Monday, October 22, 2007

Summary Reflections on National Student Dialogue Conference

This last Friday and Saturday I had an opportunity to be part of the National Student Dialogue Conference on Evangelical-Mormon dialogue co-sponsored by Standing Together and Salt Lake Theological Seminary. Overall I think the conference was very well done and it represented a good initial attempt at what I hope will become an annual conference that attempts to both model good dialogue and to step back and reflect critically on this dialogue process.

The conference was fairly well attended with student representatives from Brigham Young University as well as several evangelical educational institutions including Biola University, Fuller Theological Seminary, Denver Seminary, and Azusa Pacific University and others. The conference involved five plenary sessions where knowledgeable and articulate Latter-day Saints and evangelicals came together to discuss a given topic related to Evangelical-Mormon dialgoue. While each of the sessions was valuable, given my work in intercultural studies I enjoyed Friday evening's plenary session the best which involved Dr. Douglas McConnell, a missiologist from Fuller Seminary, and Robert Millet from Brigham Young University, addressing the topic of "Missional Principles and Guidelines for Interfaith Dialogue." McConnell's presentation documented the importance of missiology's insights for the dialogue process, which included aspects that dovetailed with my workshop. Millet was his usual warm self, and I appreciated his presentation of his own set of principles that guide his discussions with evangelicals.

In addition to the plenary sessions the conference included breakout sessions that involved a panel discussion of evangelical pastors from the Utah area, student discussions among evangelicals and Latter-day Saints, and various workshops. My own workshop was titled "Are We Ready For This?: Critical Reflections on Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue and Its Critics." I would be happy to send a copy of my outline via email that served as a handout at the conference to anyone who requests it, but following is a summary of various highlights of my presentation.

My workshop is a distillation of segments of the course I am teaching at Salt Lake Theological Seminary on interreligious dialogue with application to Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. (Those interested in taking this course for personal enrichment or academic credit can contact the seminary to enroll before the last class session on November 30.) The perspective of my workshop was to look at aspects of interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, as well as missiology, and to see how this might inform Christian dialogue with new religious movement. Particular application is made to Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. At the beginning of the dialogue conference Greg Johnson noted that the gathering provided an opportunity to step back and be reflective on the dialogue process, and in that spirit I offered the following reflections and critique to both dialogue participants and its critics.

Definitions of Dialogue

As I watch Evangelical-Mormon dialogue in its various expressions it seems to me that while we have been engaged in dialogue we have not been proactive and reflective in defining what we mean by the process we are engaged in. A thoughtful definition of dialogue will be helpful for those engaged in it, and those that are critical of the process. In my workshop I presented three possible definitions of dialogue for considration, one by John Stott, another by John Taylor, and one by Leonard Swider. Stott's definition may be the most comprehensive and helpful:

“Dialogue is a conversation in which each party is serious in his approach both to the subject and to the other person, and desires to listen and learn as well as to speak and instruct.” – John Stott, “Dialogue,” Christian Mission in the Modern World (Falcon, 1975), also the definition stated at the National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Keele in 1967.

In my view it would be helpful for those engaged in Evangelical-Mormon dialogue to step back and consider a definition that could be agreed upon by all participants and then presented as a guide to the observing public so that everyone understands what the dialogue process is and is not trying to accomplish. With this consideration in mind it may be that critics of some forms of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue are defining dialogue more in terms of debate rather than a dialogical process. Again, reflection on a definition of dialogue will be helpful in addressing assumptions for all involved.

Types of Dialogue

I also discussed various types of interreligious dialogue, and noted that the type that evangelical and Mormon scholars have been engaged in, as well as the public dialogues of Greg Johnson and Bob Millet, appear to be the type that scholars call "theological" or "discursive" dialogue. Theological dialogue takes place when when “systematic thinkers” of religious traditions “wrestle with the contemporary meaning of their religious tradition in relation to the intellection and theological challenges of other traditions and cultures.” Discursive dialogue is defined as a (shared) quest for clarity and understanding. This type “approximates what has been called the ‘theological type of dialogue,’ or the ‘intellectual-theological approach.’”

