Dialogue and faith

by James Blackhall.

For many years I have been trying to articulate what it is about interfaith encounters that enhances and encourages my own discipleship. This has been brought into a sharper focus since beginning work at the St Philip’s Centre in February in a role where I aim to equip churches to have interfaith dialogues whilst also having a range of encounters on a weekly basis that have led to my faith strengthening. Perhaps this should not be a surprise given that Called to Love in Praise states ‘Christians may enter such dialogues in the faith that God will give them deeper insight into the truth of Christ’.[i] This leads to many questions that I could explore such as the varying theological positions around interfaith engagement[ii] and in particular the relationship of salvation to our faith positions but I am leaving that aside.

Called to Love and Praise expresses our Christian ecclesiology primarily but it does state that ‘[people] of other faiths can hardly be said to belong to the Church. But the Church has to be understood in a way which does not deny the signs of God in their midst’.[iii] Our Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace means that we understand the grace of God can be at work in anyone so it should not be a surprise to see the signs of God in our midst. Jesus dialogued with people outside of his faith community. Indeed, he said of a Roman centurion that he had never met someone with so great a faith (Matthew 8:10). I felt similarly the first time I went to a Mosque and could feel the atmosphere of worship from the men and boys in the room that I was observing as I met them for a first-year university project. How could I deny the depth of faith and commitment that I could see and sense from the men I talked with afterwards? This challenged the faith position I held at the time which was clearly salvation by faith in Christ alone and no hope of salvation without it.  

In my final interview to become a Local Preacher I chose as my Wesley sermon The Catholic Spirit. One of the questions I got asked was how it could relate to interfaith dialogue. Wesley wasn’t looking at the interfaith landscape in the same way we are today but there are some parallels we can make by his open-handed approach. Wesley goes on to say that dialogue is not truly of the catholic spirit if the person discussing is devoid of any conviction. As I talk with people of other faiths I find similarities and differences that we can discuss with honesty and integrity. Sometimes that can lead to parts of my theology being challenged or strengthened. In the first lockdown I attended a Hindu-Christian dialogue group and found that discussing verses from the Bhagavad Gita really illuminated my understanding of what revelation is and of specific verses in the Bible that resonated with them. It was in that place of challenge and mutual honesty that I grew and my understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in my life was broadened.

Perhaps it is because ‘In Jesus, we find a role model of peacemaking that has significant implications for dealing with people of other faiths collectively and individually’[iv] that we are able to enhance our discipleship. We know that ‘our present world is filled with injustice, violence, and other social problems. Religions of the world should not contribute to these problems, but to correct them’[v] As Methodists we are called seek justice. Working together with people of other faiths is part of this. By As we do that we see more of the love of God and can feel our discipleship deepen in dialogue with others as we aim to speak up for justice and serve humanity.

There is so much I could have touched on but I would like to end with two questions to reflect on. I wonder how your encounters with people of other faiths have impacted your relationship with Jesus Christ? How do these encounters challenge or strengthen our theological positions?

[i] Called to Love and Praise, pg19

[ii] See Wilson, T., 2019. Hospitality, Service, Proclamation. Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd.

[iii] Called to Love and Praise, pg19

[iv]  Thorsen, D., 2012. Jesus, Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations: A Wesleyan Perspective. Wesleyan Theological Journal, [online] 47(1), pp.59-71. Available at: https://wtsociety.com/files/wts_journal/WTJ%2047-1.pdf  pg63                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

[v] Thorsen, D., 2012. Jesus, Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations: A Wesleyan Perspective. Wesleyan Theological Journal, [online] 47(1), pp.59-71. Available at: https://wtsociety.com/files/wts_journal/WTJ%2047-1.pdf  pg63                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

24 thoughts on “Dialogue and faith”

  1. My partner is Hindu and also uses Buddhist practices in his spiritual life. He has taught me so much about the importance of silence and meditation as part of my own discipleship. I feel that he has helped my Christian faith to deepen through both that and also our conversations about faith and spirituality.


  2. My church (an ecumenical partnership, so I’m legally a Methangle) hosted an Interfaith picnic in the church garden yesterday. Meetings over food are a regular and much appreciated occurrence.

    One of Inderjit Bhogal’s mantras is ‘First we eat, then we meet.’

    A foretaste of the heavenly banquet can take many forms…….


