A Naive Approach to Interfaith Dialogue

You really believe that?  So naive.
You really believe that? So naive.

My book, Pub Theology, has been out for about six months now.  I have heard from readers all over, nearly all of whom have really enjoyed the book.  The reviews on Amazon are all positive.  The Goodreads ratings are great.  This is a bit surprising to me, as I expected a certain amount of push back from readers.  Perhaps they have been biding their time.  A disappointed reader recently responded to the feature review of Pub Theology posted at the Englewood Review of Books.

Check out this response from Alex:

I am nearly finished with Berghoef’s work, which I had high hopes for. I appreciate points of your review, but I have to say that I do disagree about some of Berghoef’s intentions. If it were merely a monograph to discuss active listening in interfaith settings, I would be all ears. But within that framework he exposes that he is not a Christian living in a pluralistic world, he is a pluralist. I don’t say this with disrespect but in recognition that he is seeking to shed the “exclusitivity” of fundamentalism and traditional Christianity while learning what it means to “climb to the top of the mountain” of understanding and knowing God, asserting that multiple faiths can be incorporated into Christianity without any taking priority. (See his illustration of the telescope for an example). In establishing pub theology, he is also seeking to deconstruct Christian theology into a more cultural friendly model. I admittedly am frustrated with what you call his “whimsical” approaches to these gatherings. I too believe that there needs to be real listening and understanding, but I would not go so far as to say that this negates some central tenets to my own faith. I think that I can still be an “orthodox” Christian while also dialoguing with other faiths. From Berghoef’s Reformed background, he seems to posit the rigidness and fear of that upbringing as something that all people universally experience with tradtional (sic) Christianity. I would say that his context is dictating his views of others’ experience with the church in a way that molds his book. Maybe I am not progressive enough, but I don’t see religious pluralism as the necessary next step for Christianity, remembering that Jesus calls Himself the “way, truth, and the life.” The trouble I have with this multi-faith approach to God is that many of the faiths mentioned, at least in their primary Scriptures, see themselves as the sole route to God. To omit this is to in some way neglect what is a central part of the different faiths represented, and it’s a naive approach to interfaith dialogue.

These are just some of my relatively disjointed thoughts, but I’ve been wrestling with this book and needed to get them out.

Alright.  There we go.  That wasn’t so hard, was it?  If you’ve read the book, I’d be interested in your thoughts about the above.  If you haven’t read the book… what are you waiting for?  (Spend $10 of your Christmas cash and start reading now on your Kindle).

I actually really appreciate where Alex is coming from.  I’ve encountered others who have had the same frustration.  I expected more people would have this same concern, and probably they do, but for whatever reason haven’t voiced it.  But that very frustration highlights to me why the book (and the gatherings) are needed!  Too often Christians can only contemplate a space in which they are allowed to have the final say, they are allowed to ‘be right,’ and the forum which purports to be an open dialogue really masks for the latest in a clever church outreach attempt.  People should be treated like adults.  We shouldn’t need to try to con anyone, by attempting to ‘be relevant’ and hang out at the pub, while secretly just waiting to do our evangelistic duty, all the while despising pubs and beer and anyone who wonders if God actually exists.  We shouldn’t say we’re having a conversation where all are welcome at the table and there’s no requirement for any particular faith, and then turn around and make it into a Bible study or recruitment session for a particular church.  A true open space will be divested of hidden motives to convert.  A true open space will allow for anyone present to have the floor, and even, the final say.  If we really trust in the Holy Spirit’s ability to work, we should never have to resort to manipulative tactics.

Further, a true open space will also require its attendants to be honest.  And, yes, this will lead to disagreements.  There will be times where I, as a Christian, flat out disagree with a Muslim, or an atheist, or a Buddhist, about some central issues!  I find God most fully revealed in the person of Jesus.  I don’t expect a Muslim or Jew to agree about this.  And the book notes that disagreements will occur – and even highlights this with some actual pub theology dialogue.  (I actually think much of Alex’s concerns are addressed in the book, but then I often don’t land where he wants me to, hence the frustration).

