Friday, November 15, 2013
According to recent research by Naomi Schaefer Riley, the number of interfaith marriages is increasing. 45% of all marriages in the last decade involved couples from differing religious traditions. Riley’s research also shows that these marriages are not easy. Although we live in an age that is calling for increasing religious tolerance, this does not make the daily struggles of interfaith marriage any easier to wrestle with.
These difficulties are illustrated in Saffron Cross, where Dana Trent, a Christian minister with connections to the Southern Baptist Convention, shares her experiences in an interfaith marriage with her husband Fred, a Hindu and former monk. This is an interesting volume that provides insights into what the partners in such marriages experience, and it includes lessons for those outside of such marriages. Their experiences navigating such relationships have much to teach us in navigating religious pluralism.
The book begins dramatically with Dana sharing her “sex-free honeymoon” in the village of Vrindavan in India. Dana is transparent with the reader as she shares her strong displeasure with many aspects of Indian life due to its very different complexion as a Two Thirds World country. Everything that Westerners, and Americans in particular, take for granted on a daily basis, from safe driving on city streets to fresh running water to the easy availability of toilet paper, are readily available in poverty-stricken India. As this chapter unfolds, Dana also shares her growing awareness of the differences between her experiences in the Western expression of the Christian faith and that of the Eastern religion of Hinduism. Unlike the American experience where religion is often relegated to the private sphere of the individual, in India religion is the center of every aspect of daily life. Beyond that, its basic worldview assumptions, rituals, beliefs, and forms of worship, are very different from the Southern Baptist church experience that Dana was used to back in the U.S. After the honeymoon experience in India, the couple’s return to North Carolina comprised the early stages of the challenges of an interfaith marriage.
Dana and Fred met as a result of using the eHarmony online dating service. When completing her profile on the question “What faith(s) would you accept as a partner?” (28), she opted for an openness to a wide variety of religious traditions, thinking that as a self-identified Christian the chances that the service would connect her with someone distant from her religious preferences was unlikely. She was wrong. Soon she was contacted by Fred, who identified himself as a religious person, and a former monk. Dana assumed he meant something in the Roman Catholic tradition. Instead she would learn that Fred had previously pursued the path of the Hindu monk in the Gaudiya Vaishnavism tradition. This is most familiar to Americans through the work of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in the 1960s popularly known as the “Hare Krishna Movement.” This was a little off-putting for Dana, who early on in their dating made efforts to try to persuade Fred to be baptized and return to the Christianity he had negative experiences with in his youth.
Fred and Dana found great interest in each other’s religions and experiences, and in dating they also worked through various interfaith tensions that naturally arose. After the couple married these continued, and at one point seriously intensified, so much so that they came to question whether or not the marriage could survive. But Fred and Dana were just as committed to each other as they were to their differing religious pathways, and the book describes the challenges they faced and how they successful navigated through them as a married couple. As a result, Dana describes not only how she has grown closer to Fred, but also how her Christian faith has deepened and expanded. As Dana describes it, “Immersion into a religious tradition different from my own did not convert me, mix me up, or derail me” (26).
As mentioned in the introduction to this review, this volume is not only helpful for learning about interfaith marriages, it also provides food for thought on working through issues related to religious pluralism.
Dana describes herself as theologically progressive, and this is evident in several statements she makes in the book where she advocates a pluralistic understanding of religion. She says that, “the Holy Spirit lived and breathed in each representation of the Divine” (24), both Hindu and Christian; speaks of grasping “Hinduism’s validity as a bona fide spiritual path toward God” (47); says that at one point she “had no sense that Krishna was any different from Jesus” (60); and that “God was mercifully showing up as Jesus, Spirit, Vishnu, and Krishna” (140). Dana’s attempt at finding similarities between Christianity and Hinduism is laudable. And certainly these can be found. But while contrasting the religions with interpretive and analytic humility, and taking cultural considerations into account, we are left with the reality that religions teach very different things at a foundational level. We have to be careful in our search for religious unity that we don’t force this where it is not found. As Stephen Prothero has said in his book God is Not One, seeking religious unity in the name of tolerance that does not recognize real religious difference can lead to “naïve theological groupthink,”1 which he sees as dangerous rather than helpful.
This does not mean that Christians need to embrace a form of particularism or exclusivism that is hostile. In the book Dana shares her struggles with reconciling Christianity and Hinduism and says, “I was one of those Christians” (48, emphasis in original), referring to the narrow mindedness, defensiveness, and hostility that often characterizes Christian understandings and interactions with other religions. But this need not be the case. As Bob Robinson reminds us, one of the most famous Indian Christians, Sadhu Sundar Singh, was a particularist who “combined a deeply Christocentric faith with a quite positive attitude towards Hinduism.” 2 Christians can practice a faith identity that is rooted in the love and example of Christ, even while recognizing irreconcilable differences with other religions.
Saffron Cross is an interesting story of an interfaith relationship. It promises to reward readers who want insights into an increasing marital trend, and thoughts for reflection on interreligious relationships in the pluralistic public square.
1. Stephen Prothero, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 3.
2. Bob Robinson, “Response to Bart Abbott,” Sacred Tribes Journal 8, no. 1 (2013), special theme edition on The Ethics of Evangelism: When is Proselytism Predatory?,” Kindle edition at http://tinyurl.com/nd3zzdc.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Tomorrow I will be attending an event at Utah Valley University involving Rich Mouw who will address issues related to Evangelical Christianity generally with additional remarks on Evangelical-Mormon relations, and religious freedoms. This will include a chapel event, a presentation, and interactions with UVU students. On that the UVU website describes the event as follows:
This course explores the relationship between Mormonism and Evangelical Christianity with particular attention to the contemporary dynamics of this relationship. Key texts from both traditions will be examined in light of their comparative dimensions and cultural influence. Guest scholars will be invited to engage students from a variety of perspectives.
