Stubborn Burros: Why Intrafaith Dialogue May Be More Important Than Interfaith Dialogue

Dialogue Won’t Heal our Deepest Divisions, but It will Humanize our Adversaries

Ben Self / 12.9.20

“[A]s far as I’m concerned, he can go to hell.”

— President Jimmy Carter on Jerry Falwell, Sept. 1986

Dialogue across social and political lines often seems to get a bad rap these days. I wish I had counted how many of my social media peers had gleefully announced over the past two to three months that they were unfriending anyone they saw supporting the candidate they opposed or views they deemed reprehensible. It was probably a dozen.

There seems to be a prevailing sense that dialogue just doesn’t work anymore — that “you just can’t talk to those people.” In a recent New York Times article, Wajahat Ali recounted his efforts over the past four years to dialogue with his ideological adversaries, and ultimately instructed readers not to “waste your time reaching out […] [I] refuse to spend any more time trying to understand and help the architects of my oppression.” That perspective feels pretty widespread these days.

Part of me wonders if this is all just the inevitable result of living in an extremely pluralistic society. At some point, does the bewildering array of opinions swirling around us from infancy become so difficult to navigate that we just stop listening to people we disagree with? Are “fundamentalisms” perhaps just the natural response — a kind of psychic coping mechanism — when the cultural center cannot hold?

I hope not. With every degree of separation, it becomes easier for us to dehumanize one another. It would seem to me like a dangerously slippery slope to write off vast swaths of the population.

It’s also counterproductive. As Daniel Cox has illustrated, “When Americans are more distanced from society, they become untethered to local and national institutions and are less invested in their continuing function.” David Brooks points out that, among “those awash in anxiety and alienation,” “conspiracy theories have [paradoxically] become the most effective community bonding mechanisms of the 21st century.” These sorts of trends suggest, of course, that maybe shaming and shunning aren’t the best tactics, politically speaking. (Ya think?)

If you’ve ever heard the message of Jesus, you might suppose that Christians would be better than average at talking to people they disagree with. Sadly, the historical record indicates otherwise.

But perhaps it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s certainly a grave need for more across-the-divide grace, and one place that we as churchgoers can start to reach out to folks we may disagree with — in fact, perhaps the most meaningful place — is within our own faith tradition (intrafaith dialogue).

There’s a fascinating chapter from longtime Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox’s 2009 book The Future of Faith that deals with the importance and challenge of intrafaith dialogue. Cox begins by making a more obvious point about interfaith dialogue — that the world is so interconnected and culturally heterogeneous today that cooperation across religious lines has in some sense become a matter of survival. We are “all each other’s neighbors” now, he explains, so we will either learn to live alongside each other in peace or destroy one another.

But Cox then points to something much closer to home for most of us: the need for more intrafaith dialogue, which may well be more urgent. Christianity itself has become dramatically more heterogeneous over the past century: “In 1900, fully 90 percent of Christians lived in Europe or the United States. Today 60 percent live in Asia, Africa, or Latin America, and that figure will probably rise to 67 percent by 2025.” That mind-boggling global diversity means that intrafaith interactions in general are only going to become more common and important to the work of the Church moving forward.

Yet, in the U.S. context, the particular kind of intrafaith dialogue that Cox identifies as most pressing is actually within predominantly “Western” versions of Christianity but across theological and political divides, which are, to state the obvious, where the really explosive fault lines lie.

It’s probably not a stretch to say that most of us American churchgoers have become so politicized that our religious beliefs and priorities are more shaped by our politics than the other way around, something that’s true of both the religious right and left.

In this highly politicized context, Cox argues, interfaith dialogue is not actually that meaningful, because it’s basically just liberals talking to other liberals. During his years traveling the globe doing interfaith work in the ‘70s, Cox became “increasingly aware that the people I met were much like me. They belonged to the ‘dialogue wing’ of their traditions. The other wing was always missing.”

