Somewhere in his writings, the great missionary thinker Lesslie Newbigin wrote that to enter into dialogue with a person of a different faith is as much to risk being converted by them as it is to potentially convert them.
To actually engage with someone of a different faith is to put one’s own faith, so to speak, at risk. “Mission changes not only the world but also the church,” Newbigin wrote in “The Open Secret.” It was a risk Bishop Newbigin wanted Christians to take because a missionary church is an open church. And it’s a risk I can understand avoiding like the plague.
In our hostile and divided time, the last thing anyone wants to do is risk being converted — politically, socially, or religiously. To paraphrase a meme I saw years ago on Facebook, “I don’t call out people’s ignorance because I think they will change. I call out their ignorance for the sake of who’s watching.”
In other words, the time for dialogue is over. The time for confrontation has begun. Those who disagree (with my politics, my social vision, my beliefs) are irredeemably lost. The only thing left to do is attack. Perhaps I will change some bystander’s mind in the process.
Part of the reason we’re afraid to talk with each other today is we don’t want to risk being changed. People with whom we are already aligned are free to pull us further in directions we want to go, but people with a diametrically opposite viewpoint are anathema. We may say we are open to talking with them, but that just means we are open to being heard. Or it may mean we are open to lighthearted, meaningless small talk.
But while being heard by others does matter, and while not every conversation needs to be heavy, I believe our collective inability to listen — to be genuinely interested in those who aren’t like us, who don’t think like us — lies at the heart of our cultural pain.
As an evangelical Christian pastor, one of the most challenging and beneficial friendships I’ve developed is with Koshin Christopher Cain, director of the Puget Sound Zen Center here on Vashon.
Interfaith friendships are a challenge for people like me because my faith teaches there’s only one way to God (becoming a disciple of Jesus and being reconciled to God through him). From an evangelical perspective, interfaith dialogue tends to come in two forms — either we pretend we are all saying the same thing in different words (which we all know isn’t true), or we treat one another as objects for argument and conversion.
But to be friends with someone who simply sees the world not as I do is refreshing, even as it is challenging. In a culture obsessed with argument, subtext, and power, it’s refreshing to ask questions and listen, to openly admit commonalities and differences, all in the context of collegiality (we both lead religious communities) and friendship.
As Koshin has said about our culture today, “If we see things differently, we feel we shouldn’t get close to each other.” But I, for one, am glad he and I have risked being friends. Such a friendship has converted me in many ways, I’ll admit, even as I remain a loyal follower of Jesus. And our friendship, I think, has converted him a bit, too. Part of me has to wonder, as I look out on our divided and angry culture: if an evangelical pastor and a Zen Buddhist teacher can find friendship, maybe some of the rest of us can, too.
Mike Ivaska is the pastor of the evangelical congregation of Vashon Island Community Church.