intra-faith dialogue.

colossians 3

last week i was in a fun conversation with some dear friends (planning our next theology camp!) about how hard it is to hold the space for differing theological perspectives on really big issues. it’s tough because so much of our thinking has become “either/or”.  you’re either this type of christian or you’re that type of christian. you’re either conservative or liberal. you’re either evangelical or mainline, for this or against that.

we have built some scary divides between each other and it feels like the gap continues to widen. one hour on facebook when there’s a hot topic making its rounds and the comment threads reflect how crazy it’s become.

it made me think about inter-faith dialogue and how it’s gained a lot of traction over the years. i have many friends who are sitting at much bigger tables than ever before and learning, loving, and practicing with people from other faiths. because of the nature of the work i do at the refuge, honestly, i don’t have that many opportunities to connect with people from different faiths.  most of the folks i meet with regularly come from either no-faith backgrounds or some-form-of-christian ones and are much more focused on how they’re going to make it through the day than on talking theology.  however, it’s totally easy for me to hang with people from different faiths.

over time, i’ve found that it is far more difficult to have safe and loving conversations with other christians who are on a different page theologically.

when we do intersect on some of these hot topics, it seems like it’s tricky to feel safe. often for both sides, it can feel like our faith is being questioned. we can become defensive, protective, or feel like we’re misunderstood. our motives feel threatened. we start to get that ache in the pit of our stomach warning us, “uh oh, this isn’t going to end well.”

it makes me so sad to see the splinters and divisions all over the place between supposedly  “conservative” and “liberal” christians. often, i have felt the most resistance and judgment from my own christian brothers & sisters, not my non-christian ones.

as i was driving home from our meeting, this word came to mind to describe what we were hoping for in our theology camp dreaming–intra-faith dialogue.

when i got home googled “intra-faith dialogue” to see what was being written on it, thinking i was way late to the party.  interestingly enough, there was little to nothing about intentional intra-faith conversations related to christianity.

i think we need more spaces and places for intra-faith dialogue, where christians with vastly differing views can be together face to face, eye to eye, heart to heart, to listen and learn from each other.  

we need ways to practice dignified dialogue, ways to talk about our differences that are safe, loving, kind, respectful, and challenging. we need spaces to find what we have in common instead of only focus on our differences. we need people who are brave enough to hold in tension radically different biblical interpretations in love and respect.

i am so thankful for the refuge because we do attempt, as best we can, to hold this kind of space in community. it hasn’t been easy and our hardest divide is between conservative and progressive views of the Bible. we most certainly haven’t played this out perfectly and keep learning as we go, but it does seem like our best hope always comes back to relationship.  when we’re friends, real friends, everything changes.

i am painfully aware, though, of how hard it is to hold these kind of theological differences in tension.

i know why people are afraid to try, especially when we have had so many examples where we have felt unsafe & somehow threatened.  but my hope is that with God’s help, we could find new & creative ways to sit at the table together.

a safe intra-faith dialogue would help us:

learn to be okay with different interpretations of scripture. of course, this is probably our trickiest sticking point but we have to find a way to do this!  (in my opinion the best starting point is to take out the language “but the Bible (or God) says…” and replace it with “my understanding of the scriptures is…” that helps so much in every direction.

discover what we do have in common.  sure, we believe things about Jesus in all different ways and the various strands of our faith reflect that, but there’s so much that we probably do have in common  that we could celebrate.

learn to own what we believe in the open. i think there is a deep fear in a lot of people that we will somehow end up in a bad place if we are fully honest with each other (in either direction) so we tiptoe around it or start to “come out” on facebook and find ourselves in hot water. learning to own what we believe and be okay with it in mixed company is good practice.

practice humility.  that should be enough of a motivator, really. we’ve got to learn to humble ourselves and listen and learn from each other.  this one’s the hardest for me out of all of them and really the main reason i avoid these kinds of conversations (in addition to so many of them just feeling unsafe & unfacilitated)

stay in relationship.  i am indeed so grateful for my friends of a more conservative persuasion who love me even though they don’t agree with my theology, and i hope they know how much i love them even though mine’s different than theirs. we’re trying to trust the holy spirit to guide us & put relationship above belief.

become less afraid.  fear shows up fast and often. we need to move out of fear the fear that rules our primitive brain and practice a third way.  our primitive brain is living from our natural fight or flight reflexes, while the third way is reflective of Jesus’ call to us, to be true peace-makers (not conflict avoiders), and show up in love & grace & truth & peace. parker palmer says that “when the primitive brain dominates, christianity goes over to the dark side..[we] self-destruct over doctrinal differences, forgetting that our first calling is to love one another.”  he adds, “when our primitive brain is in charge, humility, compassion, forgiveness, and the vision of a beloved community do not stand a chance.”

i’m continually reminded of how broken & fragmented & wounded Christ’s body has become. i confess that i have contributed to it over the years in different ways both subtly and very directly.

i don’t want to be ruled by my primitive brain–fight or flight.  i want to be ruled by love.

