A few weeks ago Missio was busy with a set of articles on privilege and cultural blinders—how people of privilege, especially Christians with privilege, are often unaware of how their privilege plays out. This is relevant for me, given that I am a person who benefits from a wealth of privilege. However, this blog isn’t so much a discussion of privilege, but a reflection on how to talk about privilege well.

There is wisdom in the practice of imitation. If you want to improve an activity that you are bad at, try to imitate someone who is better at it. Oddly enough, I think the practices of inter-faith dialogue have a lot to teach the church on how to converse and listen to itself well amidst the divisions created by certain forms of privilege—that engaging individuals and communities across the chasm of religious difference can help inform Christians on how to talk about other differences.

One example of interfaith dialogue done thoughtfully and fruitfully is the practice of Scriptural Reasoning highlighted by the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme. Scriptural Reasoning involves small inter-faith groups of Christians, Jews, and Muslims who read and reflect on their respective scriptures together. When these groups gather the “goal is not agreement but rather growth in understanding one another’s traditions and deeper exploration of the texts and their possible interpretations.” They are meant to be places where different faith communities both listen to God and listen to their religious neighbor. This is of course easier said than done, but there are two specific lessons from the practices of Scriptural Reasoning that I want to highlight for applicability to Christian conversations conducted amidst privilege.

A crucial aspect of Scriptural Reasoning is where individuals and communities seek these discussions. It doesn’t just matter who you invite to the table, it matters where the table is. Political, socioeconomic, historical, and racial realities all contribute unique difficulties to interfaith relations. Interfaith work which fails to grapple with the structural and social speed bumps sabotages itself before it begins. One way to address these issues is through serious thought regarding the physical site of the dialogue–eg., electing to meet in a hospitable place where all participants feel free and safe. David Ford describes this space through the metaphor of a tent. There is a typology of religious meeting places, there are temples, houses, and there are tents. The tent is the place of the inbetween: “This ‘inbetweenness’ is a significant metaphor in various ways…It is concerned with what happens in the interpretative space between the three scriptures; in the social space between mosque church and synagogue.”[1] The tent is mutually constructed, and everyone is both host and guest in the tent of meeting.

Just as plants need fertile soil, conversations need healthy contexts—and the practice of Scriptural Reasoning emphasizes how communities need to choose a site that enables the interfaith relationship to flourish.  However, embedded within the question of where is the question of how long conversations should continue. Those in interfaith contexts typically have to think about the issue of longevity, of how to promote an extended dialogue across time and even lives. Well-done inter-faith dialogue typically seeks to establish sites and communal relations for inter-generational dialogue: “centers of long-term collegiality where ways of study, understanding and application can be worked at and passed on across generations.”[2] This means creating communal relationship where dialogue does not begin anew with each generation, but continues anew. [3]  The relationship between the continuation of the conversation and the site of the conversation are parallel concerns which are crucial to fruitful interfaith discussions.

The second lesson to draw from the practice of Scriptural Reasoning is that tolerance is a bad base for conversations. In its current use tolerance tends to resist the recognition of each faith or cultural group’s particularity. Tolerance becomes something individuals have, a passive disposition relieving one from the duty of a dialogue which “honors and engages each other through our differences and commonalities.”[1] Tolerance is ultimately based upon a fear of difference. Bland notions of tolerance act as a tranquilizing drug upon communities; a pacifying idea fooling them into thinking there is no work to be done, a pacification that ultimately allows for privilege and oppression to go un-confronted. In the Scriptural Reasoning context, instead of this “thin and generalized notion”, the conversation proceeds upon the “terms that the particular texts and traditions of each faith themselves provide.” Instead of tolerance, seeking mutual wisdom and embodying the shared vision of the faithful life are the basis for the Christian engagement in interfaith dialogue with the religious neighbor. Interfaith conversations, especially those promoted by the Scriptural Reasoning model aim to engage both tension and difference: “Part of what stimulates the energetic labor that is Scriptural Reasoning are the tensions that arise…between the texts being studied….SR…‘does not privilege agreement over disagreement.’”

True dialogue grounds itself in the alternative stories and theologies of the faiths involved. Scriptural Reasoning sees that the natural path or the “way into” this particularity is through each community’s Scriptures.  Although addressing American politics, Cornel West offers an illuminating statement on this point: “You can’t have bipartisanship if you don’t have partisanship as a way into it.”[3] For Christian, Muslim, and Jewish dialogue the Qur’an and the Testaments provide the integral textual material that constitutes the identity of these communities.  These texts open the dialogue to fruitful affirmations of difference. This openness to deep textual dives and the tension of difference does not inspire fear of failure, but displays that real dialogue requires these sorts of practices and openness.

While the obstacles of conflict and distance complicate interfaith work, compassionate and imaginative conversations can begin to engage and resist the “alienation and animosity” of both the past and present.[4] This is not to overstate the possibilities of these conversations, but to recognize they begin with a humble hope—to not overestimate what they can accomplish, but to still recognize their value. This hopeful realism leads interfaith dialogue to not seek herculean solutions to conflict, but how to pursue small moments of faithfulness together—growth in wisdom, pursuit of peace and justice, and maintenance of each faith’s particularity through their Scriptures. Scriptural Reasoning groups hold similarity and difference in tension with one another—they do not aim to say that the conversation partner is wholly alien or “just like me,” because understanding and not necessarily greater agreement can act as the basis to cultivate “trust, conversation, and collaboration.”[5]

Personally experiencing the fruitful conversations based on the Scriptural Reasoning model led me to think about what creates faithful conversations. The model of Scriptural Reason and its attentiveness to creating an “inbetween” space grounded in the traditions of the participating communal identities serves as a helpful model for how divided Christians should talk to one another. This allows for dialogue to occur that is not allergic to deep differences, and meets for the common good of the larger community.

Good conversations, especially those involving communities of privilege and histories of conflict, should probably begin with the practice of silence. As expressed elsewhere on Missio, privilege provides its own particular forms of blindness. You can’t treat your own blindness. The first act of the privileged should not be to speak, but to listen. Good practices of listening are the ground of any form of common life together. Too often our words become the bricks that build the wall between us. People of privilege—whether based in race, economic, gender, or religious privilege—are frequently bad at listening. We enjoy talking too damn much. As Bernd Wannenwetsch states, the trust involved in the act of listening serves as “therapy for the hermeneutics of suspicion.”[6] Listening is the first step to undoing the presumptions and distrust that so often fracture the Church’s life together.

Something I have often learned from countless inter-personal conflicts is that the conversation begins when one party stops talking. Listening doesn’t always require silence, but it does require a certain form of presence, a presence that Scriptural Reasoning helps us learn how to create.

[1] David Ford, Christian Wisdom, 291-292.

[2] Ibid., 275.

[3] Cornel West, “Interview with Riz Khan,” on Al-Jazeera, http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/rizkhan/ 2011/03/201132863311584728.html# (accessed 2013).

[4]  Omid Safi, “Progressive Muslims,” Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (London: Oneworld, 2003), 24.

[5] Ben Quash, “Deep Calls to Deep,” in Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme http://www.interfaith.cam.ac.uk/en/resources/papers/deep-calls-to-deep (accessed 2013).

[6] Bernd Wannenwetsch, Political Worship, 293. This quote came to my attention via Luke Bretherton’s book Christianity and Contemporary Politics.