“Superfaith Sunday Reflection: The Dialogical Imperative”
Genesis 12: 1-9 ~
Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ February 7, 2020
Amazing things happen when we simply talk, don’t they? Just…simply…talking. We don’t know where the conversation will go; we don’t have a preconceived agenda; we just want to find our way and ‘be’ together, so we talk. To talk is to learn about the other, to see their viewpoint, to truly respect them, to truly love them. I’ve been having a lot of great conversations with my children on the ski slopes lately. Sitting on a chairlift, admiring creation and…simply talking. Long drives to the North Shore mountains…and the conversation just somehow happens. A friend referred to this phenomenon as “windshield time”. Time that we spend alone in the cabin of a car driving to a destination or sitting on a chairlift for that matter is “windshield time.” Time when we just talk and allow dialogue to happen. Dialogue is necessary in the case of a broken relationship to discover healing; it is necessary in a new relationship beginning. And as we gather on World Interfaith Harmony week, we will discover dialogue is essential for this week’s goal: interfaith harmony. So, let’s talk and see what happens! As we begin, I want to acknowledge the work of the Rev. Dr. David Lochhead which informs much of my sermon this morning. His book, “The Dialogical Imperative”, which I have named my sermon in honour of, broke new ground for the Interfaith movement when it was first published in 1988. I had the privilege of being among David’s last crop of students as the theological community lifted up his life in 1999. His legacy for interfaith dialogue…the calling for us to talk with one another…continues. So, as Interfaith Harmony Week concludes, let us continue with the commissioning to engage in dialogue. Let’s talk and see what happens!
Theology of Isolation
Talking may seem like an obvious, and perhaps even grace-filled, thing to do, however, for the Christian church that is two millennia old, its arrival took a long, long time! We can look back to the late 50’s and remember the seminal book “Protestant, Catholic, Jew”. In the book, author Will Herberg argues for three “legitimate” ways of being religious in North America. One could be either Protestant, Catholic or Jewish. And while there has been a growing presence of other religious communities (Islam, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist for example) this thesis from Herberg’s work still, somewhat, exists. Lochhead classifies this long-standing position of the church, along with many other faith traditions, to be a ‘Theology of isolation’. Isolation is typified in churches who take a literal approach to the 14th chapter of the gospel of John where Jesus proclaims “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” I chose to do a sermon series, back in April 2019 (and they are on the website if you wish to view them again) on the various “I am” sayings. I chose to do so as Jesus was really offering a broader interpretation of Jesus as a manifestation of God’s great “I am” going all the way back to God’s revelation to Moses at the burning bush when God’s description to Moses was “I am who I am”. But for some, a theology of isolation continues and separates us greatly. And with isolation, of course, it is very difficult to sit down and ‘talk’.
Theology of Hostility
Related to Isolation is a theology of hostility. Further advanced than being simply isolated, hostility contains a component of judgement and threat towards others. A theology of hostility occurs when religious communities view themselves as the potential unifiers for all of Christendom. The existence of ‘other’ Christian communities, and – of course – other faith traditions, threatens their mission of creating a one world church. This goes back to the time of the Protestant Reformation when Reformers like Martin Luther had clear hostility towards the Roman Catholic church and even towards the Jewish faith. We also saw this, in the last century, in the rise of the Fundamentalist Christian movement. We might think of leaders such as Pat Robertson of the 700 Club, or Jim Bakker of the PTL Club, or Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority. The common element with this theology of hostility is a consistent drive for a one world church, regardless of doctrine…a one world church; regardless of Faith tradition…a one world church for all. Needless to say, with hostility, it is very difficult to sit down and ‘talk’.
Theology of Competition
A more civilized movement, perhaps, was the theological progression that occurred with the theology of competition. With competition, there is a tacit acknowledgement that we are all in ‘the same business’ (if you are OK to put it that way). Competition would begin by placing considerable stress upon our differences. Perhaps you might have seen posters outlining the convergence of many world religions on what Christians call “The Golden Rule” ~ to love one another as God has loved us. But, in this theology, the full truth is only to be found in the beliefs and practices of ‘my’ particular faith tradition. Theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher defined religion as attaining a “God consciousness”. A universal awareness of absolute dependence upon God. He argued that humankind has progressed from animism (where objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence); next progressing to polytheism (where beliefs in multiple deities usually reside in nature), and finally to monotheism (the view of one God) which is the highest state of religious development. In line with our consumerist culture, there is a sense in which we are seeking to consume the best, superior form of religion. A relatively modern-day example of competition was the prevailing attitude that existed between Roman Catholics and Protestants prior to Vatican II, for example. Needless to say, competition does not truly allow parties to truly sit down and ‘talk’ either.