* Contemporary Mormon/Evangelical Dialogues
* Contested concepts of grace, Trinity, and the nature of God
* Social cooperation in the public square
* The religious dimensions of American politics *
* The fundamentalist challenge Mormonism and evangelicalism in the 21st century
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Grace and Truth: Toward Christlike Relationships with Muslims
By Rick Love
Paperback: Peace Catalyst International Publications, 2013. [Amazon]
Evangelical Christians across a spectrum of denominations and political commitments are working together to provide a response to Muslims that is faithful to the best of the Christian tradition in our post-9/11 world. These efforts find their roots in two aspects of the Christian tradition. The first is a desire to emulate the way of Christ in relating to the marginalized and the outsiders that are frequently viewed with suspicion and enmity by members of their own religious tradition. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 is a primary biblical text that exemplifies the model of Jesus that these Christians want to follow in their encounters with Muslims. The second foundation for these efforts is the desire to be obedient to Christ in his call for disciples to be peacemakers.
Rick Love, through his organization, Peace Catalyst International, takes a leadership role among American Evangelicals in peacekeeping between Christians and Muslims. Grace and Truth was written as a result of Love’s participation in a global meeting of Evangelical leaders who came together to address how relations between Christians, particularly those in the West, and Muslims might be improved, and in ways that resonate with Christian faith. Love serves as the main author of this volume, although he acknowledges the input of “more than seventy leaders form around the world” (3-4). As a result, this book “is a consensus document” (5) that brings together “a spectrum of evangelical thinking” (5) and which finds a balance between slight differences of thought on the subject matter. This contributes to the layout and overlap found in the book.
The volume is comprised of an Introduction that provides a summary of helpful information and perspectives for Evangelical readers in understanding the Muslim world, and the perspective in the material that follows. This includes consideration of the diversity of categories and perspectives that make up the Muslim world, a list of the areas of agreement and disagreement in Muslim beliefs in relation to Christianity, and discussion of “significant theological and ideological diversity” (11) among Muslims. The Introduction concludes with the suggestion that Evangelicals “find a middle path between demonization of Islam and naïve political correctness” (13).
The next two major segments of the book include one titled “Toward Christ-like Relationships with Muslims: An Exposition,” and another “Toward Christ-like Relationships with Muslims: An Affirmation.” These two sections are very much alike, with the latter incorporating slight revisions that reflect the specific views of Peace Catalyst International. Both of these segments include a series of guidelines for Christian interaction with Muslims and the Muslim world, with nine in the former, and ten in the latter “reflecting Peace Catalyst’s revised, personalized version of these affirmations” (26). The ten affirmations include:
1. Be Jesus-Centered in our Interaction
2. Be Truthful and Gracious in our Words and Witness
3. Be Wise in our Words and Witness
4. Be Respectful and Bold in our Witness
5. Be Prudent in our Glocalized World
6. Be Persistent in our Call for Religious Freedom
7. Be Peaceable and Uncompromising in our Dialogue
8. Be Loving toward All
9. Differentiate between the Role of Church and State
10. Support and Challenge the State
The chapters that unfold each of these guidelines or affirmations are very helpful, and it is evident that a lot of careful reflection has gone into their formulation. As such, they “describe how we can be agents of peace in a polarized world” (32) as Evangelicals embrace Muslims and share the Gospel of Christ.
The next two sections are study guides that look at each of the preceding major segments of the book. They are designed for small group and Sunday school settings as well as individual study. The volume concludes with a bibliography of materials that will be helpful for further study.
Although this volume is very small, and involves a great deal of overlap and repetition in its layout and subject matter, it provides a concise and accessible study for Evangelicals. The volume might have been strengthened with a few additions, including mention of Islam’s priority of ritual rather than belief, the addition of a few more noteworthy volumes in the bibliography, and the suggestion that the study of Islam be connected to relationships and conversations with Muslims in readers’ neighborhoods. But despite these suggestions, this is a helpful book that has the potential to overcome some of the stereotypes, generalizations, assumptions, and hostility that many Evangelicals have in regards to the Muslim world in the wake of 9/11 and the continuing “War on Terror.”
Monday, November 11, 2013
This is a video from the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and I found it on a blog called The Crooked Mouth posted with the title "Empathy and the Conservative/Progressive Theological Divide," where the author, Anderson Campbell, connects the discussion to Christian concerns. Campbell has an intrafaith context in mind when he writes:
Much like the social, political, and economic realms, the Christian theological realm has become highly polarized in the past several decades. The distance between conservative and progressive theological camps is growing wider by the day. Conversation between people of differing theologies is becoming less frequent and is often derisive, not charitable. We have become very good at “othering” because we have a failure of empathy within the Christian church.Of particular interest is the discussion is the idea of "cognitive empathy" in application to theology. On this Campbell distills and teases out the relevant section of the video for us:
When most people think of empathy, they often think of a kind of emotional mirroring. When you see someone in distress and you feel badly for that person, you are empathizing with them. This is affective empathy. It is the ability to recognize what the other is feeling and respond appropriately. We often characterize this kind of empathy as soft and passive, largely emotive. Contrast this with cognitive empathy, which is the ability to understand or put on someone else’s perspective, when you don’t necessarily share that same perspective. It is the ability to move past labeling the other and step into their shoes, so to speak. This empathy is more potent for change, asserts Krznaric. In contrast “touchy-feely” affective empathy, cognitive empathy ”is actually quite dangerous, because [it] can create revolution . . . a revolution of human relationships.”I appreciate Campbell's application of this to the divide between progressives and conservatives in the church. I have found value in the thought of certain progressives, such as (dare I say their names?) Marcus Borg on the atonement, and Brian McLaren on interreligious encounters, and had no difficulty engaging progressive thought, but I've taken some heat from conservatives for doing so. I am a part of the Evangelical subculture, and in my experience we tend toward a faith identity that is hostile and confrontational with others, not only in intrafaith contexts, but interfaith ones as well.
