Does Interfaith Dialogue Lead To Syncretism?

119927522_729802e22eLast year I attended a women’s bible study for a short period of time.  We met on Monday evenings for a couple of hours.  We prayed together, studied scripture together and socialized.  We are new in the community and I was hoping to make some new friends.  It didn’t turn out that way.

One evening, a few weeks into the study, I shared with a few of the women that I had been participating in an interfaith dialogue and that I was really enjoying it.  They had never heard of such a thing and wanted to know more.  They were uncomfortable with the idea that an interfaith dialogue is not focused on trying to convert others to Christianity.  They could not grasp that we, as Christians, could learn anything of value from someone outside of our faith.  They thought it was probably a sin to be willing to take the position that we might discover that we are wrong about something we believe.  In the end they believed that there was some sort of evil involved in the idea of interfaith dialogues and that there was probably a hidden agenda of syncretism.  The result for me was that I became someone they, at least, were worried about or, at worst, suspicious about.  Needless to say, I didn’t keep attending the Bible study for long after that.

My understanding and experience has been that interfaith dialogue does not require one to give up or hide one’s own beliefs.  It is true that it is not a dialogue that is focused on validating one’s own religious conviction but at the same time there is a need for one to be rooted in their own tradition in order to have a meaningful dialogue.  I believe that the dialogue not only offers us the opportunity to learn about the faith of others but to also discover dimensions of our own faith that may have been unknown or forgotten by us.  In addition, I believe that interfaith dialogue opens up the possibility of people of different faiths working together for the common good.

Still, there are many who believe that it is not worth the risk of our faith becoming polluted with what they would consider false ideas and beliefs and that the most probable outcome is a blended belief system.

What do you think?  Is interfaith dialogue a slippery slope that leads to syncretism that will just end up dilluting and harming Christianity?  Or is interfaith dialogue a worthy endeavor that will heal divides, make the world a better place and lead to Christians becoming better followers of Christ because of our encounter with others?

This month a group of us have decided to synchroblog on syncretism. The synchrobloggers so far:

How To Cook Up A Personal Jesus by Matt Stone

How to be a Syncretist by Ellen Haroutunian

Our Uncomfortable God by Susan Barnes

Synching on Syncing by Phil Wyman

The Man In The Moss by Steve Hayes

16 thoughts on “Does Interfaith Dialogue Lead To Syncretism?

  1. Samuel Stuart Maynes

    If you are interested in some new ideas on interfaith dialogue and the Trinity, please check out my website at http://www.religiouspluralism.ca, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    After the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions, perhaps the most subtle expression and comprehensive symbol of the 3rd person of the Trinity is the Tao; involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing ideas indentified in positive and negative, or otherwise contrasting terms). In the Taoist icon of yin and yang, the s-shaped line separating the black and white spaces may be interpreted as the Unconditioned “Middle Path” between condition and conditioned opposites, while the circle that encompasses them both suggests their synthesis in the Spirit of the “Great Way” or Tao of All That Is.

    If the small black and white circles or “eyes” are taken to represent a nucleus of truth in both yin and yang, then the metaphysics of this symbolism fits nicely with the paradoxical mystery of the Christian Holy Ghost; who is neither the spirit of the one nor the spirit of the other, but the Glorified Spirit proceeding from both, taken altogether – as one entity – personally distinct from his co-equal, co-eternal and fully coordinate co-sponsors, who differentiate from him, as well as mingle and meld in him.

    For more details, please see: http://www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

    Reply
  2. jaysays

    As an atheist, I’d say about 90% or more of my faith-based conversations are with someone with different beliefs than myself. My uncle, a Christian minister, once said to me, “No one is a Christian – we are just striving to be Christian.”

    I agree with Susan on this one. I imagine those that cannot have dialogue without it being an exercise in conversion, likely don’t have much faith in themselves.

    I would hope that people of all faiths and belief structures would be able to communicate and learn from one another.

    Reply
  3. Sabio Lantz

    Interfaith dialogue is fun, if everyone plays nicely. It can stretch us and change us — so if we are afraid of these things, we should avoid it. Finally, I feel our minds contain many selves and dialogue can be used to keep those selves in healthy relationships. It may seem like a strange theory of mind, but it allows me (an atheist) to acknowledge the theist in me when I dialogue with you. Peace.

