When interfaith dialogue isn't a real "dialogue"


A recent interview in Christianity Today, which concerned the subject of Jewish and Christian interfaith dialogue, has spawned some interesting commentary from a Jewish woman's blog and an article by John Spalding at the Revealer web site.

The interview subjects were co-authors, one Jewish and one conservative Christian, of a book titled The Christian and the Pharisee. The conservative Christian author, R. T. Kendall, expresses a set of disturbing (but not surprising) attitudes towards the Judaism of his dialogue partner, Rabbi David Rosen. Kendall, for example, saw the interfaith dialogue not as a forum for a mutually respectful interchange of perspectives, but as an opportunity for proselytizing his "dialogue" partner. I put the word "dialogue" in scare quotes here because this to me not the basis for a true dialogue. Kendall said such things as

I don't see this as only dialogue. I had one sincere desire, and that was to present the gospel to David with the love I feel for him so that the Holy Spirit would arrest him like Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus.
If I'm right, you will go to hell when you die.
When you have an ulterior motive of proselytizing, then in my view that is not being respectful towards one's dialogue partner. That is especially not the case if you think the other person is going to hell on account of their beliefs. Unfortunately, Jews have been subjected to this kind of attitude from Christians for the last two millennia. They know the score quite well.

To me, though, another interesting thing about this "dialogue" was the cluelessness on Kendall's part as he insisted on characterizing Rosen's faith in terms of his own faith paradigm; he never really seemed to recognize that Rosen had a different set of working assumptions about his faith that did not revolve around Kendall's own concepts of justification and salvation--and he blithely spoke to Rosen as if Rosen himself had these assumptions. I think that this is a byproduct of his dogmatism--where he seems unable to step outside of himself and understand and appreciate that his paradigm isn't the only one out there. This is especially a problem among some conservative Christians when they discuss Judaism, because it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that since Christianity emerged out of the historical Jewish faith, both religions are just different ways of solving the same theological "problem" that Christianity identifies with respect to personal salvation and justification before God. But that isn't necessarily so.

Spalding's comments on this aspect of the "dialogue" were quite accurate:
Clearly, Rosen’s grasp of Christianity far exceeds Kendall’s understanding of Judaism, and whereas Kendall is hell-bent on getting Rosen, who is the president of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, to heed the Holy Spirit and accept Christ, Rosen tries patiently to get Kendall to understand the paradigmatic differences between their beliefs.
What you get is a simple repetition of standard conservative Christian talking points. But talking at people isn't the same as talking with them.

But there is more to this whole problem of interfaith dialogue, I think. I would argue that many conservative Christians make the mistake of equating their own paradigm with the Christian framework as a whole. I'm just inventing terminology here--maybe there is a better way of putting this--but by that I mean that the conservative Christian paradigm (heaven, hell, justification, sin, atonement, and so on) is not the same as the overall Christian framework that consists of a broadly interrelated and intertwined family of theologies that have their origin in the life and teachings of a man named Jesus. Each of the world's major faiths--such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism--has its own overall framework, but within each framework there exists a broad spectrum of theological paradigms. There are, to be sure, tolerant and respectful paradigms, and there are also intolerant ones. Inter-religious dialogue is not really possible as long as one adheres to an intolerant paradigm. But what I call the paradigm is not the same as what I am calling the framework. The frameworks can hold dialogues with one another, even if some of their individual paradigms cannot.

I do believe that the hope for inter-religious dialogue can be found among those who are open and tolerant within their respective faith frameworks. (This is true of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others--it doesn't matter what framework you start from.) It cannot happen between those who are stuck in their own dogmatism, who think that their way is the only right one, or who disrespectfully use dialogue as a tool of proselytizing rather than as a means of mutual respect and understanding.


Heather W. Reichgott said...


This comment
"he never really seemed to recognize that Rosen had a different set of working assumptions about his faith that did not revolve around Kendall's own concepts of justification and salvation--and he blithely spoke to Rosen as if Rosen himself had these assumptions."
is right on.
Part of the problem with many attempts at "dialogue" is we assume that we all have the same set of questions, if not the same set of answers. I get it that you might have a different answer for "how are we saved?" but it's much harder to get it that you might not actually care about salvation, or you might put the question very differently, or you might have some other concern that is way more important than salvation.

I too find the (conservative) Protestant focus on salvation strange. I mean, I find it important, and I could go on about God's grace all day, but once you're saved then what? do you just go back and repeat the salvation drama to yourself over and over again? Seems like other things (like love of neighbor) should then become central.

I also think the "dialogue" sounds like a year-long discussion G. and I had in high school, which can be summed up thusly:

H: I want you to become a Christian.
G: Well, I'm not going to.

G: I want you to stop being a Christian.
H: Well, I'm not going to.

You can only do that for so long before you have to move on to something else.

Yael said...

H: I want you to become a Christian.
G: Well, I'm not going to.

G: I want you to stop being a Christian.
H: Well, I'm not going to.

I would disagree with this however in that I never saw the rabbi attempting to convince the pastor that he should stop being a Christian. I don't know many Jews who would say such a thing. I tell Christians I'm happy they are Christians so long as their Christianity stops at my mezuzah.

Nice post, Mystical Seeker, and thanks for the link to the discussion on my blog. I agree the assumption is ever made that everyone values the same things. Many Christians seem to have trouble realizing Judaism is not Christianity minus Jesus.