Cognitive empathy has potential for addressing this, especially in the context of a theology and praxis of interreligious engagement. Some similarities can be found in my prior proposal on this in my essay on this at Patheos in "A Generous Orthopathy: Evangelicals and a Transformed Affective Dimension of Faith."
Plenty of food for thought here for those Evangelicals involved in interreligious dialogue and religious diplomacy.
Tuesday, November 05, 2013
Peter Enns recently made a blog post that is worth reading. It's titled "Fear Leads to Anger: Unpacking Theological Belligerence." The piece begins:
"My point: Belligerence in theological discussions is a reaction to a deep fear—typically unperceived—that one’s metanarrative is under threat.
"Let me put that in English: People fight about their views of God because they are afraid of the consequences of being wrong. Being wrong about God is fearful because it destabilizes their way of looking at the universe and their place in it. People tend to fight when frightened this way."
As he unpacks this, Enns responds to various arguments that are offered many times as to why theological belligerence is the right way forward. As he does so he echoes sentiments that I have presented in a number of venues. I feel vindicated in some way as another Evangelical has made the same observations that I have.
I think Enns has "in-house" arguments in mind between fellow Christians and Evangelicals given the harsh response he has received from many in regards to his views on the Old Testament, evolution, and inerrancy. But this essay also has application to interreligious contexts, and helps explain one of the dynamics involved in confrontational encounters between Evangelicals and those in other religions.
The essay is worthwhile for critical reflection by Evangelicals.
Monday, October 28, 2013
FRD Podcast 1.1: An Interview with Dana Trent and Fred Eaker on "Saffron Cross" and interfaith marriage
The first podcast for the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy is now published. It is an interview with J. Dana Trent and her husband, Fred Eaker. They are an interfaith couple. Dana is a Baptist minister, and Fred is a Hindu and a former monk. Dana is the author of Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk (Fresh Air, 2013). The volume can be purchased via the publisher at http://books.upperroom.org/fresh-air-books, via Amazon.com, and your local bookstore. Learn more at Dana's website.
Thursday, October 17, 2013
As I've mentioned previously, the next issue of Sacred Tribes Journal Vol. 8, no. 1 (Fall 2013) is devoted to an exploration of the ethics of evangelism. This is one of the best issues we've done, addressing a neglected topic from multiple perspectives, including an Evangelical exposition of the subject, a critique by a Hindu writer, responses by two Evangelicals, a review of Elmer Thiessen's The Ethics of Evangelism, and an excerpt of Myron Penner's The End of Apologetics with consideration of the politics and violence of apologetics in certain contexts.
I am working with some folks to address technical issues related to an update on the website so the new issue can be uploaded there. In the meantime, I have created an electronic version for Kindle. Unfortunately, Amazon will not allow the option to offer the book for free, so I selected the minimum price of $.99US. So the Kindle book will sell for that price to interested individuals, and the journal edition at the STJ website will be free.
Please help share this in your network among Evangelicals, Hindus, Pagans and others who may be interested in a great conversation on this topic. I would be happy to make the PDF file available upon request for those who do not want to purchase the Kindle version.
I'll post a link to the STJ website piece when it is uploaded and published.
*Update Nov. 11: This edition is now available on the STJ website.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
I have roots in the past in the Southern Baptist Convention, but over the years have not seen much in them that is encouraging in regards to interreligious encounters in the public square. That is, until now. To my great and pleasant surprise, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, formerly headed up by Richard Land, now by Russell Moore, held a "Faith, Culture & Religious Freedom in 21st Century America" event. It involved a number of participants from both Right and Left, and it was great to hear Moore articulate his support for Christian involvement in working toward religious freedom for all, and not just for Christians.
You can watch this interesting discussion here.
Friday, October 11, 2013
Previously I've shared my concerns about the way in which Evangelicals try to share their heart-felt concerns about their religious convictions with others. Many times it takes the form of sternly presenting the doctrinal propositions of our faith, which seem all too true and reasonable to us, and coupling that with strong arguments if not attacks against others. In its most extreme forms, this takes place when "street preachers" go to Mormon General Conference, homosexual gatherings, or Muslims festivals in places like Dearborn, Michigan, but also when Evangelicals go to Mormon pageants and hold up signs and shout sermons on the sacred turf of others. More often than not, we end up confirming the truth of our own views in our minds, and those we are trying to persuade end up never ever hearing what we have to say, they become defensive and entrenched in their own positions, and in the end Evangelicals have a huge perception as well as persuasion problem.
At The World Table discussion forum I was pleased to see someone post a great essay that provides a counter-intuitive suggestion on how to be heard when we want share contrary perspectives with those that we seriously disagree with. The piece is titled "Want to Win a Political Debate?: Try Making a Weaker Argument" by Eric Horowitz from the Pacific Standard. The byline for the essay is "Gun control? Abortion? The new social science behind why you're never able to convince friends or foes to even consider things from your side." The essay is directed more toward the political end of the things, something desperately needed right now with the dysfunction in Washington, but it also has application to religion.
