Interreligious Dialogue, Effective and Ineffective

Interreligious Dialogue, Effective and Ineffective May 12, 2021


An ad for "Witnesses"
My wife took this photograph with her iPhone at the corner of State Street and University Parkway in Utah County earlier this afternoon. From the passenger seat, of course.  The “Witnesses” ad migrates around the three sides of the display column.


Driving southbound on I-15 early this morning, I was pleased to see an advertisement for the Interpreter Foundation’s soon-to premiere theatrical film, Witnesses, on an electronic billboard.  And just a few hours ago, I saw the same advertisement on an electronic billboard at the corner of University Parkway and State Street — in other words, at the southwest corner of University Mall — in Orem.  Good grief.  It looks as if this thing could really happen.


If you want it to happen in a theater in your community, please (if you haven’t already done so) go to the Witnesses film website and request it to come.  Don’t assume that you live too far out of the “Mormon corridor” for that to be possible.  The film is already slated to be shown on a few screens in five states beyond Utah and Idaho; there’s nothing written in stone that should, necessarily, prevent it from going still further.




Along with some reading on the nighttime flights, I watched several movies en route to and from Maui.  (When I’m really tired but can’t sleep, movies help to pass the time; I get in some of my best viewing on long flights.)  I’ll offer brief notes on three of the films that I watched:  (1) I’m afraid that I heartily disliked The Personal History of David Copperfield.  I’m sorry about that, since the cast is quite good and since it has received pretty positive reviews from critics and even from its (small) audience.  But there you have it.  The movie has some charm and some wit.  And, of course, it’s connected (sort of) with Charles Dickens.  There’s that.  So I’m glad that I watched it, but I won’t watch it again.  (2)  I very much liked News of the World.  As usual, Tom Hanks was very good.  But I was surprised at how affecting young Helena Zengel was, especially given how few words she spoke (most of them not even in English).  (3)  I don’t know that it would be appropriate to “like” the 1951 film version (or any version) of Tennessee Williams’s 1947 Pulitzer Prize winning play, A Streetcar Named Desire.  I hadn’t actually seen it for at least a couple of decades.  But it’s still shatteringly powerful after all these years.  Vivien Leigh is remarkable as Blanche; Marlon Brando is disturbingly thuggish and repugnant as Stanley Kowalski.  And I’ve been a fan and an admirer of Elia Kazan since I first began to pay real attention to his work shortly after my mission, as the result of a brief undergraduate evening course that I took on classic American cinema.  I suppose that the most famous line from the film is Blanche’s “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  My favorite, though, also spoken by Blanche (but, this time, to Stanley), is this one:  “Deliberate cruelty is unforgivable, and the one thing of which I have never, ever, been guilty.”  (I don’t think that I ever have, either.)  Stanley Kowalski, of course, is the absolute poster boy for deliberate cruelty.




I’m also very pleased to see these two items on the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:


“Latter-day Saints Express Respect for Muslim Devotion during Ramadan”


“Church sends Eid Al Fitr Greetings to Muslims around the World: Video message expresses gratitude for example and devotion”




I’ve recently beccome aware of a new Utah-based organization called the Baskerville Institute, which has been cooperating with the Utah-based Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.  The two organizations are led, respectively, by my friend Dr. Bahman Baktiari and my friend Dr. Charles Randall Paul.


I’ve been involved with the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy for a long time.  Why?  Because I like its approach very much.  The goal is to create friendship and greater understanding between different religious viewpoints, including atheism, and referring to differences within religious traditions as well as between them.  The aim is not ecumenical agreement, though (of course) we don’t object to such agreement.  On the whole, the realistic objective is to further civil and even friendly disagreement.  Resptful contestation.  As Randy Paul rather cheekily puts it, we want religious adversaries to say to each other “You’re going to Hell, but I feel really bad about that.”


In order to further this objective, FRD seeks to involve people for interaction who are deeply committed to their respective religious faiths and who would very much like to see others embrace their religious faiths.  In my experience, this is both quite distinct from the approach usually connected with ecumenism or ecumenicism and also quite a bit more useful.  I’ve been involved in ecumenical gatherings on several continents over the course of my long and  lamentable life, and I’ve too often seen dialogues between very liberal, even peripheral, members of religious communities — people who have no real constituency in their own traditions and who, therefore, neither represent their people nor carry people with them.  (Within my own Latter-day Saint community, I recall very clearly a prominent (and, so far as I know, “active”)  left-leaning academic who comfortably declared in my hearing that he felt that he had much more in common with fellow liberals in other religious traditions than with conservative members of his/our own.  Frankly, I still find that statement rather shocking, and highly disappointing.)  In particular, I remember a Muslim/Christian/Jewish “trialogue” in Jerusalem years back during which I felt obliged at several points to come to the defense –against ordained Catholic clergy — of the then-pontiff John Paul II.  One of the Muslim members of the group later joked to me that, if we ever did such a “trialogue” again, it would be nice to involve some actual Christian believers.  At the end, I proposed that, for a future gathering, we should invite some intelligent, committed Evangelicals.  “There are no ‘intelligent Evangelicals,'” one of the priests responded with a dismissive snort.


During the previous year’s “trialogue,” which convened in Graz, Austria, one of the ostensible Christians in our small group (nine each representing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) — a prominent theologian, now deceased, from Harvard Divinity School — had delivered a public evening lecture for a predominantly Muslim audience.  His remarks were designed to build bridges with the Muslims, and the technique that he employed was basically to deny Christian belief.  His remarks came across as atheistic — which I don’t think was terribly misleading.  I was astonished that the naïve organizer of our trialogue group somehow imagined that those Muslims would enjoy the Harvard professor’s entirely characteristic and entirely predictable approach and that they would find it appealing.  They didn’t.  Quite the contrary, they were noticeably upset.  To deny the truth of fundamental Christian beliefs is, effectively, to deny the truth of central Islamic doctrines, too.


It scarcely needs saying that FRD’s approach is fundamentally and dramatically different from that kind of “ecumenism.”



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