  3. Faith started as a wordless experience of love and trust, of commitment and faithfulness, and of giving of oneself. It has become for many a matter of doctrine and of the eternal rewards we are promised for holding the right beliefs. One result of this emphasis on how we articulate our faith is a tendency to judge people by whether they express their spiritual experiences in the language we expect and in terms of our beliefs rather than valuing people for the way they love and live in relation to God and to others. Jesus pointed out that it was not the pious but those who actually carried out God’s will, who would be recognized by God. He sought to bring freedom from the legalistic religious practices of his day and encouraging people to have a direct relationship with God.

    The stress on beliefs can make religion equally as divisive and exclusive as the purity laws of Jesus’ time. People are seen as either believers or non-believers (and our beliefs are the only standard); they are saved or lost eternally; they are with us or against us. It leads to seeing other religions (and indeed other groups within our own faith) as peddling a false message, as directing people away from the one truth which we hold. This assumption that two different ways of expressing a relationship with God must be in conflict with one another is a failure of the imagination and an inability to see beneath the literal surface level of images to the impact that their faith is having on how people respond to God and to other people.

    Its consequence is a fractured approach to issues on which all faiths would agree, and evil flourishes in many areas for lack of a concerted effort against it by people of faith who are too busy maintaining the walls of their own religious fortresses. Most major religions have their equivalent of the golden rule – “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” Yet, we have had the crusades and the Inquisition within Christianity, and acts of violence within other religions, which are all about gaining power for a particular group at the expense of others in the name of a narrow concept of truth. In the concern about which doctrines lead to salvation and a place in Heaven, many have lost sight of the emphasis in the first three gospels on bringing in the kingdom of God on earth and on eternal life – life in all its fullness – commencing in the here and now.

    Traditionalists in most faiths consider that they have the immutable truth. This denies the clear evidence of how faith changes over time. A living faith will, like all living things, grow and develop, adapt to its environment and evolve. We can see a progression from Abraham’s relationship with the God of the mountains, through the jealous tribal God of Moses, and the one universal God of Isaiah to the Father God Jesus taught to his disciples. We can also see Christianity developing from the pre-Nicaea years, through the mediaeval church and the Reformation to the Evangelical Revival and beyond. The movement within Christianity from inter-denominational rivalry and bitterness to ecumenical co-operation has occurred within my lifetime. The inter-faith movement is still in its infancy. Rather than having the final revelation from God, Christianity is still in a process of development – and so are the other religions.


  4. Thank you, James, for raising this difficult topic.
    I have never been involved in inter-faith dialogue, though I would like to be.
    It doesn’t worry me one iota that Muslims have 99 names for Allah, or that there are reportedly more than 30 million Hindu gods and goddesses! I am secure enough in my own faith to allow others the freedom to enjoy theirs. I should think anyone in the arena of inter-faith dialogue needs to be respectful and tolerant of the beliefs and opinions of others. By ‘tolerant’ I don’t mean we should just tolerate them, but that we should have no aversion to them. This is tricky though, because often those who proclaim diversity and inclusiveness can be the most intolerant of those who hold different beliefs.


  5. Rev’d Cedric Mayson, who was imprisoned, tortured and put on trial for his life for his active opposition to Apartheid wrote, “If you are planning a new society together or working in danger together or detained in jail together with a Moslem on one side, a Jew on the other, and a Hindu and an atheist over the corridor, you know that a religion which excludes these others from God is a profane profession. However ancient and revered its claims or sincere its supporters, a culture which divides you from your comrades on the grounds of race or creed, teaches that you are superior with an exclusive claim to God’s attention, fails to expound love in terms of justice or empower the oppressed to define their own democracy, and teaches you to grovel before your human weaknesses instead of delighting in transcending them, is a snare and illusion which must be rescued into life. Such a belief needs liberating and to this Christ calls us.”
    Cedric later became the Convener of the Commission for Religious Affairs under Nelson Mandela. He was also involved in the World Conference for Religion and Peace. In our conversations and e-mail exchanges, he was an enthusiastic proponent of the African concept of Ubuntu, which transcends faiths. “’Ubuntu’ is the human response to one another which does not have to be spelt out in religious terms at all. Africans had a wider concept and handled life differently, conscious of their communality, not merely their individuality. “

    Bishop Desmond Tutu’s book, “God is not a Christian”, comes from the same South African fight for freedom from oppression. He writes, “To claim God exclusively for Christians is to make God too small and in a real sense is blasphemous.” He points out that God was active long before Jesus was born and to suggest that God only accepts Christians is to state that all those born before Jesus are rejected. He declares that such thinking advocates a God of “bizarre injustice.”


    1. I think you have a very old-fashioned view of Christians, and of Christianity, Pavel!
      I can’t speak for other religions, but most of the Christians I know are far more broad-minded in their faith, and universal in their love, than the image of the narrow-minded, judgemental, fundamentalist version that you portray. I often feel that you like to hold this out-dated image up in order to shoot it down! I don’t think this helps, because it gives the uninitiated a distorted picture of Christianity.
      As you said in an earlier comment, Christianity and other religions are still evolving, and I hope this will always be so. Creation and recreation is the business God is in!
      I’m sure there are bigots in all religions, just as there are in politics, and in all areas of life really, but they have as much right to their views as anyone else. To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven. The old order dies away naturally in the end, for better or worse, and the new will itself become old. All things must pass.


      1. 25 years ago Hans Kung wrote: “Millions have left the church, millions have withdrawn into themselves and millions …… have not joined the church. The hierarchs responsible, sometimes confused, and sometimes mendacious, prevaricate: ‘It’s not so bad’. But isn’t the light of Christianity slowly being quenched.” Since then, in Western Europe most of another generation have slipped away or grown up in ignorance of what is at the heart of Christianity and see it as a set of beliefs, rules and liturgies, which have little or nothing to do with their own lives..
        That’s why I call out doctrines and attitudes which put young people off.
        Yes, of course, there are lots of lovely people in the church who have much broader and much more accepting views than the official catechisms and creeds and proclamations from church leaders would suggest. Many sit very loosely to some church doctrines, although they recite the creed and catechism without too many qualms, But the largest Christian denominations still refuse ordination to women and are very condemnatory towards homosexuals. Such discrimination, as most non-churchgoers would see it, suggests that God takes gender and sexuality into account in deciding who is acceptable. Most people in Western Europe have moved beyond this.


  6. I agree, Pavel, most people have and yes, most people do reject traditional Christianity, but attitudes towards women and homosexuals are slowly changing within church hierarchy, even at the highest level. Pope Francis is coming under attack for being too liberal! You can’t wipe out 2000 years of church history within a couple of generations, and homosexuality was in fact considered a criminal offence, even in our life-time.
    Nobody is forced to recite anything they don’t want to recite, but neither should it trouble us if others do. There have been enormous changes within all denominations in the past decade; church has definitely become more family orientated, more inclusive and more relevant than it was when I first joined eleven years ago. I just think it helps more to accentuate the positive rather than to constantly criticise the negative. Being overly critical can come across as hostile and antagonistic; if Christians themselves don’t even like church, why would anyone else be attracted to it?


  7. Well said Pavel! You present a lucid description of the state of Christianity at the present time. I recognise that there have been changes, particularly in Methodism, but churches don’t seem to initiate changes; they are forced upon them by society. And what changes we see are the bare minimum! Thou shalt not change the tradition! I remember the 1960’s in Manchester when churches were full every Sunday and Staff even led protest marches to Ban the Bomb! Something has been lost and it saddens me deeply. What’s to be done? A good start would be to scrap or rewrite the Service book and the creeds to encourage an ethical spirituality, inclusive and non-judgemental, that bares some resemblance to the absolute unconditional love of God. I am reading, with delight, the books by Richard Rohr at the moment. Like you he has the courage to question the tradition in the hope of grounding the churches in the society we are supposed to be serving.


    1. ‘Jesus was completely immersed in his Judaic tradition. He did not start with some idea he made up. Nor can we. We cannot carry the prophetic charism unless we are rooted and grounded and accountable somewhere. I don’t believe in prophets who are not conservative in that sense. Prophets must be grounded in the Great Tradition of wisdom. Our grandparents were not stupid!’
      (Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs.)


      1. If the 2,000 years of Christianity were to be compressed into one day, then as late as five pm people were being burnt at the stake for reading the bible in their own language and at 10 pm the inquisition was still having people executed for heresy. For 90% of Christian history, most Christians accepted slavery – and even in some cases were prepared to go to war to defend it. Most Christians accept that we have moved a long way forward since then – though I’m sure a few would like to burn me at the stake. There have always been prophets who have said that everything is fine as it is, who have preached what people want to hear. Richard Rohr is certainly not one of those. He wrote “We will normally do anything to keep the old thing from falling apart, yet this is when we need patience and guidance, and the freedom to let go instead of tightening our controls and certitudes.” Throughout the bible there are also those who have made themselves unpopular by pointing out that things can’t carry on as they are, that if we don’t change, then the institutions will collapse.
        The good news is that we have been given the creativity and the resourcefulness to enable us to keep moving forward. We just need the hope and the courage to do it.