The foundation for the essay comes from research in psychology which indicates that people are rarely likely to find the arguments of others persuasive when they undercut those foundational ideas that contribute to their self-identity and self-worth. In fact, research shows then when shown data and arguments that strongly counter our cherished ideas, we tend to doubledown in our commitments to such ideas, even to the extreme. Horowitz calls this the "backfire effect:"
"Research by Nyhan and Reifler on what they've termed the "backfire effect" also suggests that the more a piece of information lowers self-worth, the less likely it is to have the desired impact. Specifically, they have found that when people are presented with corrective information that runs counter to their ideology, those who most strongly identify with the ideology will intensify their incorrect beliefs."Instead, Horowitz suggests that the better way forward that will help people begin to consider our perspective is to offer a "weaker argument." He writes, "We argue like boxers wildly throwing powerful haymakers that have no chance of landing. What if instead we threw carefully planned jabs that were weaker but stood a good chance of connecting?"
As I read and continue to reflect on this essay it seems to me that it has great ramifications for our rhetorical, dialogical, and apologetic strategies. Instead of firing our apologetic salvos that we think provide the unanswerable argument that our opponents should fall over and accept in defeat, what if we softened and “weakened” this approach and presented something that others might be willing to entertain because it’s not so threatening? Such a rhetorical approach sounds similar to the Apostle Paul’s recognition of God’s strength working through his personal weakness (1 Cor. 1:2-5; 2 Cor. 12:10).
I also think this essay has much to offer those who are tired of the frequent disconnect between people who are passionate and disagree about things like religion and politics, and who are not content with merely preaching to the choir. Take a look, give it some though, and share your thoughts here and at The World Table.
Sunday, October 06, 2013
Over the weekend John Blake posted a great story at the CNN Belief Blog addressing the "Holy Trolls," those individuals who post negative, uncivil, and abrasive comments on religious websites or in response to religious topics. This is a huge problem that not only stifles productive conversation on these topics, but also changes perceptions of the topics themselves into negative. It also steals from the virtual public square with its function as a forum for us to discuss the most pressing religious challenges that divide us. Read Blake's essay, "Holy Trollers: How to argue about religion online," and then take a look at The World Table as a tool that directly addresses the challenges raised in the CNN piece.
I recently became aware of a new volume by Catholic scholar, Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints (Oxford University Press, 2013). Webb caught attention previously with his work on the idea of divine embodiment, wherein he made the case that Mormon ideas of God having a body have connections to elements of more traditional Christian theologies. (See Sacred Tribes Journal for a dialogue between a Catholic and a Mormon on this topic.) In this new volume Webb takes up a more expansive agenda. From the OUP website:
Mormons are adamant that they are Christian, and eloquent writers within their own faith have tried to make this case, but no theologian outside the LDS church has ever tried to demonstrate just how Christian they are. Stephen H. Webb's Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints fills this void, as the author writes neither as a critic nor a defender of Mormonism but as a sympathetic observer who is deeply committed to engaging with Mormon ideas.Those interested in reading an accessible summary of some of Webb's thoughts related to the thesis of this volume can read his guest post on Sam Rocha's Catholic Channel at Patheos.
Webb is unique in taking Mormon theology seriously by showing how it provides plausible and in some instances even persuasive alternatives to many traditional Christian doctrines. His book can serve as an introduction to Mormonism, but it goes far beyond that: Webb explains how Mormonism is a branch of the Christian family tree that extends well beyond what most Christians have ever imagined. His account of their creative appropriation of the Christian tradition is meant to inspire more traditional Christians to reconsider the shape of many basic Christian beliefs.
Mormon Christianity is not all affirming and celebratory. It ends with a call to Mormons to be more focused on Christian essentials and an invitation to other Christians to be more imaginative in considering Mormon alternatives to traditional doctrines.
Friday, September 27, 2013
There is a saying frequently attributed to a Chinese proverb: "If you want to know what water is like don't ask a fish." Regardless of the source the idea behind it is true: when someone is too familiar with their surroundings it becomes a blind spot that so influences their perspective that they aren't aware of it. It simply becomes something that is taken for granted. This is the case with Evangelicals and modernity. As Myron Bradley Penner argues in his new book on apologetics, modernity influences Evangelical assumptions on apologetics, theology, and as I will note in this post, it is also what is behind Evangelical definitions of Christianity that then serve as the backdrop for a major sticking point in Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.
I am currently reading and enjoying The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Baker Academic, 2013), by Myron Penner. The main thesis the author develops is that Evangelical apologetic approaches of whatever type are based upon the assumptions of modernity and its perspectives on reason. In particular, Penner states that, "In the modern philosophical paradigm, then, reason forms what I will call the 'objective-universal-neutral complex' (OUNCE)" (32). Penner identifies these features of reason in modernity in distinction to premodern views wherein, "reason is internal to (and possessed only by) human beings in a way that is universal, objective, and neutral" (32). Given these assumptions, apologists like William Lane Craig, and many conservative Evangelical theologians, present arguments, evidence, and theological propositions in ways that conform to the assumptions of modernity in regards to reason and epistemological justifications of belief. Penner takes issue with these assumptions and finds them far more secular than Evangelicals assume in the name of reason and its alleged objectivity and neutrality.
As Penner goes further in his description of Evangelicalism and modernity, he makes the interesting observation that, for many (most?) conservative Evangelicals, "What is essential to being a Christian is an objective event: the cognitive acceptance (belief) of specific propositions (doctrines)" (36). While Penner explores this in relation to Evangelical apologetics, and to a lesser extent theology (after all, apologetics is a branch of theology), I want to consider this in relation to Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.
