Interfaith Dialog Adventist Style — by Dr. Lisa Diller

“A Third Way” conference, small but fervent in participation, was recently held in Chattanooga, TN. The main point and goal of the conference was this: How do we have a strong Christian identity that is also benevolent to others? So many times “tolerance” goes along with a weak identity, weak loyalty to a tradition. On the other hand, people who are really strong in their beliefs can sometimes behave in hostile ways (or perceived hostile ways) to outsiders. The idea for the conference was that there was a “third way”—a way to have a strong identity that is generous and benevolent to outsiders.

As this was a conference put on by Seventh-day Adventists, the challenges for our Christian identity needed to be addressed. But we asked representatives of traditions outside Christianity to participate with us—to listen to the talks and respond to what they heard, with advice from their own experience and faith heritage. Brian McLaren, whose most recent book Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Muhammad Cross the Road?, addresses these concerns, started the conference with an assessment of how Christian history, doctrine and worship practice have often proven to be hostile to non-Christians. He suggested some ways Christian practice and doctrine could be re-thought so as to reflect a healing teaching, and could be hospitable to others. It was helpful to view the research on raising children with a strong faith tradition. He compared the idea of raising children to be spiritual but not religious to the idea that we could raise children who were linguistic but had no particular language. Our kids need a religious vocabulary.

We heard some helpful caveats from our “guest outsiders” who had generously shared their time with us. Chattanooga’s own Deborah Levine, from her experience as a Jewish woman working in majority-Christian contexts, reminded us of the challenges boundary crossers often have to bear in/on themselves. She also suggested that perhaps Christian readings of Jewish texts (which we call the Old Testament) are very different from how Jewish scholars would read their own scriptures. Amin Issa, representing a young Muslim voice in our city, pointed out that for him, the main thing was to get out and do good in the world. He suggested that it isn’t helpful to try to cross lines to form interfaith relationships without feeling rooted in one’s own religion. He also suggested that when trying to serve people not of one’s own group, that we shouldn’t put on them the burden that we are “doing it for God.” That sort of motivation should remain private.

Conference planners and invited some who could speak to interfaith relationships on a very personal level. Samir Selmanovic, who operates Faith House in Manhattan, shared the beauty of his own religiously diverse friendships and made an appeal for people to “dig deep” in the wells of their own tradition, planting and nurturing the tree of faith. He said if we keep switching traditions, it is like yanking up our young tree just as it gets going and moving it from shallow well to shallow well so that it never is able to put down roots. He was able to speak with some humor about how our quirks as Adventist Christians and how groups often view “the Other.”

Ryan Bell, a minister from LA, addressed some of the “fantasies and fears” of interfaith work—reminding us that it doesn’t do to minimize the very real differences between our traditions. We often fear that we’ll lose our own reason for existence if we see the good in other streams or learn to work alongside them on shared projects. Along with other respondents over the weekend, he helped formulate expressions of distinctively Adventist theology that could be articulated in benevolent and hospitable ways, even though they may not always have been thus expressed.

In the end, the panel on how interfaith work “looks” on the ground was probably most revealing. All cross-religious dialogue is personal, and the most effective form of getting to know each other is in addressing problems and concerns that affect the common good. All the panelists referred to work and effort toward communal justice or compassion. It was a helpful reminder that we don’t make efforts at understanding the other for its own sake—we are always working toward some sort of greater boon. When we kept that in mind, it allows us to be open and committed in our own identity, while being hospitable and appreciative of the stranger-become-ally who we are working alongside.

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