In America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity (2005), Robert Wuthnow, an American sociologist, argues that we have possibly been going about these ecumenical (inter-Christian) and inter-faith dialogues all wrong. He writes that we have been so focused on theology (understandings about God) that we have completely missed the opportunities to simply be in relationship, a basic understanding of what God is about that seems to span many of the world’s religions and philosophies.
In my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) we seem very hung up on our theological differences rather than focusing on building relationships. The U.S. government seems to be reflecting this paradigm shift of recent decades as all sides dig their heels in the sand around ideological stalemates that are driving our government toward yet another shut down that will ultimately cost the people millions if not billions.
I read Wuthnow’s book as part of my preparation for a Doctor of Ministry class at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and was captivated by his depiction of the religious landscape in the U.S. He argues that what we are practicing can barely even be called “tolerance”—which I define as “allowing” the other to be wrong, at best, and more often an attempt to still vale prejudice and ignorance. Wuthnow writes that we are living in an increasingly diverse world as we come into contact and experience with people from different religions, even different expressions of a religion we may share with them (e.g., Christianity in my context). With this increasing diversity are opportunities to build true community by acknowledging our differences, naming them even, yet also seeking understanding (without the need to agree or disagree, but value the other intrinsically) in order to build true community where differences are “tolerated” (or set aside) but valued and honored as we, in Christian terms, still come to the table of fellowship to break bread and seek to live in peace.
I’m not being idealistic here as I have no delusions that this will somehow just happen. It requires taking risks, and taking risks involves allowing ourselves to be open and vulnerable—neither of which Americans seem to be good at (we want “calculated” risks where the chance for failure is slim or non-existence, which is not risk at all; and none of us appreciates the value of vulnerability and the world of possibilities that shedding our facades of invulnerability can offer).
I do not have to convert to Islam to appreciate their devotion to their faith and understand how, like Christianity, the Islamic faith has been commandeered by a small group of militant radicals. I do not have to adopt Buddhist practices of meditation (though Christianity and Judaism both have a long history of meditation prayer) to appreciate and seek to understand Buddhist ways of living in harmony with the world. But I also understand that these conversations are difficult and weighted down by years (centuries, millenia) of baggage from bad experiences of such interfaith dialogue. But all of this still misses the point that Wuthnow seems to be trying to make: it’s not about the theology, it’s about valuing the opportunity to build relationships, possibly even gain friends, and help to improve the quality of life and the value of honest, open, and even passionate exchanges within our communities (local, regional, national, as well as global) in and of itself.
I wonder if the scariest part about this is that we might, through such relationships with those we have for so long labeled as “enemy,” have to recognize the wrongs we have committed in our own self-righteous arrogance that denied the humanness of others and have to navigate the reality that even in our own Judeo-Christian scripture that God created everything good, that in all things there is an inherent goodness, including people who might look, act, or talk differently than us. Vulnerability and introspection are indeed scary, especially when we haven’t done it before, or at least in a very long time.