God, help us believe in the miracle of true blue intra-faith dialogue! we want to become safer people who can listen & learn from each other and honor & respect our differences while noticing and celebrating the beautiful things we share.  

* * * * *

ps: the first tuesday of every month  i write a down we go column for sheloves magazine.  april’s theme is “home” and the post i wrote is called mobile homes (not that kind).  i do pray that we’d be “people sent out in a broken and disconnected world to somehow create a strange and beautiful sense of belonging wherever we go. people of hope.  people of love.  people of presence.  people who are beginning to feel more at home in our own skin and can help others feel more “home,” too…”

30 Comments

  • Yeah, I am all over this, sister … count me in! Until we can embrace the truth that the Spirit is always at work revealing The Truth to those who seek him … on whatever path they are on … we will continue to exclude those God has already included in Jesus through the New Covenant. So much time and money and energy and human pride has been invested in religious forms rather in relationships because we tend to be mess-averse, eh? Religion and it’s institutions offer orderly security that tends to stunt maturity, when the Spirit continually calls us into relationships that fosters faith and growth … and messiness. First with Father-Son-Spirit, and then with those who are also inside that same Triune relationship.

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    • thanks peggy! i love that phrase “stunt maturity”. God does “continually call us into relationship that fosters faith and growth….and messiness…” yep.

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  • I have enjoyed listening to Krista Tippett: On Being. In some of her past podcasts she has hosted/facilitated this type of dialogue.

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  • I feel like I want to lay down all my ideas and simply hold on to Jesus and people.

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  • “i’ve found that it is far more difficult to have safe and loving
    conversations with other christians who are on a different page
    theologically.”

    The problem with this is that within driffernt groups and even between individuals with different theological perspectives is that there exists an entrenchment into particular worldviews. These world views have their place. They provide security, safety and belonging for like minded people. What it also produces is tribalism and the worst kind of human conduct with cruelty and hostility towards those outside of a particualr group or worldview.

    This is an anthesis to freindship and unity, mutual submission, compassion for each other, the building up of the body in Chirst. It is right and good to make judgements. Without that lines would not be drawn between what is acceptable and what isn’t with the establishment of healthy boundaries to such. However there is a distinction between that and judging or being judgemental over issues which are debatable.

    Consider this – in some parts dancing is seen as a nono. But you cannt tell an African not to dance! Most Africans thing that drinking alcohol is a nono. But you can’t say that to an English Anglican who is accustomend to relaxing and conversation over a pub lunch after church.

    I like what Laurie wrote about latying down ideas and holding onto people. For some, I realise they may be in a place where they are either unwilling or unable to consider views other than their own or thier peer group. And it will nor be for them to embrace the diversity of views that are available within the boundaries of godliness. For others, they are more willing or able do to this. The best we can do is be what is conducive to creating harmony within the divererse nature of the body of Christ. For some of us that will involve repentance, others it will be building on what already has been done. There will always be choices to make in this. And it will be important to recognise what is healthy at any point in time, whether going deeper together would be a good thing, or in extreme cases of disagreement whether breaking fellowship is better than continuing to try to make things work.

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    • thanks. yep, i’m just being honest about how tricky it is. may God help us learn what it means to work toward unity, not uniformity, as my friend karl says.

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      • Yes unity and valuing differences where they add value. Honesty expressed well is a good thing.

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  • “I want to be ruled by love”. That is the key. In these discussions I am always reminded of Biily Grahams quote. ” Its our job to love, The Holy Spirits job to convict and Gods job to judge”. Too often we inadvertently swap jobs with God and that never ends well.

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  • “’i’m continually reminded of how broken & fragmented & wounded Christ’s body has become. i confess that i have contributed to it over the years in different ways both subtly and very directly”.:… Ummmm, yeah, hear that. I am sad to say that I, more often than not, don’t really talk very much about my faith or identify myself as a……christian, or even follower of jesus. It is hard for me to not follow the admission of that without a hasty disclaimer that i am not one of the overpowering kind. It feels easier to me to not speak to anything faith related, because I do not want to be lumped into a category of judgy mcjudgersons, protesters of various faith issue hot buttons, or as someone who is waiting for the right “in” to convert the other. I could for sure work on learning to own what I believe, right in the open. The secrecy thing has historically not worked out for me too well. 🙂

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    • when you say judgy mcjudgersons it always makes me smile 🙂 yeah, it is really hard after shifting to come to a place where it feels honest about sharing that feels solid and with integrity. our radars are so hyper sensitive now and so i totally hear what you are saying. but yeah, that learning to be comfortable with where we are coming from and not hide that is a good practice.

