Inter-faith dialogue: A transformational third space

There are some who may eschew engagement with other religions because it is dangerous. John Hull has characterised such an approach in the following way: ‘I am holy, the argument says, and you are holy but the ground between us is unholy ground and we will contaminate each other through harmful mingling of blood if we meet’ (Hull, 1991). However, engagement with other religions does not have to be for the purpose of agreement. Neither does an exclusivist belief have to exclude a person or faith from the inter-faith table. There are also concerns that inter-faith dialogue can be sometimes rather anaemic. Tom Greggs has argued that sitting down with these beliefs laid out rather than hidden actually better serves inter-faith dialogue:
To sit at the inter-faith table without this fact, painful as it may be in face of the other, is to engage in a dishonest dialogue dishonestly. Our very need to sit together is grounded not only in what we share but—and herein lies the rub—in the differences we have. A number of very real dangers can arise from various quarters if this is ignored. There is, first, the danger that we sit down not as the other but as the same and thus do not sit down as religious people wishing to engage in dialogue at all. By this is meant that if we gather together around shared values (perhaps associated with one of many shades of social liberalism), we do not gather together primarily identifying as people of particular faiths but only secondarily so: we can run the danger of actually gathering together as people who are united by a (for all of the vagueness of this term) liberal agenda, through which we then see our own faith. . . .
This leads to a second danger. This is that we do not engage in dialogue but in mutual agreement and “head nodding.” Without confronting the painful reality of the exclusive ultimates that we have (however inclusive these may be), we run the risk of entering into the kind of universalizing in which modernity has engaged in its understanding of religion—seeing ourselves as all the same and not, therefore, presenting the at times problematic elements of the coexistence of our faiths in the religiously and socially heterogeneous communities of which we are a part.

In some aspects of inter-faith dialogue the believer perhaps begins from the perspective of truth- the belief that they belong to a religion that is true; or at least is the best of the options available. Recognizing this fact may seem anathema to true dialogue where a person is open to what the other person is saying. However, there is a possibility that with both parties being firmly rooted in their own religious faith a third space opens between them where genuine interreligious dialogue can take place. Teece argues that “it is the space between us that constitutes holy ground, holiness being discovered through encounter.” The dialogue becomes “open” when the exchange of ideas is honest, and each party is open to learning rather than acceptance. 

This would mean that by engaging with other religions, and the light that they have, they are open to the reformation of some of their religious practice or beliefs. Brueggemann’s discussion of dialogue in the Old Testament can be used to explore how dialogue can be transformative when the two parties engaged begin from seemingly unequal positions:

… [T]he defining category for faith in the Old Testament is dialogue, whereby all parties– including God– are engaged in a dialogic exchange that is potentially transformative for all parties… including God. This constitutes a conviction that God and God’s partners are engaged in mutual talk. That mutual talk may take a variety of forms. From God’s side, the talk may be promise and command. From the side of the partners, it may be praise and prayer. The Old Testament is an invitation to reimagine our life and faith as a dialogic transaction in which all parties are summoned to risk and change.

Engagement with other religions thus becomes a “dialogic transaction” whereby people of faith may begin to change some of their understandings and behaviours. Inter-faith encounter may become transformative of a person’s own belief and devotion. However, it should always be remembered that there are parameters of orthodoxy that should be maintained for believers. The “dialogic transaction” of engagement with other religions enables a purpose of inter-faith activities (of whatever nature): through encounter with the other a greater development of one’s own belief and practice can be more deeply understood. This is not possible if the religions with which they are in dialogue are considered to be completely inspired by the devil.

To be open to learning from other religions means that a person need to recognize that there is truth in other religions; that those following these religions are not simply other, but for me, fellow children of God. Smith argued that engagement with other religions is about developing relationships, and not just missiologically motivated, as referred to above he felt that people should build one another up in their faith and “cease wrangling and contending with each other, and cultivate the principles of union and friendship in their midst.” This also means that when people engage with other religions they should recognize the value and purpose of such dialogue. Hinckley suggested that in such encounters people should “Look for their [those of other religion’s] strengths and virtues, and you will find strengths and virtues in your own life.” This will, in no small part, come from defining oneself as other− in asserting and defending unique and divergent beliefs with those taught in other religions. However, it will also come in the encounter between people and religions.

In genuine inter-faith encounter people can develop strength and faith as they are open to learn from each other: “When our hearts and minds are properly focussed, our dialogues with one another, however impassioned they may be, become the means by which we lovingly help each other appreciate aspects of God’s work we might otherwise overlook or fail to understand.” As people engage with other religions they are able to learn things about their own faith as well as another person’s; in my own faith it is taught: “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” The benefits of engagement with other religions, for a person, are not just a greater understanding of others but also a greater understanding of what it means to be a follower of their own religion.

Thus, when a person engages with other religions, understanding how they are to frame that relationship enables them to reflect far more deeply on what it means to be a ????. It is possible to posit the existence of a dialogical space between religions that constitutes “holy ground.” This third space enables a place where adherents of two religions meet to transform their understanding of one another, but also their understanding of themselves and their faith. The concept of a dialogical third space borrows heavily from the work of Bhabha but diverges from the resultant hybridity models that he suggests such spaces would create. Bhabha argues that the “third space displaces the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new political initiatives, which are inadequately understood through received wisdom… The process of cultural hybridity gives rise to something different, something new and unrecognisable, a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation.” The hybridity and new structures would not be appropriate or desirable in engagement with other religions for reasons already enumerated. However, engagement with a third space as a place of “radical openness” provides a perfect description of the type of space needed for inter-faith dialogue to be successful. The way that this space can be “radical” and transformative at the same time is in utilizing areas of convergence and divergence.
Recognizing convergence

