The good, the bad, and the ugly of interfaith dialogue
What is the point of building relationships with people who believe differently than us?
As a pastor and a chaplain, I have many opportunities to talk with people who believe differently than me. At the University of Alberta, I meet with chaplains from other Christian traditions and other religions. In working for Syrian refugee resettlement in Canada, I’ve partnered with other churches in Edmonton and with Islamic Family and Social Services Association. This past Remembrance Day, I was honoured to speak alongside Jewish, Muslim and Bahá’í presenters at Edmonton’s Interfaith Prayer Walk as we came together to pray for peace.
In so doing, I’ve learned a few things.
As evangelicals, we are often uncomfortable with dialogue. We want to remove differences in order to make people believe the same things as we do. There is something good about this impulse; we want other people to believe the truth!
But there is also a negative side. When we assume we already know the truth, we insist the other person must listen, change and become like us. Dialogue becomes monologue.
Even when we remember to listen, money, resources and position can wield oppressive influence. When we come to the table to talk, do we come as equals? When material aid is involved, can the other party express themselves openly or do they merely nod along, showing us what we want to see?
When I was working at a hostel for homeless men, the guys would tell me that they had “been saved” again. It was common for a well-meaning Christian to offer the men aid after preaching a “salvation message.” One patron proudly told me he had been saved eight times – and he was sincere! In this pursuit of conversion, conversation produces superficial agreement, but the truth is lost. It can be easy to forget about power dynamics.
Dignity of difference
As we dialogue, we can acknowledge our differences. After all, we are not all the same – and none of us has a monopoly on God. We don’t merely tolerate those who believe differently than us, we need them to reveal aspects of God to us. The Aboriginal community in Australia famously put it this way: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Collaboration for action
This suggests an alternative reason for conversation. In my experience, we talk not to reach agreement but to do something together. Truth is not an abstract principle; it is a lived reality. We communicate truth by sharing and working together. Dialogue makes working and sharing possible.
In a class on world religions, my professor was Lutheran, my fellow teaching assistant was Orthodox Christian and I was Mennonite. Despite our different traditions, we were able to work happily together. One day, my Orthodox Christian colleague observed that the Mennonites on campus were easy to talk to about faith. She explained their open acknowledgment of their peculiarity invited others to share about their own distinctiveness.
However, in situations of deep inequality or power imbalance, openly expressing differences can be risky for those who are vulnerable. In these situations, those who have power need to go an extra mile to create a hospitable climate. One way to do that is to move beyond merely identifying differences, to appreciating them.
In Edmonton, the Muslim community is vulnerable. Its members face the risk of discrimination and violence every day. Churches have come alongside Muslims to sponsor Syrians who are fleeing even greater uncertainty in their home region. This is the work of hospitality to which God has called us.
But before we can work together, we have to talk together. We have to learn from each other, and celebrate our differences.
The first time I met with IFSSA, we gathered at a local restaurant owned by a Muslim family who insisted that we should all eat as much as we wanted – for free. That celebration meal happened because of conversations in living rooms months before I arrived – allowing us to work together. At that meeting, I learned from Muslims about the generosity of God’s hospitality.
Later, when our church’s first family arrived at the airport, they had been on a long journey, shuffled from one bureaucrat to another. On arrival, they were expecting to talk to another agent with a clipboard. Instead, they saw a large friendly group with their names on a sign. As their surprise turned to smiles, I learned about finding God’s love in an unexpected place.
As Christians who value truth, we work and share with those who are different than us – with humility and honesty – because there is no better way to communicate the truth of God’s love to the world. And dialogue is what makes this working and sharing possible.
— Kevin Guenther Trautwein is assistant pastor at Lendrum MB Church, Edmonton. He and his wife (and co-pastor) Sherri have one young son who teaches them daily how to celebrate difference.
Read about one of Lendrum’s interfaith engagements: