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The first, and most obvious principle of good inter-faith dialogue is making connections, or finding things that your religion has in common with the other person’s faith. The first thing people do when they meet is discuss their interests, careers, and lifestyles to find something they have in common. On this basic foundation they are able to begin a friendly conversation based on things each party is interested in and knows well. The same principle holds when discussing religion with a member of a different faith. Find something that both religions have in common, be it a similar belief in Christ, a love of prayer, or even similarities in religious clothing.
In the book Catholic and Mormon: a Theological Conversation, both individuals involved in the conversation frequently exhibit this principle of good inter-faith dialogue. In talking about his journey towards becoming Catholic, Stephen Webb states “I found myself able to appreciate for the first time how Joseph Smith (1805-1844), the Mormon Prophet, also struggled with the problem of religious authority in his search for a more comprehensive and integrated form of the Christian faith” (page 9). Here Webb draws a connection between his search for truth and Joseph Smith’s. This shows not only that Webb recognizes Joseph Smith as an important figure in the LDS faith, but also that he considers himself on the same level as Mormons, thus removing any possibility of condescension or disrespect.
Later on in the chapter, Webb also says “What is significant to me is that Joseph was reconstituting the apostolic unity that provided the original organizational foundation of the New Testament Church. He did not refer to himself as a new Peter, but that is what he looks like from the Roman Catholic perspective” (page 11). The last sentence draws a connection between Joseph Smith and Peter. Webb makes a simile between Joseph Smith and Peter, effectively showing that he understands Joseph Smith and his mission by putting the concept in his own words and ideas with which he is familiar. This is a tactic often used in conversation, known as parroting. It involves repeating the other person’s concepts back to them in your own words, often with similes and metaphors, in order to show them you understood what they said.
In talking about the Virgin Mary, Alonzo Gaskill states “Unlike Roman Catholics, Latter-day Saints are not typically criticized for their reverence for the Virgin Mary. However, we empathize with our Catholic brothers and sisters because misunderstandings about their sense of reverence for Mary are similar to the misinterpretations about the Mormon appreciation for Joseph Smith” (page 54). In this paragraph, Gaskill uses the same technique of parroting to draw connections between the LDS religion and the Roman Catholic religion. Going beyond that, Gaskill also uses empathy here to relate to the criticism Roman Catholics face over their reverence for the Virgin Mary. Showing empathy is a powerful means of drawing connections. It shows the other party that you understand the struggles they face, thus opening up the conversation to a deeper level than surface-beliefs and interests.
Following the other person’s lead in the conversation is a very easy way to show respect and understanding. It involves putting your words and concepts in the other person’s terms. This can include using the same analogies as the other person or even simply referring to one of their leaders in the same way. Both Stephen Webb and Alonzo Gaskill demonstrate this principle of good inter-faith dialogue.
The first example of this principle in the book is when Webb says “…I was struck by how deeply affected Joseph was by the fragmentation of Christendom (Latter-day Saints often refer to him by his first name, so I will follow that practice here)” (page 9). Often in articles and papers written by people not of the LDS faith, prophets and leaders are referred to by their last names—for example, Monson instead of Thomas S. Monson, or Smith instead of Joseph Smith or Joseph. In this sentence Webb shows respect for Joseph Smith, and for everyone of the LDS faith, by referring to Joseph Smith in the same way that many Latter-day Saints do. This adds an extra layer of comfort to the conversation by eliminating the distraction that comes from hearing your leader called by a name or term that is not commonly used.
In the chapter on authority, Gaskill states “Joseph would not have argued that he was “reinventing the wheel.” Rather, he would have claimed that Jesus had given him the “wheel” back. And the version of the wheel that his good, earnest, and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ had was just not quite the one Jesus invented in the first place” (page 20). Here Gaskill continues and corrects an analogy Webb uses earlier in the book. This puts the concept into terms pre-dictated by Webb, explaining correct ideas in a non-offensive way by simply altering the analogy. It creates a slight distance between Gaskill and Webb so that it does not appear that Gaskill is personally attacking Webb’s ideas, but simply altering his analogies instead. Following the other person’s lead both through the terms by which you address their leaders and by continuing their analogies or using their words to describe your ideas increases understanding between both parties and shows respect.