Here is how I responded to him:

Hi Alex-

Glad to hear you are reading the book, and I share your high hopes for it. 🙂 I entirely appreciate your comments and your frustrations, and am glad you posted them. Also, before I forget, I’ve spent significant time in evangelical settings, so I think I have a fair grasp of (and to an extent have been shaped by) this perspective as well.

pub theology picThe book is meant to draw us into a setting of conversations where we actually do encounter others. Part of that requires at least sitting down to the table as a “pluralist,” in the minimal sense of: I believe all people are created in God’s image and have something to teach me. This does not necessarily mean everyone is right, or all paths lead to God, or anything of the sort. At that point you’re reading into what I’m saying (or not saying). I’m pretty sure I don’t make any claims in the book as to people’s eternal destinies. (Though I do hope and trust that God’s grace and mercy are much wider than I can imagine).

When discussions happen with people of various (and often competing) worldviews, there are going to be disagreements. Yes. Absolutely. Perhaps I could have articulated this more strongly in the book (though I think it is evident in some of the pub anecdotes and elsewhere). There have often been evenings at the pub where I have, as a Christian, flat out disagreed with people over important issues. An honest discussion demands this.

However, the point of the book is not to give an exposition of my own theology (though it arises at points), but rather to encourage the setting in which true and good dialogue can happen, and indicate ways in which one’s own faith or perspective (regardless of which kind), can be broadened.

I intentionally don’t show all of my cards, or even give the hoped for “But you’re going to tell everyone Jesus is the only way to God, right?”, because I want people to live in the tension. The tension of true interfaith connection, in which we hold the possibility (even if we don’t embrace it), that “the other” may well be right, and we are the ones who need to learn. As I note in the introduction, for too long the church has taken the place of preacher and teacher, and perhaps it is our turn to listen. Your comments indicate the discomfort that arises with such tension. You want to enter such discussions, not really to learn, but with the safe knowledge that you are right, and anticipating the moment you can share that. (Ironically, we Christians often come to such discussions hoping others will be open to our perspectives, while having no intention of being open to theirs).

You may not be in a place where you have something to learn from others, which perhaps might indicate your frustration with the book, and that’s fine. But many, many others have found the book to be a welcome volume which allows their own doubts, questions, and answers to be honestly wrestled with.

The book is not a defense of the Christian faith, or any other faith, though I write it as a Christian. It is simply one person’s experience of engaging others, and realizing that our world will be a better place if we can all sit down together and talk, instead of dismissing each other from our own safe enclaves.

I have no grand project of converting others at Pub Theology, except to this: to be a better person — one who loves more fully, questions more broadly, listens more intently, and hopes more strongly. I trust that at the end of the day, God’s purposes will happen, and the truth will win out.

As Augustine put it: “The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.”

God doesn’t need me to sit at the pub and tell everyone they’re wrong if they don’t believe a particular (often, narrow) version of Christianity. He needs me to create a space of hospitality, where all are received and welcome, and where his very way is incarnated and on display. Where saints and sinners are equals. And occasionally [in fact, often!], yes, I tell people about Jesus.


What do you think?  Is Pub Theology a ‘naive approach to interfaith dialogue’?  Or is it a needed shift toward creating true spaces of connection in our communities?

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6 thoughts on “A Naive Approach to Interfaith Dialogue

  1. Here is my reply (brief), I think any theologian will be able to out-grace a definitive view of a theology. As a Christian any arguments held against the scripture’s intent is not immune to the source of its inspiration, it is only a means to the bible’s end and one which may help other reach a paradigm shift. Any ongoing dialogue only assists to further develop support for the ability to maintain an ongoing conversation with the source and its writings, even if it is while enjoying a pint.