Where a typology of dialogue is concerned it will be helpful for recognize not only where present forms of dialogue are best classified, but also that other forms of dialogue exist, and that some of these need to be developed as well, such as "inner dialogue" or "the ongoing dialogue, discussion, and disputation that takes place not only between people, but within ourselves,” as well as "dialogue in community/the dialogue of life" or that which takes place among “ordinary people, in the course of life itself, and in the context of their communities.” Might these types of dialogue be explored in greater ways among people in churches and wards? We might also be thinking about what "missional dialogue" would "look like," and although it overlaps with theological or discursive dialogue, yet given its interdisciplinary nature and differing perspective it might make for a different form of dialogue as a compliment to those presently going on.

Ground Rules for Interreligious Dialogue

In addition to definitional and typological considerations it would be helpful to consider ground rules for interreligious dialogue. In a previous post I listed Leonard Swidler's "Dialogue Decalogue," and I won't repeat them here, but I direct the interested reader to the decalogue for consideration. Readers should not that Swidler did not have Christian dialogue with new religions in mind, and as an article by John Saliba has noted (see my interview with Saliba on this topic), given the unique circumstances and challenges between Christianity and new religions, modifications would have to be made to Swidler's ground rules. Nevertheless, it might provide a good starting place for consideration. Having a set of agreed upon ground rules for discussion would be of benefit for dialogue participants and observers of this process. I suggest that Swidler's decalogue be considered for revision and adoption by dialogue participant as an aid to facilitating the process.

Challenges to Christian Dialogue with New Religions

While there a variety of challenges in Christian dialogue with new religions, and these have been discussed most helpfully in an article by John Saliba mentioned in my workshop bibliography, my workshop focused on one main challenge, that of the heresy-rationalist paradigm for evangelicals as they interpret and respond to new religions. In this paradigm the new religions are considered heretical religious systems, and after a doctrinal contrast a biblical refutation is offered, often coupled with a rational argument and apologetic as to the perceived shortcomings of their worldview. For the Christian doctrinal and apologetic considerations are important, but I suggest that the paradigm of heresy refutation is reductionistic and it limits the understanding of new religions and consideration of other perspectives and forms of engagement. An interdisciplinary perspective and holistic approach is needed, and this will aid in the understanding of new religions, and assist with forms of engaging them, including interreligious dialogue.

Missions and Interreligious Dialogue

If the process of interreligious dialogue, as well as the general understanding of them by evangelicals, can be broadened and improved through a broader framework of analysis, how might this be accomplished? In my workshop I suggested the missional helix of missiologist Gailyn van Rheenen, a four strand helix that includes theologies, cultural analysis, historical perspective and strategy. Interested readers can see van Rheenen's discussion of the helix here. The helix is of value in that it provides a helpful tool for analysis of ministry strategy that is informed by the interdisciplinary field of missiology with the appropriate question of analysis not being merely "Does it work?" however variously defined, but more appropriately, "Does this model of praxis reflect the purposes of God within this historical, cultural context?"

Dialogue as Emotion or Attitude

Finally, in a discussion of missions and interreligious dialogue, I shared a thought by Terry Muck of Asbury Theological Seminary. In an article discussing the challenges of interreligious dialogue, Muck discusses it as a communication methodology, intellectual strategy, and teleological argument. These facets can be seen in the various expressions of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, but one facet of Muck's discussion intrigues me, and I'd like to throw it into the mix for our consideration. Muck suggest a fourth alternative, that of "interreligious dialogue as an emotion or attitude toward people of other religious traditions." Muck notes that the affective or emotive aspect of interreligious dialogue is often missing, and he suggests that we must [m]ore fully [integrate] and [appreciate] the role emotions play in theology and human relationships and interreligious dialogue" and that this "is a step we must take together."

Workshop Q&A

My workshops which involved the same material repeated four times in an effort to maximize audience exposure, was largely well received as gauged from the feedback and questions from participants. There were a few in attendance who were critical of my views, and these came from representatives from the counter-cult community. Most of the questions were critical, yet fair, and it did give me an opportunity to clarify misunderstandings. However, one critic in my final workshop demonsrated the problem that an uncritical embrace of the heresy-rationalist approach presents to a fair consideration of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue as well as the value of missiology to the study of new religions. For example, when I suggested that a review of the book Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel, 2004) and the Lausanne issue paper on postmodern spiritualities might be consulted for a discussion of the foundational background issues undergirding my workshop, this critic suggested that I was "elitist" with such a recommendation, and that it is unreasonable to expect that evangelicals will read a lengthy book on such topics. Instead, he suggested that a brief tract might be more beneficial. While I recognize the need to present an easily understood summary of a cross-cultural missions approach to new religions, nevertheless, complex subjects can be oversimplified so as to be simplistic, and it is in no way out of bounds to suggest that someone read a book that expounds the background and foundation for my views. Critics simply have to be willing to do their homework and bring a sufficient level of background information to the table before discussion and critique can take place.

