Interfaith Dialogue with Those Who Belong to Exclusivistic, Literalistic Religions

When I read Jenn Lindsay’s recent State of Formation blog post entitled “On Irreconcilable Differences: My Interreligious Dialogue with Mormon Missionaries” I was immediately intrigued for a number of reasons. Primary among these is that I, although no longer believing or practicing, used to be a devout Mormon. I even served a two year proselytizing mission for the LDS church (officially known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). I know exactly what the young Mormon women shared with Jenn and I can approximate exactly how they felt during the conversations. Another reason for my interest in the subject is that I have recently, for personal as well as academic reasons, been seeking to understand how to best carry out religious dialogue with those who belong to exclusivistic, literalistic religions (i.e. fundamentalist religions). As someone who used to wholeheartedly believe in one such religion but who is now, to simplify greatly, a secular pluralist, I feel that I might have some insight into the process.

As Jenn discovered in the course of her conversations with the young Mormon women, Mormonism allows very little wiggle room when it comes to requirements for salvation. Only those who accept and live the tenets of the religion, either in this life or the next, will be able to enter the highest of the three Mormon heavens in the afterlife. (Note: Some of the details that the Mormon missionaries shared with Jenn regarding the three Mormon heavens are incorrect. See here for an official explanation.) The beliefs of the faith are constantly reinforced in the lives of true believers, and once a month the entire church meeting is dedicated to allowing individual members of the congregation rise to the pulpit and declare that they know the LDS church is true.

As one might imagine, conversations about religion with my Mormon family and friends are not easy, especially because they now consider me to be an apostate from the only true religion on the face of the earth. As a way to maintain the exclusivism of the faith, those who reject, doubt or leave the faith receive numerous stigmas. It is commonly stated that such individuals cannot be happy, no matter how much they may think they are. In the case of members like myself who doubt the faith largely for intellectual reasons, the derision is even more intense. I have been told that I have been deceived by the devil, that I am “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7) and that I have been “blinded by the craftiness of men” (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 76:75). I do not take these statements personally because I understand the mindset and worldview that produces them. I know that when my family says these things they do so out of genuine love and a desire to bring me back to the path that they know is right. As a brash 19-year-old missionary I said all of these things to various people, probably in even harsher and more condescending ways. At one point in her piece Jenn expressed pity for the Mormon missionaries but allowed that they might feel the same way about her. I can assure you that they do.

So, given the presence of certain irreconcilable differences, how can one go about having productive conversations with people from fundamentalist religions? I recently had an in-depth conversation with a friend of mine who would identify himself as an evangelical Christian. We spent several hours in dialogue. He explained his theological system to me and I explained both my current and former belief systems to him. As the conversation progressed I learned that neither of those systems was palatable to him. At one point he bluntly told me that those who fail to accept Jesus into their hearts and live a Christian, Bible-centered life will not be counted among the children of God and will not experience a pleasant afterlife. This included me, he said. My initial reaction was shock and dismay that he would immediately discount the experiences, beliefs, and cultures of billions of non-Christians around the world. But then I took a mental step back and tried to put myself in his shoes. I asked: what cultural, familial and educational factors led him to his current beliefs? What personal experiences has he had? I began to ask these questions in a gentle, non-judgmental way and discovered that the circumstances and experiences of his life led to him finding great comfort and peace in his current theological system. Ultimately it is what works best for him.

My friend and I left that dialogue without either of us having changed our minds in any way. The same goes for conversations with my family. However, through these interactions I have gained a greater understanding of the purpose of interfaith dialogue, especially with people who espouse fundamentalist beliefs. Although I don’t convince people of anything in these dialogues, I am at least able to explain to them my ways of thinking. I am true to myself because I don’t pretend that I agree with them or accept their worldview. I often say something like, “That doesn’t resonate with my personally, but I can see why it is valuable to you.” Most importantly, though, I always gain insight into why people think the way they do and why their lifestyles and worldviews are precious to them. In the process I am able to sharpen my own thinking on various epistemological and metaphysical questions.

Although I could easily take offense from my conversations with family and friends, I instead leave them uplifted and satisfied, having learned much about myself and others. For me, this is the sweetest fruit of interfaith dialogue.

Image courtesy of Flickr Commons.