You don't have to search for or read much in dialogue and conversations between Evangelicals and Mormons to find the question "Are Mormons Christian?" raised by concerned Mormons. Evangelicals usually respond in the negative, and with certain historic, creedal, and doctrinal assumptions providing the foundation for that response. Mormons are naturally offended by this idea, as they have a different set of assumptions, with the idea that Mormons believe in and follow Christ, therefore they should be considered Christians.
As Evangelicals and Mormons pass each other like two ships in the night on this topic I would note that members of both groups are missing an important element in exactly why Evangelicals would answer this question negatively. It goes beyond historic creeds and doctrines to some underlying philosophical assumptions. Evangelicals have so imbibed at the well of modernity and its philosophical assumptions that for them, as Penner notes, "What is essential to being a Christian is an objective event: the cognitive acceptance (belief) of specific propositions (doctrines)." This means that while Evangelicals connect these propositions to a relationship with Christ, even so, the cognitive acceptance of certain specific propositions are primary in their definition of what it means to be a Christian. The assumptions of modernity have become so intertwined with Evangelical thinking that, like the fish in water that knows nothing else other than its daily experience of its environment, that Evangelicals may not be aware of the extent to which these modernist assumptions impact not only its apologetics and theology, but also its ways of relating to those of other religions, as well as the formation of perceptions by those of other religions because of the views Evangelicals have of them that are shaped in part by the assumptions of modernity.
My friend and colleague at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, Charles Randall Paul, once shared his observation that Evangelicals are the scientists and philosophers of their religion. I agreed with his assessment, and made my own observation that Mormons are the performers and artists of their religion. We certainly approach our religious pathways very differently. But the more I reflect on the "scientists and science of Evangelicalism" the more I realize how modernity has impacted us, even in the way in which we define what it means to be a Christian and relate our message to those in other religions.
Maybe it's time for Evangelical fish to jump out of the bowl and look around for a bit.
Thursday, September 26, 2013
There seems to be a growing recognition that something is not quite right about the way in which we engage each other over our differences on the Internet. In fact, some websites are changing their procedures in this area, and others are calling for a new platform that helps transform behaviors that make up this problem.
In August of this year The Huffington Post announced that it would no longer allow anonymous comments to be posted in response to their essays. A piece by Lorraine Devon Wilke explained why in "What Trolls Are Doing to Our Politics, Our Culture... Our Brains." She writes, "On a societal level, particularly since the internet opened comment features under most offerings, negative dialogue has become the norm; the loud, persistent, often vicious norm of most online interaction. In fact, the degree of irrational response exchanged online is so high, so automatic, that one expects any article, no matter how logical, fact-based, positive, or even neutral, to be immediately ripped apart by trolls who seem bent on the task." After discussing some findings in Psychology Today on the psychological effects of focusing on negativity, she continues and describes the unfortunate results of such hypercritical and negative commentary on individuals who read it. She says that "the more one sits at a computer spewing savage, hateful criticism, the more one translates life through the filter of hostility and personal attacks, the more one builds brain pathways toward greater and greater negativity. In fact, as online commenters, media pundits and politicians have grown uglier and more malicious, the more the bar seems to have moved, making 'ugly' more accepted, more accessible." For The Huffington Post the way to address this issue is to disallow the posting of anonymous comments. The hope is that if people have to take public ownership of their comments and the way they relate to others that it will contribute to more positive and civil forms of exchange.
More recently PopularScience.com included an essay that went even further in exploring the impact of uncivil exchanges on the Internet. This website is going further than HuffPo, and is removing the ability for readers to comment entirely. Suzanne LeBarre in "Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments," also discusses the impact of trolls on the shaping of perspectives of readers. Although they acknowledge that they receive lots of positive comments, the negative ones have an enormous ability to shape perceptions. LeBarre cites a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Broassoard about reader perceptions of a particular technology, which revealed that "even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story." From a New York Times op-ed the following results were discovered:
Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself.
In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.
Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they'd previously thought.
LeBarre states that this ability of uncivil comments to negatively alter perceptions of a story is causing readers to think uncritically about accepted scientific notions. For PopularScience.com the way forward is to end the ability of readers to comment and interact with each other over ideas.
The final threads in this discussion come through a new book and another online essay. Os Guinness is the author of The Global Public Square (InterVarsity Press, 2013). In this volume he sets forward a proposal for religious freedom and freedom of conscience, as well as the need for a civil public square. He recognizes that the public square is now far more expansive than it was previously given the importance of "new technologies and social media" which are so influential and formative that the "public square has morphed again through the power of the Internet and has gone from the physical to the metaphorical to the virtual." This worldwide platform means that "...even when we are not speaking to the world, we can be heard by the world," often by way of increased incivility and "degrading rhetoric" from anonymous individuals. Guinness wonders whether we can "in the next twenty-five years forge a new understanding of what it means for global citizens to debate other global citizens in a manner that the issues deserve..."
Related to this, in February of this year Sarah Perez argued at techcrunch.com that "The Best Platform for Online Discussion Doesn't Exist Yet." While not mentioning trolls specifically, Perez does mention the problem of uncivil comments, as well as questions related to credibility. She states, "The problem, which the Internet hasn’t solved at all, and has in fact even made worse, is that opinions are not created equal and therefore shouldn’t be considered in equal measure. The Internet has put people on such an even playing field that we now have to create entirely new systems to verify who’s worth listening to. From Google rankings to Techmeme headlines to retweets and number of followers, we’re still struggling to figure out who deserves to be heard." Perez concludes her essay by writing, "We’re ready for a radical overhaul that reflects how people are communicating and sharing information today; one that shows which comments or shares have resonated and why, and one that understands who deserves to be heard."
