On the Importance of Love for Ecumenical Dialogue

…and for Christians who live in a society with people who don’t agree with them.

In The Problem of Religion in Inter-Religious Dialogue, Debra Dean Murphy writes:

Loving my conversation partners—seeking their good, willing their happiness, bearing with them, desiring their companionship—this is the hazardous business of building relationships, of forging connections across doctrinal divides.

I’ve seen the truth of this when attending presentations by the staff of the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies, or watching interactions among the faculty at my school, or noting the relationships among longtime members of the North American Academy of Ecumenists. The genuine affection among persons who are not only colleagues, but friends, is apparent, and explicitly honored as a necessary component of fruitful dialogue.

And I’ve experienced the truth of it as well in less-formal dialogues of my own: the most rewarding, illuminating, and enjoyable conversations I have with non-Christians and non-Catholics are those that occur within the context of friendship. That friendship creates a space within which it’s okay to voice a difference of opinion, and okay to hear one, too. If you trust your conversation partners not to attack you, then you can spend more time and energy actually considering what they say than if you always have to be prepared to defend yourself. If you’re relaxed enough to be playful around differences of opinion, belief, and worldview, then you’re also relaxed enough to creatively explore your own positions, as well as those of your interlocutors.

Emmanuella wasn’t thinking about formal ecumenical dialogues with atheists and agnostics, but her “message to all Christians” makes the same point from another angle:

(H/t to Dover Beach for the video.)

I don’t know what music she has playing in that video, but the soundtrack I was hearing was 1 Corinthians 13.

Love isn’t all you need, but you do need it. If we speak with the tongues of apologists or of angels, but have not love, we are merely noisy gongs, clanging cymbals.

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5 Responses to On the Importance of Love for Ecumenical Dialogue

  1. JeseC says:

    I think the emphasis on friendship could be interesting. The danger of the concept of love is that many people don’t fully understand it, or think that actions are “loving” when they are not. An easy example of this is some of the more fundamentalist views on discipline. Views on corporal punishment aside, the insidiousness of these views is that they teach that a loving parent *has* to break their child’s will – to do otherwise was to condemn your children to a godless, undisciplined life. There are enough media stories and essays out there of the deaths resulting from this mentality.

    I think many other conceptions are similar. The people I grew up with believed that since all “non-believers” were going to hell, the only loving thing to do was to pressure them as strongly as possible into getting saved. People who were willing to just be friends with unbelievers were the ones who were not loving them, since they were trading temporal comfort for eternal security.

    We need a more robust conception of love here, apparently. I doubt that friendship can be made to work if it is intended only as a tool to convert someone. I can’t help but wonder if there is an aspect here that we are missing…

    • Hi JeseC,

      Thanks for your comment, and for sharing your experience.

      I think the fundamentalist views on discipline and childraising are essentially about their theological anthropology (ie, what they believe about human nature), so I’d categorize that as a somewhat different issue. Likewise, parent-child relations are essentially different from adult-adult relations, so I will focus on the latter.

      I see the basic point you make, though, that many people believe that friends don’t let friends burn in hell forever. My first response is that “friendship that is intended only as a tool” for anything isn’t actually friendship. Debra Dean Murphy identifies some actual elements of friendship in the snippet I quoted, to which I would add “respect for their choices, freedom, and moral agency”.

      Likewise, I think we can build on Emmanuella’s approach of looking at what Jesus did and acting that way. If God loves non-believers and yet does not “pressure them as strongly as possible to [get] saved” — because “as strongly as possible” for God would be impossible to resist, right? — then why should we?

      And anyway, I wonder about the soteriology behind that attitude. Isn’t salvation an act of God, not of humans? Isn’t faith a gift of God?

      Brant Clements also makes some good points that directly address the issue you raise in his post on Love and Conversion.

  2. thewaterisfine says:

    “Relationship” evangelism is one of the most odious things I have experienced coming out of fundamentalist Christianity. I love where you say “that “friendship that is intended only as a tool” for anything isn’t actually friendship”. I have tried to explain to my family and former friends the offense that this causes (not to mention the offense inherent in them trying to convert me simply because I go to the wrong Christian church!). Real and meaningful relationships take place, not because two people agree on everything, but because two people are willing to mutually love, respect and listen to each other. Great post.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences on this topic, though I’m sorry you’ve had them. Do you think your family & friends will eventually get it? And do you have any insight into what it is that makes them think this is OK? I ask because this is such a no-brainer to me, I honestly cannot conceive of how one could possibly think it’s acceptable/Christian/loving to make nice with somebody purely to try to get them to change what they believe about God. To me that looks both unethical and unbiblical.

  3. Here’s a nice article that touches on the perils of “relationship evangelism” : On Being a Friend, Not a Salesperson.

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