Interfaith Dialogue as a Struggle for Identity
I think I got my first hint of why an argument can be a good thing at age 20 -- halfway into my two-year service as a missionary in southern Japan. Missionaries tended to get a lot of cold looks from other Westerners visiting Japan. Some of them even went so far as to scold us -- "why can't you just leave these people alone?"
I didn't have much of an answer to the reprimands. But I also couldn't help noticing that struggling against Japanese culture on a daily basis, and using the language for more than just finding the restroom and going shopping, had given me knowledge of the country far superior to most of the European tourists I encountered. In some ways, we know our opponents far better than we know our casual acquaintances. This isn't to say that we didn't try to be polite and respectful about it. But I learned that you sometimes learn far more about someone else from sincere confrontation than from pointedly ignoring each other and calling it "tolerance."
So the initial conclusion I drew from my mission was that sincere confrontation was the best way to learn about other people and systems of belief. This conclusion stayed with me throughout college, and into my first forays into the world of online religious debate. Online, I found the perfect forum to confront other ideas and provide as the apostle Paul put it "reasons for my faith." I thought I was doing it for the sheer knowledge of other faiths I was gaining.
But as I continued over the next couple of years, I had to admit to myself that this was only part of it. I believe that people engage in interfaith dialogue from a few different motives. The first motive -- "declaration" -- means talking to others purely to tell them what you think. In part, missionary work is premised on this motive. The missionary declares the message and you either agree with it, or not, but it's not a question of the missionary learning from you -- that's not his or her job.
I was encouraged to follow the "declaration" model while on my mission. But honestly, I never really warmed up to it. I feed off the ideas of others, and you can't do that when you don't allow room for other voices. I found that I did my best thinking when other voices were being heard.
This might suggest that I was more motivated by what I'll call "inquiry" -- the pure pursuit of knowledge. We all like to think of ourselves as open-minded people. But very few of us are truly so, and I'm no exception. I discovered this through debating repeatedly with those of other faiths -- my primary concern in learning from religions like Evangelicalism, or Greek Orthodoxy, or Judaism, was not in finding out how they felt about their beliefs, but rather, how I could benefit from those beliefs in my own religious life. The point was driven home hardest during one particularly tough theological debate. Despite the difficulty I was having defending my own religious beliefs I found myself just as exhilarated as I was frustrated. All I could think about was how much stronger my own Mormon ideas would be after being so severely tested by the best arguments of another strong faith tradition. I wasn't enjoying what they believed. I was enjoying how it illuminated what I believed.
I had to face the uncomfortable facts. My dialogue with other religions was very self-centered and opportunistic. I felt like some sort of thief in a foreign king's treasury, pocketing gold and jewels to show back home. With the riches of Christian tradition before me, my only concern was whether they would look nice on Mormonism or not. Some pure seeker of truth I turned out to be.