  8. I think maybe you worry too much about institutions collapsing, Pavel.
    Why do we need to attract the young into church? Surely the whole point of this website is that theology (and God) is everywhere, not just in church. God is in our homes, on the streets, in the shops and the pubs and the clubs. He is in theatres and cinemas and art galleries and sports arenas and concert halls. He is in schools and colleges and workplaces and synagogues and temples and mosques. Where life is, God is.
    If young people want to come to church that’s wonderful, but if they don’t then we need them to know that God is with them and for them, wherever they are.
    Having said that, though I am still hoping to convert to Catholicism, I am currently worshipping with all denominations in our town, and I find that the churches with the most young folk and children are the two which are the most Biblically focussed ie the Catholics and the New Life Baptists.
    You know I love you, Pavel, and you have been very influential in my faith journey since I joined the Methodist Church, but there is one thing guaranteed to put young folk off going to church and that’s grumpy old men (and women) having a rant 😉
    Rant over!


  9. Going further. The love of God is unconditional, inclusive of all people and non-judgmental. Churches should reflect this love. Our response to the love of God should be to love our neighbour as we love ourselves, which means to behave ethically to all we meet. Now, I suggest the acceptability of traditions in church is based on whether they are ethical or not. It is not ethical to burn witches, go on Crusades or exclude people on the grounds of LBGTQ+. It is also not ethical to inform people that they are sinners in need of repentance, because this implies that until we “repent” we are unacceptable to God. This is harmful Christianity. It is loading unnecessary guilt onto people and could even be considered as institutionalised abuse. The unconditional love of God, as shown by Jesus, is freely given to all. To make God’s love conditional is bad theology because God does not make deals; we do not have to earn love, repentance, forgiveness or salvation. The church’s role should be to make people aware of this amazing love. So, I am suggesting that there are parts of the creed, the service book, and some of our hymns that are unethical, exclusive and judgmental, and therefore unacceptable. I am writing this because I have seen the devastating effects of harmful Christianity and watched with dismay the emptying of churches. I want to hear a positive message of love in church so that they may continue to be a presence in our communities.


    1. Yes, we don’t need this to earn the forgiveness of God, because that is already available to us. It is not dependent on our repentance. Unforgiveness with all its spiritually damaging facets can’t be part of the nature of a God of love. “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners” symbolises God taking the initiative, long before we get round to repentance.
      However, people are not always able to appreciate this. For some people the most difficult thing is to be able to forgive oneself. So it is understandable that many feel that they must do something to earn God’s forgiveness. It this respect, it can be a very helpful part of the healing process to go through a ritual of repentance and to be assured of God’s subsequent forgiveness.
      Reconciliation moves beyond forgiveness. Since it’s the restoration of right relationships between people, it involves the responses of more than one person. We have to respond to God’s forgiveness, if we wish to be restored into a proper relationship with him. Forgiveness is already there, but we have to recognise our need of it and to accept it, so that we can be reconciled.


      1. Yes. But the point I am trying hard to make is that we do not have to EARN this forgiveness by membership of a church, or being Christian or assenting to the creeds or making some sort of declaration. It is inherent in what some people call secular life. The role of the Church should be to make people aware that forgiveness is freely given, unearned and requires only an acceptance of the amazing love of God that is inherent in life, however hard this may be to see. Here is an example in the form of a poem I wrote following the death of a dear friend..


        You have gone.
        Our intense world stretched high and as far as forever
        But now it has gone.
        It wasn’t your leaving, but my endless arriving at
        This world where you have gone.

        The colour has gone.
        It is a grey tasteless pain of a world
        Flat like wet cardboard, rotting, dying
        Now you have left, and I have
        Found a world in which you have gone.

        You have gone
        In your place grows a place full of raw meaning
        A stinking pit of vast and profound otherness.
        Not in the world you left, but in this new world
        This nothing world in which you were gone.