These various elements come together to paint a picture of a tremendous challenge. Serious issues need to be discussed, but it is usually the negative and polarizing voices that are the most influential. The result is that critical, thoughtful, and civil discussion and persuasion is stifled, and opinions are unfairly shaped along the way. The Internet has become a cyber extension of the physical public square and a very important place for discussion of the pressing issues of the day, but it is presently hampered by incivility. We need a new platform, a new mechanism to transform the way in which we engage each other to empower the best of what the Internet has to offer.
But while Perez opines that the best platform for online discussion doesn't yet exist, I'd beg to differ. The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy is currently involved in beta testing for The World Table. Participants must verify their identity and allegiances, and then agree to a set of ethical guidelines called The Way of Openness. Participants are then rated on the way in which they engage others, and rate others in similar fashion. The goal is to earn the highest rating possible as a badge of honor. Drawing upon accepted principles of social psychology that resonate with many religious traditions and ideologies, The World Table promises to change behaviors by shaming the trolls and making civil conversations a highly desired virtue, thus setting a new tone for exchanges about the most serious issues that divide us, from religion to politics and beyond.
A new movement for civility in the way in which treat each other over our deepest differences is taking shape. It's happening at The World Table. Come and take your seat.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
I don't share many of my teenage daughter's interests in television, particularly the expressions of reality TV that she enjoys, but yesterday I found an episode of a program she turned on interesting. It was a past episode from the show WIFE SWAP from 2007 as it turns out. The basic premise of the show is to find two very different families and lifestyles and then swap the wives to live with the other families in order to set up a very uncomfortable two weeks for the women and the families they are staying with. The first week the wives have to live as the wife who lives in the home, and the second week the wives get to turn the tables and make the families live as they do in their own homes. Depending upon the types of families that participate, the program can be very interesting to say the least.
The episode re-aired yesterday brought together a family of white atheists and a black family of Evangelical Christians. These families could not have been more different as each embodied the stereotypes often attributed to them, the atheist family being heavily tattooed with edgy hairstyles and a wife with a shaved head, and the Christian family being very conservatively dressed. The atheist family prided themselves on being freethinkers, not only in the area of religion but also in regards to letting their children do whatever they wanted, and exposing them to almost everything in life, including their parents liberal attitudes toward sex. The Christian family prided themselves on the centrality of their faith that informed every aspect of their lives, including ideas about male and female gender roles in the home and workplace to the influence of God in every aspect of life such as having their children pray before tests so that God could remind them of answers for higher grades. In the atheist home the wife worked long days in an in-home Internet business while the husband took care of the cooking and cleaning, while in the Christian home they followed "what God's Word says" as the husband worked outside the home and the wife and daughter were responsible for all the cooking and cleaning. The husband and son did none of it because of "Man Law," the allegedly biblical ideas related to masculine and feminine roles.
After the wives swapped homes there was the much anticipated shock of the women and the families they were staying with. The clashes were expected by the audience, but what was most interesting was the way in which each of the wives and families attempted to present their alternative worldview perspectives to others who were at odds with them. Being at such polar opposites it was clear that the families would never likely persuade each other and held irreconcilable differences. What then to do? Unfortunately, each took the path of coercion and ridicule. For the atheist family with the swapped Christian wife, they made it clear that God was a myth and a crutch, and Christians were anything but freethinkers, conspiring to force their limited view of reality and restrictions on fun on others. The constantly reminded the Christian woman of not only their choice in skepticism, but their need to mock what others held sacred. In the Christian home with the swapped atheist wife, they too felt compelled to share their beliefs with a lack of any sensitivity or framing for the perspectives of their unbelieving guest. They forced the atheist woman to go to church and participate in a Bible study against her express desires. She relented only because of the rules of the television program. When it was time for the wives to impose their will and perspectives on the other families, they followed suit and coerced family members into conformity with their understanding of reality. The atheist wife took away all religious items and icons, and the Christian wife forced the family to go to church and made her temporary "husband" preach with a Bible in hand in public "like he believed it" as punishment for violating her rules. The result of much of this was anger, conflict, shouting, ridicule, and confirmation on both sides that the perceptions of "the other" was confirmed and their lifestyle with its supporting worldview was justified and the only legitimate way to see things.
Even with these clashes there were positive aspects of this program. At one point when the atheist family went to church with the Christian woman they expressed their surprise that rather than being preached at they were able to play games and socialize with others that seemed to care for them. The atheist father goes on record sharing his appreciation for these kinds of expressions of Christianity. In another segment the Christian father comes to reassess his assumptions about the roles of men and women that he has connected to his faith, along with a willingness to allow his teenage daughters greater freedom in socializing with boys and girls. When the participants in this television program were willing to move beyond coercing and abusing others with and through their respective traditions and ideologies then positive things happened.
And this is where we can learn something positive and important from an unlikely source in pop culture. While WIFE SWAP thrives on the drama of the clash of personalities, and in so doing presents the all too common ways in which human beings interact with each other over their differences, at times it can also remind us of the way in which to navigate more carefully through them. While retaining confidence in our convictions, rather than using coercion to impose our perspectives upon others in the hopes of persuading them to join us, there is great value in respect and a softer hand. At the conclusion of this program the two couples come together to discuss their experiences and what they learned. At one point the topic of forcing perspectives on others comes up with examples on both sides, and the Christian woman states that at least the atheist father could have respected her in her faith commitments even while seriously disagreeing with her choices. At the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy we practice The Way of Openness, a set of guidelines that are put into place as we interact with others. One of these guidelines is "Be Kind:"
Kindness will go further towards building trust than any other virtue listed here. Kindness is never outdated. It is not weak, or naive, or small. It changes hearts and minds and can quickly tear down walls because genuine kindness is easily recognized and understood by everyone. BUT...nothing is more offensive or destructive than kindness that is forced, phony, or insincere.WIFE SWAP is produced for entertainment, for viewers to take joy in the clash of competing family perspectives. When an atheist and a Christian family go head to head, the audience is given the fight that it was hoping for. But in this episode it got a little bit more. The clash of these families is not contained within the walls of the family homes, but instead is found within the public square. It is also not restricted to these two groups but involves a multiplicity of religious and ideological perspectives. For those interested in moving beyond the clash of perspectives we are reminded that kindness and respect not only work toward civility in a mutifaith public square, but they also hold greater persuasive power.