I hope that Standing Together will review the comments and feedback from conference attendees and make whatever adjustments are necessary so that this event might take place on an annual basis. It is also my hope that those involved in private and public Evangelical-Mormon dialogue might consider constructive criticism such as that which I presented in my workshop so that we can work together to make the dialogue the best possible form of interaction.


Seth R. said...

I guess the main question is going to be whether you think your own religion can gain any benefit by better understanding other religions. If you don't think so, heresy-refutation is likely to be model that makes the most sense, and dialogue will not be as attractive.

Secondly, dialogue can only really take place when one or both participants aren't being defensive. We Mormons still feel rather picked-on. As a result, we tend to fall into apologetics mode rather than dialogue mode when engaging in interfaith discussion.

Todd Wood said...

I appreciated Greg Johnson approaching me and welcoming any suggestions to be sent to him by email.

aquinas said...

John, I appreciate the post and the different varieties of dialogue. As I’ve reflected on the challenges of interfaith dialogue, I’ve tended to feel a great need for interfaith dialogue in the context of community dialogue, especially in the form of community conflict resolution. I suspect the discipline of community conflict resolution (CCR) offers insights for interfaith dialogue. What I sense however, is that those critical of interfaith dialogue tend to see the mortal/earthly community as less important than the ultimate heavenly community. In that sense, they seem to be saying that it is less important to resolve community conflicts on earth as it is to achieve a heavenly community and if we have conflict on earth because of truth, then that is simply a fact of life. I also suspect this is what is going on because it could take into account why a confrontational approach is seen as effective. In such a paradigm it is not necessary to evaluate the results of such an approach, because whether it is effective in the temporal community is less important as to its effect in the heavenly community. Maybe that isn’t what is going on, and perhaps I am reading too much into the criticisms, but at times I do think that is what is happening, maybe on both sides.

To Seth’s comment, I want to say that I don’t feel it is useful to couch the goals of interfaith dialogue in terms of “whether you think your own religion can gain any benefit by better understanding other religions.” The subject isn’t a religion. The subject is a person. The phrase is “interfaith dialogue” but technically two “faiths” are not in dialogue. Ultimately, two individuals are in dialogue concerning their respective faith perspectives. I see the question as to whether you think that you personally can benefit by a better understanding of your neighbors, particularly how they understand and experience their religion. I think the goal of interfaith dialogue is often what is in dispute which is why I think taking the time to address the goals of dialogue is an important activity. If I go into dialogue with the goal to change what you believe and you go into the dialogue with the goal to learn what I believe but not with the agenda to change my beliefs, this could lead to some problems, misunderstandings and suspicion. People tend to assume the other side has the same motives and goals in dialogue and so one can easily see the problems that arise.

John, I share the sentiments with wishing someone would read a book. I often wish people I dialogue with would read How Wide the Divide, not just because I want them to hear explanations from one LDS perspective but so they can see the approach taken and understand what approach I am using and what approach I would appreciate from them.

John W. Morehead said...

Aquinas, I always appreciate your comments and reflections, both in comments here and your posts on your fine blog.

I echoed some of your statements in my workshop in that while I support the private scholarly dialogue, and the public Johnson-Millet dialogue, I'd like to see our two religious communities informed, empowered, and "permissioned" to engage in community dialogue at the local church and ward level. I hope to experiment with this in my own neighborhood through a "Food, Fellowship, and Faith Dinner" between a small group of evangelicals and LDS neighbors. I'll keep folks posted if this experiment has any merit, but at any rate we need to explore the other forms or types of dialogue mentioned in my post.

