In an increasingly divided world, is it possible for people of faith to demonstrate how to converse respectfully with each other, including with those who understand faith differently? Deeply personal matters like religious beliefs and spiritual experience touch on our inner sense of identity and security. So discussion of our faith experience is super-sensitive for those who instinctively and sometimes emotionally defend their inner convictions.
If I’m Correct Does That Mean You’re Wrong?
If we see our spiritual life differently, and I acknowledge that your perspective has validity, does that automatically mean I must be ‘wrong’? The trouble is, religious truth, when defined as correct beliefs, assumes that we can only understand our spiritual experience either correctly or incorrectly. Commonly, we box ourselves into being either right or wrong. For two millennia, the church has defined true faith through creeds and officially adopted statements of belief while labelling all other interpretations of human spirituality as heresy. It has assumed a dualistic, black and white world, with virtually no opportunity for shades of grey or complexity when it comes to understanding ourselves in relation to the cosmos and to God.
A Brutal History
The early Church Father, Augustine, believed that argument alone was insufficient to correct many whose beliefs were unorthodox. For most of the church’s history, violence has been accepted as a means to force conversion and correct Christian heresies. The various ‘Inquisitions’ of the church employed torture to rid the Christian community of heretics. Many thousands were terrorised, burned alive, beheaded, imprisoned or exiled in the effort to protect ‘correct belief’.
Many Christians try to distance themselves from this history as though it belongs only to Catholicism and not to the ‘real Christianity’ of modern protestant denominations. But surely that’s a cop out. This is our shared history. Every modern church can trace its understanding of faith back through those pre-reformation centuries to the very early bishops who conceived of the creeds in the fourth century. Thank God, modern churches reject violence as a strategy to convince the ‘ungodly’ to turn to God. And yet the strictly defined ‘correct’ faith that is preached by all mainstream churches today is essentially the same as that preached in the very early centuries precisely because it was preserved through coercion and violence.
Christian against Christian
Unfortunately, if a ‘true’ belief system is the hallmark of a valid spiritual life, then we must necessarily judge our own and others’ beliefs in order to describe the life of the spirit. The unintended consequence of this premise is that the Christian churches produce judgemental people, despite the teaching that Jesus said we should not judge. Historically, this inevitable attitude of judgement has had horrific outcomes and still has damaging consequences.
Even within today’s well-educated societies, respectful dialogue between devoted members of differing religious groups is rare. Totally putting aside our relationship with Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists or the like, progressive and traditional Christians find it almost impossible to have open-hearted conversation with each other about beliefs.
My progressive friends are well aware that, if they had voiced their understanding of their spiritual/religious life in earlier centuries, the church would have excommunicated them or even burnt them at the stake. I am grateful to live in an era when the church has lost its authority to torture and kill its own members for believing ‘incorrectly’. If all we have to cope with these days is some former friends in the church no longer speaking to us or verbal online abuse, we who question the creeds are definitely better off in the 21st century.
But wouldn’t it be great if Christians stopped writing abuse or ridiculing comments about other people of faith altogether? Even this blog has drawn abuse from some Christians who believe these views are wrong. The question is, how can progressives and traditionalists converse respectfully about faith so that we stop contributing to a divided world?
Starting with Ourselves
Perhaps we can only begin with ourselves. Each of us can be responsible for how we regard and speak to those who challenge us. Respectful conversation requires that we find the common ground. For me, that means I don’t give up the conversation because a traditionalist puts me to the test by asking, “Is it biblical?” I know that often behind that question lies a dualistic judgement ready to be pronounced. Nevertheless, instead of launching into a long explanation of how we can legitimately read the Bible as a human document, I might simply answer, “Yes. I have come to understand my faith with the help of many inspiring and gifted biblical scholars.” And instead of regarding a traditionalist as limited by ancient creeds, I want to look past our differing perspectives to the real longings, love and spiritual choices that have made him or her a person of depth and service.
It is likely that somewhere deep in our souls we have both experienced the beauty of the mystery whom we may name as God or the divine presence. Almost certainly, we won’t find our common ground for open-hearted conversation in the creeds or a particular ‘correct belief’ about Jesus or the Bible. But perhaps we will find it in our mutual respect for goodness and godliness and our readiness to be humbled and transformed by love itself. For God is love.