Friday, September 20, 2013
I highly recommend Os Guinness' new book The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity (IVP Books, 2013). The volume's website provides this overview description:
How do we live with our deepest differences?My review of this volume, titled "Beyond Interfaith Dialogue: A Review of 'The Global Public Square:'Os Guinness makes a bold proposal for a new public square, and Evangelicals must work with others to embrace its civility, freedoms, and diversity," was recently published at Patheos and will soon be available at the Patheos Book Club. My review concludes with the following:
In a world torn by religious conflict, the threats to human dignity are terrifyingly real. Some societies face harsh government repression and brutal sectarian violence, while others are divided by bitter conflicts over religion's place in public life. Is there any hope for living together peacefully?
Os Guinness argues that the way forward for the world lies in promoting freedom of religion and belief for people of all faiths and none. He sets out a vision of a civil and cosmopolitan global public square, and how it can be established by championing the freedom of the soul—the inviolable freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In particular he calls for leadership that has the courage to act on behalf of the common good.
Far from utopian, this constructive vision charts a course for the future of the world. Soul freedom is not only a shining ideal but a dire necessity and an eminently practical solution to the predicaments of our time. We can indeed maximize freedom and justice and learn to negotiate deep differences in public life. For a world desperate for hope at a critical juncture of human history, here is a way forward, for the good of all. Guinness' perspectives and the proposal he sets forward for a public square that embraces freedom, civility, and diversity dovetails quite a bit with my own perspectives and work, and that of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.
Os Guinness has provided a real service in not only raising the issues of religious freedom and civility in diversity, but in also providing a proposal for addressing them. He risks being dismissed as setting forth mere hyperbole, but I believe he is correct to state that, "How we deal with our deepest religious and ideological differences in public life will be a defining issue for the future of mankind" (25). This book needs to be read and discussed widely. It is my hope is that Evangelicals will join Dr. Guinness in wrestling with the challenge of religious freedom, diversity, and civility, and be willing to link arms with other religionists and secularists in navigating a way forward in a new public square.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Os Guinness has a new book out, The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity (InterVarsity, 2013). I have written a review and hope to have it published soon and will post a link. It's one of the best books I've read in a while, and it overlaps significantly with my thinking and work with the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. Here is a video from a lecture where Guinness touches on some of the main themes of his book.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Cory Wilson, editor of Fuller Seminary's Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue journal, approached me in the recent past about writing the lead essay for a special issue devoted to new religious movements. Since I am a fan of the journal, and have previously written a responsive essay and book review for the publication, I accepted the invitation. In my essay for the forthcoming Fall 2013 issue, I provide a historical consideration of Evangelical responses to new religions, the rise and current dominance of counter-cult apologetic approaches, and the shift toward cross-cultural missions and dialogue means of engagement. Several people respond to my essay, including Sarah Staley, Gerald McDermott, Paul Louis Metzger, Joel Groat, and J. Gordon Melton. Philip Johnson wrote an essay on praxis related to NRMs. This edition also includes some helpful sidebars, including NRM summaries and statistical data, significant personalities, NRM stereotypes, a suggested bibliography, and references to the organizations I work with, including the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies and the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, and Sacred Tribes Journal. This issue will be available soon, primarily in an electronic version via the website, and a limited number in hard copies. I was given an advance electronic copy for distribution that can be accessed on my Academia.edu page.
I would like to thank Cory Wilson, the layout designer, Fuller Seminary, and all the contributors for their part in putting together this great issue.
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
This problem is even higher outside the United States, as the article tries to address what factors contribute to this. One factor is high immigration rates of non-Christians, but the other is separation between religious groups, which is probably the most important issue because this separation is largely self-imposed. The article quotes Todd M. Johnson who speaks to this:
"The United States is a very strategic place for people to interact," he said. "It's ironic in a place with all the freedoms to interact that people don't do it. In light of the deficit of contact, what better thing could happen than to have a bunch of people move into your neighborhood and build houses of worship?"
The essay goes on to quote Gina Bellofatto, an Evangelical FRD Chapter charter member:
CSGC research associate Gina Bellofatto said identifying contact between Christians and non-Christians based on location, age, and gender is "on her list" for further research. In the meantime, she notes that burgeoning movements have arisen to initiate purposeful interreligious dialogue and community service projects. They're still rare compared to the apparent apathy among Christians about befriending non-Christians, especially if it means reaching across neighborhoods and towns into more ethnic enclaves. "I don't know how many more million Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews need to come to this country before it becomes a priority," she said.
Tuesday, August 06, 2013
wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina | Members and participants of various minority religions have used the one year anniversary of the Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin as an opportunity to raise awareness. This video clip is from a report from WISTV 10, and the accompanying article can be read here.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
In October 2012 the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a survey that documented a significant shift in religious demographics in America. A large and growing number of people identified themselves as "The Nones," those who prefer no affiliation with religious institutions. As a result of this survey data, there has been a lot of discussion and controversy over how to interpret this segment of society. In this first podcast for Sacred Tribes Journal, we are privileged to have Elizabeth Drescher as our guest to discuss this phenomenon. Drescher is is a scholar, researcher, and writer. She is a faculty member in religious studies and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. She holds a PhD in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union and an MA in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University.