The recognition that there are shared values and doctrines is important for meaningful conversation and action to take place. In this type of engagement we are able to appreciate and recognize the common understanding that they share. The benefits of recognizing convergence are twofold. Firstly, and as already explored, is the recognition that in shared discussion of similar topics, a person can enhance their own faith and “find strengths and virtues” that can make them more rooted in their own religion. There is a danger that in seeking common ground it is possible to overreach and suggest links that do not exist. When recognizing elements of convergence it is important that this is done honestly, or the validity of the process will be destroyed. An example that has been used earlier is the declaration that Latter-day Saints believe in a different Jesus. Millet outlines that in relationships with other Christians suggesting that the Church is the only true one “does not mean that they (other Christians) are worshipping a ‘different Jesus’…. True Christians worship Jesus of Nazareth, the promised Messiah.” Although Millet argues for the convergent approach advocated here, he goes too far in presenting a palatable view of Mormon teaching to non-Latter-day Saints. It may be true that the events of Jesus’ life are viewed similarly between Mormonism and other Christian and non-Christian religions, but there are significant differences between the teachings of who Jesus was and is. To suggest otherwise goes beyond the boundaries of the doctrines of the Church.

The second purpose of utilizing convergence in engaging with other religions is the desire to “work with those of other religions in various undertakings in the everlasting fight against social evils which threaten the treasured values which are so important to all of us.” The social aspects of engagement enable people of different religions to take stands on shared concerns. Examples of Latter-day Saint efforts include the combatting of pornography, and humanitarian efforts to alleviate suffering. However, this type of service should be selfless and oriented to those who are served and worked with.

Greggs argues that “dialogue cannot only take place for our own benefit [or our own purposes], but should also take place for the sake of the other, and – ultimately – for the sake of God… Talk must turn into action; and action must lead to further talk.” It is a believer’s responsibility to “stand as a witness of God” and to engage in Christlike service. Engaging in inter-faith service opportunities, or campaigns, enable them to be in the service of God. Similarly, seeking the best for those who are less fortunate (physically or spiritually) is a religious obligation:

And also, ye yourselves will succour those that stand in need of your succour; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just— But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God (Mosiah 4: 16-18).

Utilizing shared beliefs helps people live their religion in their daily lives, but also enables those of other religions to have opportunities to practise their religion (either in the service activity, or the resultant “better” society). Thus, engagement with other religions becomes a strengthening process. The dialogue and activities provide further opportunities for discussion as believers are able to “build bridges of cooperation instead of walls of segregation.” In focussing on commonality it is important that we do not become so entangled with commonalities that we lose sight of the differences.

Recognizing divergence

Points of divergence need to be recognized and discussed.

We must not become disagreeable as we talk of doctrinal differences. There is no place for acrimony. But we can never surrender or compromise that knowledge which has come to us through revelation and the direct bestowal of keys and authority under the hands of those who held them anciently. Let us never forget that this is a restoration of that which was instituted by the Saviour of the world. It is not a reformation of perceived false practice and doctrine that may have developed through the centuries.

Recognizing such a basis for engagement with other religions would validate participation forpeople who view such relationships as potentially diluting. This approach would also maintain the theological integrity while opening up further possibilities for the Church (not just in terms of people joining).

The importance of difference is far from being bad, it is an antidote to the theory that all religions are the same. The myth of religious unity “has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide… These differences may not matter to mystics or philosophers of religion, but they matter to ordinary religious people.” The honesty in presenting beliefs to others lies in the recognition of their distinctive doctrines. Returning to the notion of the creation of a “hybrid” in dishonest dialogue, Gartenstein-Ross argues

The question is whether such doctrinal compromise actually creates interfaith opportunities. Not only is this approach unlikely to bolster interfaith activities, but it may actually undermine them. The available evidence suggests that interfaith dialogue is least effective when those engaging in it do not have their feet firmly planted in their own faith traditions. The point of interfaith dialogue is to learn about religions that are foreign to us—and an integral part of accomplishing this is being upfront about theological differences. When a church involved in interfaith dialogue soft-pedals Christian doctrine in the interest of painting a picture that appeals to its dialogue partners, its credibility can be undermined. A couple of years ago, I spoke with a member of a conservative church that had recently begun interfaith dialogue with a mosque. Before that, the mosque had dialogued with a more liberal church. Mosque leaders were pleased to have more conservative dialogue partners: They expressed satisfaction that “now we’ll get to see what Christians really think.”
In recognizing the, sometimes brutal, honesty that engagement with other religions entails it will provide people with a much greater justification to engage in such activities. There will always be the concern about the dilution of an individual’s faith, but from the outset there should be an understanding that when people who engage with other religions do so without sacrificing any of their deeply held beliefs.

The differences will, however, promote relationships rather than hinder their development:

Rather than turning aside from our differences in an attempt to preserve some putative peace (not really peace at all), it is precisely through exploring these differences together that we learn the meaning of our profound interdependence.

The engagement with inter-faith dialogue advocated in this paper seeks to recognize that all participation should be grounded in the distinctiveness of a person’s religious faith. However, the framework also recognizes the value that inter-faith dialogue can bring to a person’s own faith as they define themselves in relation to the “other”, and discover new ways of expressing their belief from the way other religious people practice theirs. Engagement with other religions should utilize both strands of belief to be honest and create a fruitful relationship. The fundamentals of engagement with other religions can best be summarized as:
Be honest about the exclusive position and teachings they hold.

Be true to a person’s own religion.

Appreciate the truth found in other religions.

Be open to developing one’s own religious practice and understanding.

Help others live their religion. 


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