        Where has sanity gone?
        Will this heart burst its bony cage
        Will its pain redeem this horror?
        What can be the point of pain in a pointless world –
        An ache of a world in which you were gone.

        But here is mystery;
        I search the strange space of your absence and
        In spite of all the emptiness, in spite of all the pain
        Within my heart so lost in love
        I found a love of everything.

        R Bridge 2009


  10. Robert, Let me make attempt to make clearer what I was trying to say. As Mother Teresa said, “If we really want to love, we must learn how to forgive.” “I’ll forgive you, if you say you’re sorry” isn’t true forgiveness. Forgiveness, by its very nature, can’t be conditional, because, like love, it is a state of heart and mind. True forgiveness isn’t a matter of words or of actions; it is a change of attitude within us, a healing of resentment (which can take a long time, if we have been badly hurt). We can forgive people even if we never have the chance to tell them, even if they don’t acknowledge their offence and even if they are already dead. True forgiveness isn’t dependent on the response of the other person. It’s a matter of us rising above what has happened and not allowing what has been done to us to hold us back spiritually.
    If true forgiveness is unconditional, how does that affect the other side of the coin – our own need of forgiveness to remove the guilt and regret caused by things we have done or failed to do, which have hurt others, left us disappointed with ourselves, and have come between us and God? Part of the healing process of dealing with the past may be through a practical approach to repentance – acknowledging the wrong, trying to correct it and actively trying never to do it again. Yet we don’t need this to earn the forgiveness of God, because that is already available to us. Unforgiveness with all its spiritually damaging facets can’t be part of the nature of a God of love. To suggest that God is in a state of unforgiveness towards all those who are not the right kind of Christian is to misunderstand the true nature of forgiveness.
    Forgiveness then is one-sided. It takes place within the one who has been wronged. Reconciliation, on the other hand, is at least two-sided. Both parties must wish to restore relationships. In the story of the prodigal son, although forgiveness had taken place before the son even realised he’d done anything wrong, reconciliation could only take place when the boy was ready to be restored to the family.
    It’s worth noting that reconciliation will restore relationships but actions may still have consequences. The prodigal son has still spent his inheritance. God’s forgiveness is available and we can be reconciled with him, but we have to move on from the position we find ourselves in; we can’t turn the clock back. Forgiveness and reconciliation don’t change the past, but they certainly make a huge difference to the future.


  11. Thanks for the considered response to our understanding of forgiveness. I agree completely. If I may I would like to return to the issue of how we forgive ourselves and suggest counselling with another person is critical to this. To effectively counsel requires training or at the very least openness, acceptance and a caring non-judgmental approach. As Carl Rogers puts it, we need to approach the client with unconditional positive regard.
    What I find unacceptable is the presumption of some evangelical “Christian Counsellors” that the only way to find forgiveness is through salvation from sin, redemption and self denial. This is not unconditional positive regard. In my experience it usually returns the client back to the harmful effects of the sin/guilt/redemption cycle. Gordon Lynch, who wrote “After Religion – GenerationX and the Search for Meaning”, suggests that Christian Counselling is a contradiction in terms. Yes, Christian can be counsellors, but being Christian does not give some special insight into forgiveness: As I see it unconditional positive regard is the love we have for our neighbour and provides a universal, human, secular approach to forgiveness. Also we don’t have Moslem Counsellors, Hindu Counsellors, Rastafarian Counsellors etc.
    Of course, if we start from the realisation that the love of God is unconditional and we try to relate to others with unconditional positive regard, then judgmentalism, exclusiveness and harmful Christianity do not arise.


      1. Yvonne. As I keep saying my motivation would be to treat all I meet with unconditional positive regard, but in practice I would want anyone who abused others to be locked away with the murderers, paedophiles and other sociopaths.


  12. Pavel. It continually amazes me that God relates to us, all humanity, with unconditional love. I see it as forgiveness for our past failings, the courage to face the present, and as hope for the future. Something I learned about counselling was that our access to forgiveness, courage and hope is through acceptance of things as they are, knowing that things can only get better and trying to move on as if they will. This idea of asifness or passivity is like opening a door to change – and it works! The poem I wrote earlier tries to express this. I wondered what you thought of the idea that this is how grace works. that in opening the door the love of God enters our hearts.


    1. Robert,
      We have to open ourselves up, if we are to experience love.
      Whenever we open ourselves up, we make ourselves vulnerable. That vulnerability is is the price of love.


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