Dr. Drescher is the author of Tweet If You [Heart] Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse, 2011) and, with Keith Anderson, Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). Dr. Drescher’s current book project, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford University Press, 2014), explores practices of meaning-making, self-fulfillment, ethics, and self-transcendence among America’s fast-growing religious demographic, the religiously unaffiliated. Her website can be found at http://www.elizabethdrescher.com.
Monday, July 08, 2013
I was approached a while back by Octarine Valur in South Africa about reviewing a document in production titled "Satanism: The Acid Test (STAT)." I was pleased to do so, and also contributed some content and editorial suggestions. The document is now finalized and has been endorsed by a number of individuals, including myself. The website for The Alternative Religions Forum describes this project as follows:
This project comprises many hours of work by volunteers dedicated to the protection of constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of religion, identity, dignity, and freedom of association in South Africa.
What is this project?
It’s aim is to explain what Satanic Ritual Abuse really is – the dictionary definition, as well as the devastating reality of its potential effects on innocent people.
The project will take the form of documentation and a website which will:
* define and explain what various alternative religions and subcultures which are conflated with SRA and Satanism really are and are about,
* explain what real Satanist religion really is and
* clarify the differences between real religious Satanism and the mythical “Satanism” which is created and perpetuated by SRA hysteria and irresponsible support for SRA hysteria and the religion-based industry behind it.
In its completed form, it will consist of:
* A full-length academic research paper which has been contributed to, verified, critiqued, peer-reviewed and endorsed by various local and international bodies both in and outside of the alternate religious and subculture groups demystified within the document, which will have been distributed internationally to a multitude of human rights and religious bodies and authority figures.
* A shortened or summarized version of the academic document which can be more easily understood and referenced quicker than the full length version.
A brief 20 minute powerpoint presentation with notes carrying the gist of the message of the entire document.
* A website which provides the information contained in the full-length academic paper, broken down into more web-friendly sections and presentation. Downloadable versions of all these documents will be provided on the website for free.
"Satanism, The Acid Test 1.0" can be downloaded here.
Wednesday, July 03, 2013
Greg Damhorst at Faith Line Protestants asked me to contribute an essay to their relaunch this month, and I've done so with "From polemics to peacemaker." The essay summarizes my journey from counter-cult apologist to religious diplomat. From the piece:
But perhaps the most significant motivation for me in my current way of engaging those of other religions is Jesus. I recognize that no matter how a Christian interacts with Muslims, Mormons or whoever, they believe they are doing so in a way that reflects Christ. But many times our assumptions here don’t line up with the reality of the Gospels. Yes, there are times when Jesus uses rebuke, such as with the Jewish religious leaders, but we’ve been applying such texts out of context. A fresh reading of the Gospels shows that Jesus’ harsh rhetoric is reserved for those leaders inside his own religious community (Mt. 23:27). To the marginalized and the outsider he offers compassion.The essay can be read here.
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
For Immediate Release – 26th June 2006
Call for President Obama to Demand Urgent Action to Tackle Widespread Human Rights Abuses that Take Place Throughout Africa Due to the Belief in ‘Witchcraft’
As President Obama commences his visit to Africa, we call upon him to use the tour as an opportunity to demand urgent action to tackle the widespread, and systemic, violations of human rights that take place across the Continent due to harmful practices connected to the belief in ‘witchcraft’. Such beliefs are strongly held by many in the countries that he will visit – Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania – and they often lead to some of the most horrific human rights abuses imaginable. Vulnerable individuals and groups in society are most at risk, including older women, street children and people with disabilities.
Of many examples that have been catalogued, in April 2013 the body of the 14 year old boy, Nkhumeleni Mukhado, was discovered in a village in South Africa. His skull and genitals had been removed. His is just one of many similar tragic stories where people are killed so that their body parts can be incorporated into concoctions used in what is labelled as ‘witchcraft’. It is often believed that, through ingesting such concoctions, the receiver will gain greater wealth and power.
In Gambia, which borders Senegal, Amnesty International have documented over 1000 cases of suspected ‘witches’ being rounded up by President Jammeh’s special guards who then tortured the suspects and forced to drink potions that caused them to hallucinate and behave erratically. Many were then forced to confess to being a “witch”. In some cases, they were also severely beaten, almost to the point of death.
In Tanzania, according to the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC), an average of 500 people were murdered each year on suspicion of ‘witchcraft’ between 2005 and 2011, whilst numerous people with albinism have been murdered in cold blood for their body parts.
Such beliefs and practices self-evidently constitute a significant obstacle to the reputation, peace and prosperity of the region. They inhibit economic growth, investment and trade; weaken democratic institutions; and prevent hundreds of thousands of Africans from reaching their true potential. President Obama should demand that Africa’s political and faith leaders, and the wider international community, do more to put a stop to the horrific human rights abuses that continue to scar this great Continent.
All Party Parliamentary Group for Street Children
Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales
Basic Rights Counsel
Bethany Children’s Trust
Centre for Human Rights and Development
Churches Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS)
Consortium for Street Children
Greenwich Inclusion Project
International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)
The Pagan Federation
Stepping Stones Nigeria
Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN)
Baroness Sue Miller
Kirsty Brimelow QC
Professor Susan Edwards, University of Buckinghamshire
Dr Christina Oakley Harrington, Treadwells, London.
Russell Brown MP
Leo Igwe – Nigerian Humanist Movement
John W. Morehead, Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy
Hugh Davies OBE QC, 3 Raymond Buildings
Louisa Young – Author
Zoe Young – Film Maker
Paul Stockley – Development Worker