According to Cox, “fundamentalists in every tradition […] vociferously oppose interfaith dialogue,” which can be incredibly frustrating. But the response of liberals is often just as unhelpful:

Christians who take part in dialogue strongly prefer to converse with sympathetic Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. They rarely try to communicate with the most refractory wing within their own camp. […] What dialogically oriented Christian would not rather spend an afternoon with the Dalai Lama than with Pat Robertson?

Of course, in conversations between people from differing [faiths] […] differences always come up. But the differences seem to be at a safe remove, since the participants are not a part of the “family.” […] This is not the case, however, with the discrepancies that inevitably arise [within one’s own faith tradition.] In these encounters, things get tense, tempers often flare, and people sometimes stomp out of the room. More seems to be at stake. Many people try and then just give up.

But if we give up on engaging other wings in our own traditions, we’re not changing much. If anything, we’re making problems worse, as the various subgroups only become “more isolated and truculent.”

Recognizing this conundrum in the early 80s, Cox decided to do something unthinkable today: He invited Jerry Falwell to visit Harvard. Of course, “Some faculty and students were aghast […] They strenuously opposed inviting him to the campus and warned me against the danger of ‘giving him a platform.’” But Cox managed to make it happen, and while Falwell’s visit was certainly “a tumultuous event,” it was also mostly civil and extremely well-attended. A few years later, he tried the same approach with faculty from Pat Robertson’s Regent University, and had similar success.

Ultimately, Cox concludes,

The idea that “you just can’t talk to those people” was [thus] not necessarily true. […] Admittedly, this kind of intrafaith dialogue is often more difficult than interfaith dialogue. Both sides understandably tend to avoid it […] But the result is that tensions between the wings within each tradition deepen […] Sibling rivalry is the nastiest kind. In the first murder Cain killed Abel over the proper way to sacrifice to the God they both worshiped.

To me, at least on a theoretical level, Cox’s across-the-divide approach is inspiring and as vital as ever. In our current political climate, the stakes for such dialogue within Christianity are certainly high, but the opportunities are great.

It’s also a chance to practice something Christ himself models repeatedly in the Gospels. As a Jew, his heated encounters with Pharisees and Sadducees offer excellent examples of intrafaith dialogue done right. Instead of avoiding his counterparts, or say, trashing them on Facebook, Jesus engages them with wit and knowledge of shared scriptures. He doesn’t talk past them but appeals to them as fellow Jews — thus setting a standard for the rest of us.

And yet, if I’m honest, I’d probably find it difficult to stomach an hour-long lecture from Falwell were he still alive — let alone justify paying the speaker’s fee. That kind of “dialogue” sounds nauseating. These days, I struggle to discuss hot-button issues with my own (literal) family.

But maybe “dialogue” doesn’t have to mean something official. Maybe we don’t need to go straight to the heart of our differences — sexuality issues, biblical inerrancy, eschatology, etc. It might be better if we didn’t. Maybe “dialogue” can mean something more basic — just talking to people about nothing in particular, breaking bread, sharing space, working together. Maybe we just need ways to cross paths with the other wings in the church. When COVID ends, why not picnic with churches across the spectrum? Or host joint choral concerts? Maybe build a Habitat house together? That all might at least freshen the air.

There’s a great scene from the first season of Modern Family where Jay Pritchett is struggling to connect with his new stepson Manny. Gloria, Jay’s new wife, decides to make them work together to install a ceiling fan. “In Colombia,” she says, “there’s a saying: if you have two stubborn burros that don’t like each other, you tie them to the same cart. The ceiling fan is the cart.” The tactic immediately sparks conflict, but of course, by episode’s end, the pair have gained a better understanding of one another.

I’m a stubborn burro. I’m writing this post to myself as much as anyone else. I know I need to work on connecting to people I disagree with, even if just for “ceiling fan” activities, and the most natural and important place I could do that may be within my own faith tradition, perhaps my own family.

Dialogue likely won’t heal many of our deepest divisions, but it will at least humanize our adversaries. The destructive power of ideology is that it turns complex human beings into tribal symbols. Dialogue tends to remind us of the complexity — and need for forgiveness — we all have in common. Forgiveness is the cornerstone of the Christian faith, so let’s start there. Christ lived and died for us all, y’all. I think we can at least talk to each other.