    Reply
    1. gracerules Post author

      Sabio – Thanks for sharing – I know what you mean about us having other selves in us and how
      connecting with others that can relate to another one of our selves can be enlightening and healing.

      Reply
  4. Jarred

    Driving a car could lead to getting into an accident. Crossing the street could lead to getting hit by a reckless driver. Going to the supermarket during flu season could lead to catching the flu yourself. And yet, I suspect that those who are so afraid of interfaith dialogue and the road to syncretism do all of those things I just mentioned. That’s because they understand that while there are risks, there are ways to mitigate those risks. So the real question is, why don’t they understand that it’s possible to mitigate the risks of falling into syncretism while engaging in interfaith dialogue?

    I agree with Matt that it’s still possible to do evangelism while engaging in interfaith dialogue. In fact, I think that it’s the most effective way of doing so. However, I also think that it requires an approach to evangelism that is less results-driven (“save that soul for Jesus!”) and more process-driven (“let’s figure out the appropriate message, communicate it, and leave an open invitation”). This is especially true when dealing with those who are not likely to convert. A gentle invitation is less likely to result in slammed doors than a full frontal assault. (And yes, having suffered through a few interesting attempts by various Christians to convert me, I do think that phrasing is appropriate. ;))

    Reply
    1. gracerules Post author

      Jarred – you make a great point about taking risks. When I think of something being risky I always think about how risky God is with the grace and mercy and agape love that he hands out so freely.

      I also appreciate you pointing out that the best evangelism approach is one that is not results-driven. A lot of people have told me that they are very turned off by Christians who seem to have an agenda when it comes to befriending them. I think we need to have opportunities to prove to the world that we love people even when they are not interested in converting to our belief system and I believe that interfaith dialogue is one of those opportunities.

      Reply
  5. Yewtree

    I would say that genuinely open interfaith dialogue can lead to seeing truth in others’ faiths, but not necessarily to syncretism unless you are that way inclined to start with.

    One’s faith can’t be very strong if one fears to be exposed to challenges to it.

    Reply
    1. gracerules Post author

      Yewtree – Thanks for stopping by. The initial impression is that their faith is not strong but as I mentioned to Ellen I think a lot of teaching has encouraged Christians to be afraid of anything outside of the faith. Although it is taught that fear is not of God we seen to hear a lot of sermons about stuff we should be afraid of.

      Reply
  6. Pingback: Reading: The man in the moss « Khanya

  7. Matt Stone

    I would say, of course engagement with other religions can lead to syncretism, but so can engagement with politics, culture, fashion, shopping, movies and all sorts of other stuff. So avoiding interreligious dialogue does not guarantee safety. On the contrary, given that we are intructed to be in the world but not of the world, if we avoid engagement with other religions that may well be a sign that syncretism is already at work in us. A Christianity that fears engagement is diluted already.

    I agree that dialogue not only offers us the opportunity to learn about the faith of others but also to discover dimensions of our own faith that may have been unknown or forgotten by us. That has certainly been my own experience. But I would add however that evangelism is not incompatable with interreligious dialogue. Part of dialogue includes explaining your own position. We should always be open to inviting dialogue partners to consider Christianity more seriously. But lest that be misunderstood, I think dialogue is valuable even when conversion seems remote. God may be glorified in many ways.

    Reply
    1. gracerules Post author

      Matt – You said “A Christianity that fears engagement is diluted already.”

      I couldn’t agree more. So many talk about keeping Christianity pure but it seems all they really want to do is maintain the status quo.

      I agree that I don’t think interreligious dialogue incompatible with evangelism – I was just pointing out that it isn’t the focus or the point – which is probably a better situation for conversion to occur.

      Reply
  8. Susan

    It seems to me that some (like those in the Bible Study Group) are not thoroughly convinced about what they believe, which is why they worry an interfaith dialogue would lead them (or others) astray.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Reply
    1. gracerules Post author

      Susan – Perhaps you are right. I also think that some of our Christian teaching over the years has induced a lot of fear about anyone or anything outside of our faith – there has been all this division encouraged and resulted in this mindset that there is something to fear, something dangerous about connecting with anything that isn’t Christian.

      Reply
  9. ellenharoutunian

    Great conversation! It seems to be a paradox – we fear that having a dialogue with those who believe differently will reduce or dilute our beliefs somehow, yet to enter into the world of the other, as Christ did, seems to be the surest way of growing even more solidly Christian, because then we are acting just as He did.

    Reply

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