Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Progressive Dialogue

Six years, over a hundred hours of confusion, and the hit TV show Lost finally came to an end this year. The Internet has been replete with prognosticators attempting to decipher how the show, which confounded many, would end. The show ended with a scene that emphasized the spiritual overtones implicit throughout the shows six year run.

The cast members assemble in a church for the shows climax, and while most fans were busy trying to decipher the meaning of the show which had lead them down so many rabbit trails that all sense of direction had been lost some time ago, my focus was captured by a different theme: pluralism.

For Lost, faith is about simply believing in something. That faith may be in any number of gods, but as long as faith is present, you are on the right track to finding redemption. The church clearly symbolized this pluralistic view of faith, as it was conspicuously a Unitarian church, decked out in the d├ęcor of every available religion. The stain glass windows presented to us the enduring symbols of a myriad of religious traditions, from the Christian cross, to the Star of David, to the crescent moon of Islam, this final scene clearly represented the overarching viewpoint of our world that pluralism is now the dominating viewpoint of society.

In today’s pluralistic and fragmented society, tolerance is at an all time high. The public outcry for toleration, and equality among religious preference has constructed a world in which dialogue between individuals of different persuasions is at times non-existent. What we are left with is a bifurcated world where the choice before us is to either ignore differences, hold hands and sing we are the world, or take the dogmatic approach and refuse any sort of dialogue that doesn’t involve a condemnation of the opposing viewpoint and expectation of repentance, and acceptance of our precise system of belief.

Many Christians today suffer from a unique inability to dialogue with those of either differing faith, or no faith at all. Our world is increasingly becoming a place where constructive dialogue is replaced with shouting across lines of division. Christians are convinced of their superior position on matters of faith, because after all, they worship the one true God, and have not been deceived like those pagans who have yet to find the true way to God.

But how can we move to a place where we are able to not only dialogue with those we disagree with, but learn from them? Is it possible to interact with those of differing viewpoints and come away with a greater understanding of truth? Should we for a time being lay aside our suppositions, and consider the viewpoint of the other? How can we engage in dialogue that is productive, listening to the viewpoints of others, while at the same time retaining our unique understanding of what it means to be the people of God, and while continuing to hold on to the convictions that make our faith worthwhile?

Attempts at dialogue across faith lines too often have resulted in an ecumenical movement, which appeals to the lowest common denominator of belief. Participants search high and low to find common ground on which they can claim unity. These practices only succeed in a producing a reductionist portrait of faith, and often times strip Christianity from some of its core convictions. Christians must retain the orthodox faith, while at the same time engaging with those of other faiths.

So how can we dialogue with people of other faiths, or no faith without reducing our claims, and at the same time coming away from the discussion having grown in our own faith?

First, we must rid ourselves of the hubris, which so often soils any attempt to engage with those who disagree with us. Dialogue can only take place when two or more individuals are willing to interact in a constructive manner that includes listening to the viewpoint of the other. Communication involves both speaking and listening, and for too often Christians have all but forgotten about the latter instead preferring to furnish a laundry list of reasons for our opponents ignorance and make attempts to guide them in the right direction. Instead we must learn to hold our convictions with a sense of humility. We know in part. This does not require giving up our convictions, but rather it means that we hold those convictions with humility. If we are able to humble ourselves, and allow ourselves to listen we may just discover new insights from people of other faiths, and those insights may lead us to a greater conviction in our own faith.

Second, we must recognize that all truth belongs to God. Whether that truth comes from the mouth of a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or any other religious affiliation for that matter, as Christians we can take that truth and claim it. God is the creator of all things, and as such has claim over all truth. While we recognize the inherent deficiencies in opposing religions, we can still learn from them, while maintaining our clear distinctive convictions.

Third, a general love for others must be the foundation of all dialogues with those outside of our particular faith affiliation. The temptation to view people of other faiths as potential targets for proselytes, instead of individuals we are called to love is a strong enticement. All dialogue should be founded on the love for others Christians are called to exemplify.

We live in a pluralistic society. The ability to dialogue with people of other faiths is now a requisite for the Christian. If we are able to enter into dialogue with humility, understanding that all truth is God’s truth regardless of the source, and communicate with love we may just be able to navigate our way through the world we find ourselves in. And if we are really honest with ourselves, this world is a lot less confusing than the one we encounter in Lost.