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4 thoughts on “Interfaith Dialogue with Those Who Belong to Exclusivistic, Literalistic Religions

  1. Jared, thanks so much for your post. Something that challenges me with regards to interfaith dialogue, though, is the question of what we do when we see (or believe we see) that others’ actions, inspired by their beliefs, are causing harm to others. I personally struggle to be generous of spirit, for example, when I see fundamentalists (of every religion) fighting to deny same-sex couples equal rights. How do we engage then?

    1. Hi Sari, thank you for your excellent question. I too have spent a lot of time pondering this very issue. I have left more than one discussion on this topic very frustrated despite my determination not to be. I have, however, learned a few important things that may be of use when discussing controversial issues such as same-sex marriage with fundamentalists.

      First and foremost, before engaging in a discussion, be aware of the other person’s assumptions as well as your own. I happen to agree with you that same-sex couples should have equal rights, but fundamentalists do not come into a dialogue with this assumption. The majority of my family and friends are strongly opposed to same-sex marriage, and if they are any indication it is clear that the Supreme Court’s ruling has not tampered their strong belief but rather galvanized it. To them, the marriage equality ruling is evidence of the “moral decay” of America and contributes to their desire to stand even more firmly for traditional heterosexual marriage. Marriage between a man and a woman is a divine institution in their eyes, so attempting to convince them otherwise is almost always fruitless. It is also often difficult to convince them that their beliefs do real harm because they see their efforts not as an act of hate but as an act of love as they try to help gay people avoid committing sin and offending God. All of these items and more are important to be aware of in a dialogue with a fundamentalist.

      Second, we should not go into a conversation with the goal of changing a fundamentalist’s mind. It happens once in a while (I am Exhibit A here), but usually it does not. Rather, I have found that listening to the other person’s point of view and asking them to explain it thoroughly is often a useful way to make a space for me to share my point of view. Then, perhaps I will share a story of a gay person I know whose life has been greatly enriched by being able to live an authentic life. I might then explain some possible ways that marriage equality may benefit individuals and communities. Although the fundamentalist will rarely change his or her religious stance, I at least try to show them why gay people deserve equal rights under the law.

      Third, it is crucially important to use as much neutral language in the conversation as possible. Using charged words such as “bigot” or “hate” will immediately cause defensiveness in the other person and they will then most likely not even be willing to listen to your view or consider your evidence. Even making any suggestion that the other person’s view is inferior can cause them to be closed off. I have found that using soft, neutral language (while still being clear about my own beliefs), at the very least makes it possible to leave a conversation without any hard feelings.

      Ultimately, although it is definitely not easy and can be painfully slow, mutual understanding may come. Or it may not. Either way, all we can do is control our own actions and make sure that we understand the other person’s view, even if that person makes no effort to understand ours.

      1. Jared, please expand this reply into a post in and of itself. It deserves more than the comments section. These are concrete, action pieces that are incredibly useful for going into any conversation with a person who is different from you. I strongly believe the biggest obstacle to interbelief dialogue is a lack of concrete guidelines for the interaction, especially for the interaction with people who don’t particularly want to be at the interbelief table.

        I am coming to the belief that the most effective strategy for dialogue is to truly and honestly looking at an issue from the other person’s point-of-view. As I try to do this for myself, I find myself sympathetic to their position (even when it is in direct opposition to my own) and, most importantly, better able to see potential points of common ground.

        I think the biggest mistake we (humans) make when we are trying to make connections and progress is looking for a kind of “all or nothing” compatibility. In other words, we don’t agree completely therefore we are enemies. Instead of seeing the positive overlap (and the implicit space to grow it) we focus on the negative difference to the extreme. That leads to trying to change the person or person’s idea whole-cloth. Which not only doesn’t work, but fails at the level of compassionate human connection.

  2. I am a big proponent of inter-faith dialogue. I am a Hindu married to a Catholic man. We have a solid marriage despite the consternation caused when we tell people we are a Hindu + Catholic couple. I have been meeting many wonderful folks when I attend mass at the local church. He in turn is very close with my family and friends who are Hindus. I strongly agree with Jared Pfost & Wendy Webber. What has brought us together is our willingness to be open to at least listening and attempting to understand where the other person is on their faith journey. And through us people are interacting who would not have done so if we had not been the catalytic factor. I feel doubly blessed for having these people in my life. I am thrilled to have found this website and this post about 10 minutes ago. I really look forward to more posts and interactions. Wishing Love, Peace & Hope to all. ~ AV

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