I also think you're on to something with the typical evangelical (over)emphasis on the eternal perspective. Evangelicals are rightly concerned about the gospel and the destiny of individuals beyond the grave, but sometimes (many times?) we are so heavenly minded we are of no earthly good (as someone turned a phrase). I watched how this dynamic played out at the dialogue conference where in many mini dialogues during breaks and lunch the zeal for evangelism and eternity seemed to be the overriding concern of evangelicals that then led to an overzealous and unbalanced set of concerns and forms of engagement. I wonder how evangelicals might bring their concerns into holistic focus and balance so as to address their overzealousness in the dialogue process.

Todd Wood said...

For evangelicals, who are mainly heavenly minded, should they invite LDS friends over to dinner for the sake of building friendship? Absolutely.

This takes place often, an activity both good and important. And I would dare say that most of the engagement evangelicals have with LDS in southeastern Idaho has little to do with apologetics evangelism.

Oftentimes, there is a fear to not confront neighbors with truth claims. But where we should all seek warm and kind conversations, that does mean that all harsh communication should be rebuked.

Where the pendulum has been swinging in one direction, now it seems to have swung completely to the other side.

We shy from conversations or labels in Scripture that don't seem civil.

Do either evangelicals or LDS have the liberty to point out false teachers in a missional dialogue setting?

How about this? Jesus was engaged in heart dialogue with many in John 6. By the time he ended the discussion, most had left. Would we consider this dialogue with those "seeking Jesus" a failure?

Aquinas, are you LDS? If so, I think I might be realizing this for the first time . . . I thought you were Catholic.

But you are right in your observations. With LDS bishops, I am much more concerned about our spiritual oneness, whereas they tend to steer conversations more to how we can display a oneness in the community.

Todd Wood said...

At least one correction: Does that mean that all harsh communication should be rebuked?

John W. Morehead said...

Todd, I think at times we need to be frank and maybe even blunt. If this involves harshness that's fine so long as it adheres to some important guidelines and ideals I and others have discussed. However, my concern is the counter-cult tendency, in my view, to almost prefer confrontation and harsh communication. You speak of pendulum swings, and what we need is a balance as articulated in McConnell's fine presentation at one of the plenary sessions.

aquinas said...

I don’t want to make too much of this and surely don’t want to imply that one faith cares about community on earth and one faith doesn’t, or conversely that one faith is heavenly minded and one faith is not. In all religions there is tension between worldly concerns and other-worldly concerns. I think this focus is manifested at the individual level but I don’t want to tie it to any particular faith or to claim this is due to doctrine. In my original statements I said it was critics of interfaith dialogue who perhaps displayed this state of mind, not all Evangelicals categorically, since clearly many Evangelicals are not critics of interfaith dialogue. So, I just want be clear on that point.

Seth R. said...

So Aquinas, you're saying that we should look to other religions not so much with an eye of what we stand to lose or gain, but rather with the goal of simply enjoying our fellow human beings for what they are?

I'll admit that's not the way I have traditionally approached dialogue. Most of the reason I'm interested in other faiths is because I hope to gain from their better points and adequately warn myself by the example of their bad points. It's basically a "what's in it for me and my faith?" approach.

But maybe you're onto something and the model you're explaining is the better path. But I'm pretty sure I'm not there yet.

aquinas said...

Seth, when you use phrases like "look towards religion" or "whether your religion can gain any benefit by better understanding other religions" I don’t see any mention of other people existing in those statements. I see dialogue as intimately connected with people, not just religion or faith in the abstract. There is a place for doing comparative studies of religious traditions in a scholarly sense, and there is a place for doing comparative theology and philosophical studies. In those situations, scholars often look towards the texts of a sacred tradition, rituals, myths, etc. They try to describe a faith tradition in its totality. In interfaith dialogue however, I’m not trying to describe or understand the whole faith tradition, as much as I’m trying to understand another individual and their particularistic understandings and perspectives. Just because a person has read every book in my faith tradition and talked to everyone else in my faith tradition doesn’t mean they know what I think or believe, because they haven’t talked to me. This is very critical because one of the problems I see when people talk with those of other faiths is that they do not treat the other person as an individual. They pretend as if that person has attacked them or persecuted them, when they have just met that person for the first time. They carry with them baggage from previous discussions with unrelated persons and basically continue one long dialogue with a completely new person, but in actuality they aren’t talking to anyone or listening to anyone, but rather talking to themselves, or they are carrying on a conversation with a new person they have made up called “the Other.” This is wrong in my view because they fail to regard that one individual as an individual but as a collective faith. In a sense, it is dehumanizing.