Movement towards Interfaith Harmony
Something very significant happened towards the end of the last century that brought us to where we are today. A process theologian by the name of John Cobb wrote a book that transformed interfaith relations towards the place we are today. In his 1982 book, “Beyond Dialogue”, Cobb challenged the World Council of Churches for their failure in advocating for interfaith dialogue. The WCC, with its 349 member denominations (including our United Church of Canada) is the largest uniting body of Christian churches in the world and they responded. It didn’t happen overnight, but less than three decades later, in 2010, they established this week of Interfaith harmony that we celebrate now! This week that is now into its 11th year!
A Theology of Dialogue
And what had been happening quietly and subtly over the past generation has become a mainstream movement between many of the denominations of the Christian church and many of the other world religions faithfully engaging in a theology of dialogue. Dialogue is the fundamental attitude with which the church is, indeed called to encounter the ‘other’. As we look at a theology of dialogue, it is helpful to discuss what it is, and what it is not. Plato viewed dialogue as the method for conducting the search for truth. It was done by all parties, both, asking sincere questions and listening deeply to the answers given. Dialogue, in its purest form, is an art that allows a deeper truth to be discovered, not merely by reflection and introspection, but by parties sharing and listening. It is also informative to consider what dialogue is not. Dialogue (two parties) is not a monologue (one party speaking) where one seeks common ground over the other through the process of compromise or negotiation. Dialogue is purely the search for an understanding of the ‘other’. We may find a common ground, as I used the example earlier of the ‘Golden Rule’, but that is not the goal of dialogue. If common ground is achieved, it will be a ‘gift of grace’ and an ‘added bonus’. In true interfaith dialogue, we each seek to understand and allow ourselves to be understood. John Cobb proposed that the mutual transformation of each person of faith in dialogue naturally occurs; however, we must not see it as the goal as we sit down and talk. A beautiful dialogical relationship has no other purpose than understanding and being understood. As Lochhead puts it in his book “’the purpose and end of dialogue is the same. If growth happens, that is a wonderful bonus.” I opened our reflection considering the dialogue that naturally occurs when we take a journey. The journey of interfaith…the journey that occurs during ‘windshield time’ as we are together talking. I think that is exactly what was occurring with our faith ancestors that we heard in Dan’s reading of Genesis 12. God offered a call to a family who would be transformed during their journey. We always think of them as Abraham and Sarah, yet this text reminds us that the journey commenced with two people originally named Abram and Sarai. And they were transformed as the journey unfolded and consequently renamed as Abraham and Sarah. They followed God’s call and the dialogue that ensued allowed the transformation of the faith traditions of not one, or even two, but rather three great world religions! From Abraham and Sarah would be birthed the generations through which these faiths would later unfold. Ishmael, from whom the Muslim faith would later come. Isaac from whom the Jewish, and then later, the Christian faith as well. All because Abram and Sarai heard God’s call and took those first steps of the journey. Even our own tradition of Christianity, we recall, was first called ‘people of the Way’. In my personal experience in interfaith dialogue, it has broadened my understanding of ‘the other’ and increasingly served to deepen my faith. I hope it will for you as well. One of the special events of Interfaith Harmony Week over the past eleven years has been the pilgrimage: a walk throughout Surrey stopping at various faith communities to learn, to share food, to ‘be’ with one another in dialogue. The challenge with the pilgrimage, always, was that you needed a certain level of mobility in order to walk the 25 kilometer route. But this year, with the virtual pilgrimage, you can simply take it all in from the comfort of your home by viewing the video that we have compiled. With the Surrey Interfaith Network’s permission, we have even posted this video on our webpage. I hope you will take an opportunity to view the video as together we continue in respectful dialogue, walking the journey of faith. Amen.