Too close for comfort? Reflections on Protestant/Catholic dialogue

As a father of one–year–old twin boys, and witness to both the love and the antagonism shared between them, I have been granted many an occasion to reflect on how it can be that those with whom we share the most are often those with whom we fight the most. Somewhat unexpectedly, I find my experiences raising twins to overlap in profound ways with recent interfaith experiences.

Nearing the end of my first year facilitating an interfaith class in my United Methodist church, I have found myself relieved and encouraged that all seems to have gone well, that our class has been able to engage in dialogue with a wide range of religiously diverse guest speakers—including Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh—without much fuss or struggle.

The generally amicable nature of our experiences up to this point left me all the more surprised when our most recent class, featuring a local Catholic priest as guest speaker (Catholicism being closer to our own Methodist tradition in some regards than any of the other traditions we’ve encountered), turned out to be our most dissonant and labored to date.

Specifically, our dialogue with the priest somehow winded its way into the question of the communion table: why are Methodists not invited to participate in the Catholic Eucharist whereas Catholics are (in theory) welcome to participate in the Methodist communion? This question was met with more than a few “harrumphs” from the class, leading to an unexpected moment of labored dialogue:

–– “Why wouldn’t you let a Methodist take the Eucharist?”

–– “Do you not consider Methodists to be ‘Christian enough’?”

–– “Do Catholics believe Methodists are going to hell?”

Our guest responded to our questions the best he knew how, with patience and grace, and I would venture to say most in the class (including, I hope, our guest) left with a sense of resolution, and perhaps even satisfaction.

I must confess this experience surprised me, on several levels, and it seems to me to be a moment rich for reflection. How is it that affability can seemingly thrive at the outer, most extreme boundaries of interfaith encounter (as with our ostensibly more disparate Muslim, Hindu, and other guests) and yet begin to fray as that encounter moves closer to our own religious center?

As a student of religious psychology I might speculate that, because Methodists share more religious “turf” with the Catholics than with many other traditions, there is more potential for contention over religious belonging, theological truth, and the like. Our differences may actually become sharper (quite literally, unfortunately, in some instances) the more alike we are.  If another Christian claims something to be true and essential to Christian identity, and I disagree with them, I’m left with the implicit—or explicit, as it’s been made to me on a number of occasions—suggestion that I must not really be a Christian. Indeed, my identity as a Christian can be contested by another Christian more forcibly than by someone of another tradition.

Another possibility a colleague of mine has offered, and I think it’s a good one, is that, given the closer proximity of Methodism to Catholicism and the diminished sense of “strangeness” we may have perceived in our Catholic friend (compared to, say, our more “exotic” ethnically different and heavy–accented Sikh friend who visited our class earlier in the year), we simply felt more comfortable engaging him in open confrontation. There may be in interfaith settings a negative correlation between the “religious and/or ethnic distance” between us and the religious other and our level of comfort in challenging or outright disagreeing with them.

Finally, I feel I should disclose that our Catholic friend was visiting from an unashamedly and (to some) infamously conservative Catholic parish, and that our Methodist congregation generally tips the scale to the Left. Not that this distinction should preclude genial dialogue or agreement, and I hope it doesn’t, but one would reasonably expect stronger reactions in such a setting to a priest who holds firmly to Catholic exceptionalism than, say, a Hindu who claims to be affirming of all religious traditions.

I’m certain a mixture of these factors, as well as others I’ve overlooked here, might help explain our more challenging session with our Catholic friend. Regardless of where we settle in our understanding, however, I believe these reflections highlight several important issues inherent in the practice of interfaith work.

We should consider, first of all, whether the fact that our class has managed to avoid dissonance and struggle through almost a year of interfaith work is an accomplishment or a miscarriage, or whether we’ve managed entirely to miss the point of even facilitating such a class.

What is the point of an interfaith class, after all, if not to openly examine our similarities and differences, and even in some instances to struggle with one another? Is the point, rather, to be polite, to be agreeable, to find some peace for God’s sake and leave the struggling to others for another time? Our answers to these questions may be situational. When differences are a priori assumed (as they are with many of our non–Christian friends) our interest tends to be in finding agreement, too often at the expense of being open about the important differences that do exist.

For my part, I found something rewarding in the discomfort of those moments with our Catholic friend, and I wonder if more “discomfort” is needed in our encounters with the religious other. Of course, I don’t mean “discomfort” in a negative sense, as a striving for something unpleasant or harmful. Rather, I wonder if we can think of discomfort as challenging and, ideally, even ultimately generative and rewarding. I am reminded here of Jonathan Sacks’ words on “conversation” as a conduit for acknowledging and wrestling with difference:

In a conversation neither side loses and both are changed, because they now know what reality looks like from a different perspective. That is not to say that either gives up its previous convictions. That is not what conversation is about. It does mean, however, that I may now realize that I must make space for another deeply held belief, and if my own case has been compelling, the other side may understand that it too must make space for mine. That is how public morality is constructed in a plural society … by a sustained act of understanding and seeking to be understood across the boundaries of difference. (The Dignity of Difference, 2002, p. 83)

It may indeed be the case that, once we have the time to fully process what transpired, our class will conclude that our session on Catholicism was our most authentic interfaith (or ecumenical, as it were) “conversation” to date.

This further raises the issue of how we might learn to engage with those more distant from us as we do with those closer to us—say, how to converse openly with our Muslim friends just as we do with our Catholic friends. It may be an issue of timing or process, and indeed hospitality is paramount in encountering more disparate and socio–politically vulnerable others.

But these are questions worth considering, I think, and there are holy “struggles” worth pursuing nonetheless. I imagine, in the end, the relations we seek, both with those closer to home and with those more distant, are akin to what my twin boys share most of the time—a labored ability to love despite difference, to kick and argue and frustrate, but also in the very next moment to regard and embrace.

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