person or group knowing more “truth” than another and trying to bring believers back together somehow. This is extra hard for those who have had a radical faith shift.

There are so few safe and brave spaces. At our last interfaith meeting someone shared that they’d like to see more “brave spaces”, not just “safe spaces”. That really resonated with me and I’ve been mulling it around since then. It’s true, safety is a start but it’s really easy to keep it at a level where it’s slightly uncomfortable but just dance around the difficult thing. We need more brave spaces with strong facilitation and tenderness that allow for greater courage and unity (and less risk to funding sources for some organizations).

I often wonder what Jesus would say if he were in some of these conversations, if he were facilitating, sitting in, listening, participating. A lot of times I think he’d face-palm and other times I think he’d hold our hand and say, “I know, this is so hard but don’t give up. There’s so much to learn about me, about you, through them.”

My guess is he’s probably always doing both.

So there’s my short list of why intra-faith conversations are so much trickier than inter-faith ones. I’d love to know what you would add, too.