Evelyn Beatrice Hall once said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” While death is not necessary, the basic idea that while you may not agree with the other person’s beliefs, you should support them in their right to practice those beliefs or their religion is central to this principle. Mutual respect of beliefs is key to any inter-faith dialogue.
Webb stated “From the perspective of the centrist culture of the Protestant social establishment that emerged in the nineteenth century held sway throughout the twentieth, Mormonism was a bizarre conglomeration of irrational beliefs and superstitious practices, a relic of more exuberant and irrational times. But what if Mormons were not trying to be Protestants? What if Mormons were trying to create a more authoritarian, ritualized, and sacramental version of the Christian faith?” (Page 12). While Webb does not say here that he agrees with the LDS faith, he implies a similarity between the Roman Catholic faith and the LDS faith—both are authoritarian, ritualized, and sacramental. He defends those similarities against the “perspective of the centrist culture of the Protestant social establishment”. This shows that he respects Latter-day Saints’ rights practice their religion however they wish, while also showing a similarity between his own religion and the LDS faith.
“Mormons, for example, believe that matter is eternal…and thus matter can be infused with divinity. Mormons, we could say, apply transubstantiation to the entire cosmos. Meanwhile, Catholics believe that we can communicate with the dead in the sense of praying for those who are in purgatory and asking the Saints in heaven to pray for us here and now. Both traditions, then, have the theoretical capacity and practical resources to draw near in understanding, appreciating, and learning form each other in terms of the two rituals that most define their uniqueness” (page 86). Webb again does not say that he agrees with the LDS belief, but he does defend the fact that Latter-day Saints “have the theoretical capacity and practical resources,” showing that he does respect Mormon beliefs and considers them to have every possibility of validity as similar beliefs in the Catholic faith. Defending LDS beliefs allows Webb to show Gaskill that he respects his religion, thus allowing peaceful and respectful dialogue to continue.
The fourth principle, using stories to convey your beliefs, involves personal anecdotes, often with people of the other person’s religion. Using stories is an easy way to help the other person see your point of view and be able to understand why you believe certain things. When relating anecdotes involving people of the other person’s religion, it is important to be honest about your encounters, but also to be kind and to make sure the other person understands that you do not consider that encounter to be representative of interactions with their religion as a whole. Be honest, but be polite.
In the chapter, Authority, Gaskill describes an interaction he had with a professor at a Catholic university. “He invited me into his office, where he asked me countless questions… That being said, while behind closed doors this man was fascinated by the teachings of my faith, nevertheless, publicly he treated me with a great deal of condescension because I was a Latter-day Saint. He would take jabs at my religion in class, in front of the other students. On one occasion, unprovoked, he noted to our class: ‘Mormons are a lot like the earliest Christians—primitive and naïve’” (page 16). By sharing this information, Gaskill moves on to the topic of succession and the fragmentation of the Church. He explains that he wants to be in a religion like the one Christ originally instated. He refused to take offense at that rude comment, and instead admitted that he agreed with the professor in that Mormons are lot like the earliest Christians. When relating a story, especially one of a potentially offensive encounter, it is important to use the story for a purpose, and to make sure that the other person understands that you hold nothing against their religion because of the encounter.
Webb states, “Every Mormon I have ever talked to, and every book of theology written by a Mormon that I have read, confesses to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In fact, Mormons go much further than most Christians these days by emphasizing the necessity of the cross for our salvation” (page 120). Here, Webb relates the fact that Mormons do believe in Christ and that they emphasize the necessity of the atonement for salvation—these concepts are misunderstood by many people of other religions. It isn’t a story in the traditional sense, but he does recount real events that influenced his understanding of Mormonism. In doing this, he shows that he fully understands the emphasis placed on Christ in the LDS faith. By telling stories and relating events that influence your understanding of the other person’s religion, you are able to show them various concepts you believe in, and prove that you understand the concepts they believe in as well.
Four principles, including making connections, following the other person’s lead, defending their beliefs, and using stories, are central to good inter-faith dialogue. They progress conversations with a tone of respect and understanding. If utilized correctly, these four principles can lead to profitable conversations between people of different religions that result in greater mutual understanding and appreciation.
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