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  2. A followup to my followup. I’ll amend my thoughts about “the less I wanted my mind changed, the less comfortable I would be”. I think that’s a drastic statement. Perhaps more so, what I mean is that I’m comfortable engaging in interfaith dialogue, knowing I have good reason to believe many of the things that I believe. One conversation isn’t going to change my mind completely about a core belief, at least not often. But, if I am open to reshaping my own view of God based on perspectives outside of my tradition, and if I can perhaps provide that value mutually to others, then I think the essence of pub theology is a win-win, whether in a cubicle or at a pub.

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  3. I think that Alex raises very understandable concerns and demonstrates a tension for Christians who have a commitment to the Great Commission and also to a rigid theological system. It seems counter-intuitive to tell the world about what seems to one to be a clear understanding about Jesus by using fewer words, and by listening more. My reading of Pub Theology brought me to the presumption that it wasn’t describing a theology, at least not primarily. Rather, I read it as a meta discussion about doing theology, about the pub theological method, and drawing from theological sources that have been overlooked. Some of those sources were the author’s own formative history and his discoveries while putting pub theology methods into practice. As for the projection of pluralism, the notion that God might be revealed through the general revelation is a concept that Christians usually embrace. The tension between scriptural and general revelation has also been a source of theologians’ anxiety for nearly two thousand years. I believe that Berghoef’s method can be incorporated with other traditional models of hermeneutics, and it isn’t necessarily the only tool in a Christian’s toolbox. It also may very well not be a method for everyone. For me, it resonates with how I have participated and learned from interfaith dialogue with Christian, atheist, Hindu, and Muslim friends over a long period of time. Although such folks exist, I have never met a non-Christian who insisted that I must recognize their rightness, and thus I’ve not been intimidated by talking about faith with them. I have found that I learn less from them if I continually insist that my understanding is the true understanding. I have learned values from them that are important to my understanding of God, and they have changed my mind about how I interpret Scripture, and for me, that’s good news. The less I wanted my mind changed, I suppose, the less comfortable I would be practicing theology this way, and so I can understand how it isn’t for everyone. For myself, I discovered that I had been using portions of the pub theological method for some time in my own dialogue with friends, and it was usually my Christian friends with whom it was the hardest to practice an open non-judgmental dialogue.

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    1. Eric-
      Great call – the book, as such, does not articulate a theology as much as a method (there’s a nice sound to ‘the pub theological method’ – perhaps that will be the title of a forthcoming volume).

      And yes, this is not the only way I am proposing that one engages in theology – hardly! Perhaps that is part of the frustration – if one supposes I am suggesting that is the main (or only) outlet one has for spiritual formation and theological growth, then there are obvious shortcomings. It is not a be-all-end-all, nor, as you noted, is it for everyone.

      Yet it clearly is fruitful and life-giving for many folks, as we see more and more folks crowding around tables at the pub, not simply for a round of good beers (though definitely that), but for a round of deep, stimulating, thought-provoking dialogue which moves them deeper into the mysteries of life.

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  4. Wonderfully put, Bryan.
    I have found that the inability to have open dialogue about important issues on which we may disagree or view differently a difficulty primarily in the USA. As a Canadian living in the US I have always been surprised by the lack of openness to open dialogue. People personalize things too much to the point of becoming defensive or overly confrontational. People don’t like to agree to disagree. And, sadly it is very prevalent in the American Christian Church as well. I think that seeps into peoples fundamental thinking, similarly to Alex’s views. People struggle with the “open” concept. I have discovered that our Theology Pub gets better and attracts more people when we have the openness to listen to each others thoughts on a particular subject and challenge their premises via socratic method of conversation. We challenge each other with each of us expressing our point of view whether Christian or Muslim, atheist or Buddhist or Universalist…. I make it very clear what I believe as a Christian and have to trust that God will use that and by his Spirit change someone’s heart. And praise God, it’s happened without me making them a “project.”

    Peace

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