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.