I'm posting a link in return to your blog. Yours is a great continuation of the conversation.

Mystical Seeker said...

Heather, perhaps the problem is that some of us leave high school behind us, and some of us are still stuck in spiritual adolescence.

Yael, thanks for visiting my blog. I'm glad I could contribute to the discussion.

Gerbil said...

Okay, for the record, I never told Heather flat out that I wanted to her to stop being a Christian. I merely attempted (elegantly Socratically, I might add) to convince her that her beliefs were illogical.

Yup, we were about 15 at the time. And we've moved on to much more productive conversations.

cipher said...

some of us are still stuck in spiritual adolescence

The best, most descriptive one-liner I've heard about evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity in a long time - perhaps ever.

OneSmallStep said...

I posted this in Yael's blog, but my favorite part was where the Rabbi was compared to Saul. I know what the Christian was attempting to convey, yet I found the comparison poor. Biblically, before Saul's conversion, he went around killing and persecuting Christians. The rabbi has done neither.

Perhaps this is reading too much into the Christian's framework, but could this mean he subconsciously felt that the rabbi was as "immoral" as Saul?

cipher said...

I'm sure Kendall would say that we are all immoral (i.e., sinners), but that God has blinded Rabbi Rosen to Jesus, as Saul originally was.

Yael said...

I always liked that built in excuse. "The reason why what I say doesn't make sense to you is because YOU are blinded."

Richard M said...

Hi, Im new here and I realize this is an older post, but thats never stopped me before, so I thought Id throw in two cents worth.

As a former fundamentalist, now married to a Jewish woman, I have worked through this sort of issue in some detail, so it interests me. Even long after I stopped being a fundamentalist, I found I still carried some of their working assumptions, their "categories" for how they parse up the world. It was that much harder for me to understand Judaism because it took me a while to realize that they do not share the same categories.

One of the best Jewish responses I have read about the issue of salvation (and sorry, I cant recall the source) is one who said "salvation from what?" In Judaism heaven and hell are very marginal ideas, often having disappeared entirely (i.e., modern reform) and probably not present in early judaism, either. Judaism is not and has never considered itself a "works salvation", as I was taught (everything I used to believe about Judaism had been taught to me by other evangelicals), and the purpose of Mosaic law is not, and has never been, about "working you way into heaven". Another example: jewish concepts about the messiah are much more complex than simply " he hasnt come yet."

I could go on, but the point is evangelical christians have trouble understanding that the whole world does not think in terms of their categories. I suspect this is psychological: it becomes harder to see hell (and thus God) as just if those who go there just got all the basics wrong. I.e., you have a harder time claiming someone was just "rebellious -- because they knew the truth and rejected it" when they seem to have actually had a whole different framework.


Mystical Seeker said...

Richard, you expressed that very well. Thanks for your comment.

cipher said...


You're absolutely correct. The conceptual frameworks are entirely different - and they don't get that. They don't even get the concept of different conceptual frameworks. The working assumption is that everyone sees the world precisely as they do - so, if you don't accept Jesus, it can only be out of a "spirit of rebellion".

My experience has been that on the rare occasion that you can even get this concept across, the fundamentalist will pull out the same tired old rationalizations - "I may not understand it, but it's God's word, so I accept it" or "You're the one who doesn't get it, because you don't have the Holy Spirit.” Ultimately, there's a complete abdication of responsibility - it's God's prerogative to do with us as He will, and, no matter how cruel it may seem to us, it simply isn't our place to tell God what to do with His creation.

I've often said that I don't expect them to understand - but I expect them to understand that they don't understand. I keep waiting for them, as a group, to say, "There's obviously a lot going on here that is beyond our comprehension, so we'll just sit here in the back of the room and keep our mouths shut." Of course, even that has turned out to be too much to expect. After decades of being relegated to the sidelines, they have political power, and they're determined to reconstruct this country in their image.

The Buddhists don't believe in a creator - and they have complex arguments honed by centuries of scholastic debate - yet they have a system of accountability that is, if anything, even more rigorous than the Christian system. In Christianity, there is a personal God to appeal to. In Buddhism, one is at the mercy of karma, an unavoidable and infallible process of cause and effect. This pretty much undermines the fundamentalists' claim that atheists and liberal theists don't believe because they don't want to held "accountable" - yet they don't see that. If conservative evangelicals and fundamentals are ignorant of the most basic premises of Judaism, they are even more so concerning other religions. I've glanced at one or two of the "textbooks" on comparative religion used in their colleges; they’re simply a joke. A primitive, bare-bones version of each religion is presented, and the bottom line ends up being, “They don’t believe what we believe – so they’re wrong.”

I find it very telling that they complain that the current crop of atheist authors - Dawkins, Harris et. al. - set up "straw man" versions of Christianity, then proceed to debunk them - yet that is precisely what they do when confronting other religions.

There seems to be some evidence now of a neurophysiological basis to account for the differences between the ways in which liberals and conservatives (including theological conservatives) conceptualize reality. If true, it would, as you say, become harder for them to so easily relegate people to hell. On the other hand, they’ll probably just fall back upon Calvinism - “It’s obviously God’s will that you don’t believe.” There’s always a rationalization.