“We don’t know how to talk to one another any more!” It’s a common lament these days, especially those with whom we disagree. We tend to stay within our own bubbles, safe in our comfort zones with those who are of like-mind. Despite (or perhaps because of) the growing diversity of our world, we seem to be more divided than ever.
One area where the opposite has been true is the interfaith movement, in the desire to cross boundaries, learn from other traditions, and work collaboratively for the good of our communities and world. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which I recently attended in Toronto, Canada. Being among over 8,000 people from all over the world, representing a stunning array of nearly 200 religious, spiritual, and Indigenous traditions is my idea of heaven on earth!
But some years ago, I became aware of a concern within our interfaith ranks. At just about every interfaith gathering I attend, someone will pipe up and say, “Interfaith is great, but what we really need is an intrafaith dialogue.” And I agree. For I had discovered this for myself in one of the congregation I previously served as pastor.
The Elsie Project
In the days after 9/11, members of the church I was serving wanted to study the world’s religions and decided to begin with Hinduism. Since we would be looking at another tradition solely through our own Christian lenses, I asked if they would be open to inviting a Hindu guest to one of our sessions, someone willing to share her story as well as answer any questions. Their answer was an enthusiastic “yes” and I invited a Hindu friend to come to our next meeting. The visit went well. The Christian participants were welcoming and respectful. They asked insightful questions.
However, after the session one of the participants, Elsie, asked if she could stay and talk about something that was bothering her. She began by saying how much she was enjoying the study. She had appreciated meeting our guest and hearing her personal story. But she had a big concern. If she accepted the Hindu path as equal to Christianity, she said, “I’m worried that I’m betraying Jesus.”
Elsie had presented me with both a pastoral and a theological quandary: how do Christians make sense of their faith in light of their experience of other religions? And so my venture into the intrafaith conversation began. It led to my doctorate in intrafaith dialogue and the publication of my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters? Of course, I dedicated it to Elsie.
Another incident around the same time affected me personally. I attended a funeral at an Episcopal church and sat next to a woman I knew from my interfaith women’s group. As the priest read the passage from John’s gospel, where Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me,” I heard these words through the ears of my friend who is Jewish. I was God-smacked! I had preached on that text many times, but hearing it this time was a powerful epiphany. I experienced it as exclusionary and offensive.
That revelation widened for me a quest that had previously been one of interfaith exploration. I had been happily content to meet people who followed other paths, but I had not been confronted with the intrafaith question. But once it entered my consciousness, I had no choice. I had to look with a critical eye at my belief in Jesus as the only way to salvation and make a decision about whether to keep it or transform it into something new. And if I wanted to transform it into something new, how could I do that with faithfulness and integrity? How would it affect my Christian bubble?
It's Easier to Talk with People of Other Religions...
Another thing often heard in interfaith circles (from people of every religious tradition) is that it’s easier to relate to people of other religions than to many members of their own. I have found that when I present workshops at interfaith gatherings, attendees who are not Christian are enthusiastic about sharing their own stories of the challenges they face within their traditions. Because I am Christian, I can speak and write only from my own tradition. But my hope is to encourage those of other faiths to begin intrafaith reflection within their ranks. I believe we would have much to share with one another about the process of engaging with people of differing beliefs and opinions.
Certainly within Christianity, a number of things cause arguments and divisions. Some of these are social questions, such as the role of women and LGBTQ clergy. But the primary issue is the person of Jesus. As a parish pastor, that question has important implications for my ministry: how to teach, preach, and talk about Jesus, especially with people with a variety of beliefs and sensitivities.
I was confronted with this challenge in the congregation I served while working on my doctorate. I had invited the executive director of our interfaith council to speak to our adult forum. After the session was over, a young man who had been unable to attend because he was teaching Sunday school, hurried in and asked, “What about ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, . . ‘?” The director answered very quickly, “That’s true for Christians. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life - for Christians.” I could tell that the young man was not satisfied by that response. The next day, I discovered that he had e-mailed the church council president expressing concern about the session and all the “interfaith stuff” we had been doing since I arrived. Later in the week, when I spoke to him about it and explained that my doctoral project was about that very question of what Jesus had meant by that declaration - not giving answers, but working it through together - his response was, “Yeah, I have wondered about that.”
What this told me is that even the more conservative members of our congregations are struggling with these questions. For them, easy answers are not helpful and may even turn them away from the conversation. So I began working on a process in which differing voices within Christianity could talk together with respect and explore some ways they might think anew about some of our traditional beliefs.
The INTRAfaith Conversation
Although I stated at the beginning that many people have asserted the need for an intrafaith dialogue, the term is still relatively unfamiliar. The simplest way I have found to explain between intrafaith and interfaith is that the prefix matters. Inter means “between” - as in interacting, doing things with other people or other groups. So interfaith is more than one religion getting together.
On the other hand, intra means acting within or inside one group. Intrafaith is just one religion examining itself in light of its interfaith experience. But in the intrafaith conversation, the two are combined into one process.
Graduate Theological Union professor Judith Berling describes the two poles of the interreligious learning process, which can easily applied to non-academic settings:
Step 1 is interfaith. Step 2 is intrafaith.
 Berling, Judith, Understanding Other Worlds: A Guide for Interreligious Education. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004, 64.
Passing Over and Coming Back
John Dunne (the late priest and theologian) goes in even more deeply in his book, The Way of All the Earth: "What seems to be occurring is a phenomenon we might call ‘passing over,’ passing from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another. Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion."
This is interfaith. This is what Elsie did along with the group as she interacted with the our Hindu guest.
Donne continues: "It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back,’ coming back with new insight to one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion."
This is intrafaith, which is what Elsie began to do as she questioned how to fit this encounter into her understanding of her own faith.
Then this, from John Dunne, is the part I really love: "The holy man (sic) of our time, it seems, is not a figure like Gotama or Jesus or Mohammed, one who could found a world religion, but a figure like Gandhi, who passes over by sympathetic understanding from his own religion to other religions and comes back again with new insight to his own."
And I am in complete agreement with Dunne's conclusion: "Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.”
 Dunne, John, The Way of All the Earth. New York: Macmillan, 1972, ix
The Rev. Susan M. Strouse, D.Min.
Website and blog: https://intrafaithconversation.com
Author of The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in all our guest blogs are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Harmony Interfaith Initiative.
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