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  • I am struggling with this so much right now. I have a friend who I’ve know for 10 years and over that time, we’ve both evolved in our thinking in two different directions, her toward patriarchy, my toward feminism, and I am finding it so hard to hold that tension right now. It’s breaking my heart and leaving me feeling frustrated mostly with myself because I can’t find a way to be ok with her views and just love her. I said to my husband last night, I just don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to be ruled by loved in this…

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    • Hi Tamara,

      I know how difficult it can get when our passions arise and we want to find what works when there has been a heartbreaking struggle and we want to make things better. And how there are voices out there that would have us go in one direction or another or what we might want to speak out and have happen.

      I’m in the UK, so I am in danger of saying something that would not be an issue here but would be where you are and making a cultural faux pas. But I wonder If I could offer some input with the intention of it being helpful.

      Could it be that in both your views there are merits? And that some middel ground migh carefully be negotiated where you can stay freinds and be OK with subjective differences?

      The way things seem to me is that ther are issues both with patriarchy and with feminism in their extreme forms which are not helpful. But that there are elements of both that can be taken and usefully applied. For example, I undersatnd there are some useful aspaects of feminism that help with establishing equality and freedom for all. And likewise there are some elements of patriarchalism that embrace the differences between men and women and see them as beneficial to both.

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      • Thank you so much, Adam, for you kind words. I think you’re on the right track with the idea of searching for common ground. My friend and I have started having conversations around listening to each others stories and understanding why we are each where we are. It’s difficult work, but good.

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        • Good to hear that you and your freind are more on speaking terms. Keep up the good work. 🙂

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    • thanks for sharing, tamara, oh that is so hard, especially in areas that we feel so extra passionate about. i so feel your pain and struggle in finding what it means to love and accept the difference with grace. i really struggle with that, too.

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  • There is so much wisdom in what you have laid out here. And challenge.

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  • What you wrote here reminds me of our friend Andrew Marin at the Marin Foundation, who encourages dialogue between Christ followers with sometimes radically different points of view. Good post, Kathy.

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  • Well said, Kathy! This is a hard subject and one that has been very close to me in recent years. I have undergone a huge faith shift (still in progress, no doubt) and it has been hard as those in my former circle choose to shut me out in many ways because what I believe has changed. I own what I now believe and no longer think that anyone can have the corner on truth. I love that you choose not to use the Bible as a hammer, but instead confess up front that this is what you believe about what it says, so far. I think shedding our need to be “right” is the first step and second is the need to love people. Some, who are put out by where I am now, choose to simply ignore the change and not associate with me, others have chosen to warn that my family is headed into heresy and I need to run away. There has been one, though, who has engaged the discussion and chose to agree to disagree. This discussion has solidified us both in what we believe, why we believe it and has deepened our friendship. This gives me hope that this is possible in other relationships. One thing I do know is that I want to chose love. We are told that this is how the world will know we belong to Jesus, not by our right theology. :-). If division must come, it is my conviction, that it should not come from me, instead I want to seek to love and grace to embrace the wonderful differences that exist. It is so freeing to be able to love everyone regardless of what they believe. Keep engaging these discussions. They are so important!

    Reply
    • thanks dear charity. i had a feeling you had encountered this 🙂 i really do believe it is so possible to agree to disagree like you have with your friend and what beauty can come out of that. thanks for your heart for unity and hope in the body of Christ. it is a beautiful gift!

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  • Very well said. Much of this intra-faith warfare is over things that truly fall outside the boundaries of what is essential to the faith, yet the warriors battle as if it isn’t. And it seems to have always been true, whether the arguments were over food laws, circumcision, infant baptism, the precise nature of communion, papal authority, prohibition, complementarianism, tongue-speaking/”gifts of the spirit,” eschatology and now gay marriage (and no doubt dozens of others I’ve left out). The true believers always seem ready to just write their opponents right out of the faith, as if the tent isn’t big enough to accomodate more than one view.

    I love the phrase: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love”
    Of course we could still end up fighting about what is “essential,” but it seems to me that taking that phrase seriously would be a good start.

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    • thanks, bill, i love that phrase, too. it is nutty, really, all the ways we divide and en-trench that are so nonessential in my opinion but as you said, “we still end up fighting about what is essential” and disagree on what that means. thanks for taking time to share, love your thoughts.

      Reply
  • Yes. Jesus is the center of what we believe and that which divides us is so much smaller in comparison.

    Reply
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