Years ago I read a journal article by Terry Muck where one of the ways he defined interreligious dialogue was as an attitude, emotion or way of life toward others. I've been trying to unpack that ever since.My major thesis in evangelical multi-faith engagement is that we have tended to overlook the significance of the emotions in our understanding of and relation to others. Orthodoxy has received the bulk of our concern, particularly in multi-faith dialogues, but the emotions, and the role they play in shaping our understanding of ourselves, our faith, and those we are in conversation with, have been largely ignored.
I recently came across an academic article that echoed many of my sentiments. Last week my colleague in the evangelical study of the theological significance of the emotions, Brandon Benziger, whom I have interviewed here previously, made me aware of an article. It is by Sturla J. Stålsett, a Norwegian theologian and priest, titled "From Dia-logos to Dia-pathos? Politics, Emotions, and Interreligious Dialogue," published in Studies in Interreligious Dialogue. I found myself agreeing with much of what Stålsett sets forth.
As his essay begins, Stålsett argues that "the field of interreligious studies and the practice of engaging in such dialogue should benefit from a more thorough and explicit focus on emotion. It should take into more critical and systematic consideration the ways in which emotion informs, shapes, and transforms religious faith and practice..." A little later he says, "To better understand the inner dynamics of human conflict and foster the motivational drive to extend the hand of friendship to nations, groups, or peoples perceived at times to be opponents or even enemies, the emotional dimension must be taken more explicitly into account." I couldn't have said it better myself, or agreed more.
About midway through the essay, Stålsett describes what he calls "dia-pathos," related to a key but missing concept in interreligious dialogue, that of empathy. In contrast with the common work of "dia-logos," defined by Stålsett as "the effort of clarifying differences, removing misconceptions, and gaining increased mutual understanding 'through' ('dia') 'word' or 'reasoning' ('logos')," Stålsett suggests that we need to consider "dia-pathos": "'Dia-pathos' would mean the effort of growing in fellowship and mutual respect through learning to know the (religious) sentiments of the other." In order to do that we have to wrestle with various questions. One of which, according to Stålsett is trying to determine what the "emotional map" is "in a particular religious tradition or confession".
In a multi-faith exchange of religious emotions Stålsett says that a kind of "emotion-focused therapy" could be at work. While not completely applicable in multi-faith contexts as it is in psychological therapy," nevertheless by utilizing such an approach, "Such dialogue could be not only an exchange of deeply held religious convictions or dogma, but also a sharing of anger, fears, and hopes across faiths." This would allow for another kind of mutual understanding altogether beyond more traditional forms of dialogue, and it would help foster empathy in the process.
I believe that Stålsett is on the right track, but I would argue that it needs to go beyond multi-faith dialogue, those public conversations where religious scholars and "experts" engage in conversations that they hope will inform and inspire their audiences. While this has its place, I believe that we need to move beyond public conversations to ongoing private relationships across religious traditions in our neighborhoods. In this way, to quote my friend and colleague Paul Louis Metzger of Multnomah, our theologies of multi-faith engagement move beyond the lab to the neighborhoods where they are so desperately needed and where the real testing takes place. Conceived of in this way I would modify Stålsett's idea to say that we need to shift from dia-logos not only to dia-pathos, but also to compassionate lifeways with our multi-faith neighbors, practicing empathy as an essential part of what it means to be a disciple of Christ in a multi-faith world. In this way we emulate the ways of Jesus who "when he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them" (Matthew 9:36).
Of course, there are great challenges to evangelicals in this. First, we have tended to practice dia-logos with its emphasis on reasoning. I do not suggest that we abandon our reasoning in multi-faith encounters, but can we make sufficient room for dia-pathos, so much so that dia-pathos leads the way in partnership with dia-logos? In order to do so we would have to tread on ground unfamiliar and unsettling. Second, Stålsett says we must determine various "emotional maps." Do we understand our evangelical map sufficiently before even trying to grapple with the map of our multi-faith relationship partners? My research in a theology of emotions and social psychology leads me to believe we have a great way to go in this form of self-understanding. Third and finally, can we be vulnerable and trusting enough with those in other religious traditions so as to participate in "a sharing of anger, fears, and hopes across faiths"? Dia-logos can serve as a tool of confidence as we go into conversations of doctrine, but dia-pathos would require a different kind of confidence, one of strength through vulnerability (2 Corinthians 12:10).
In my view Stålsett's thesis is correct. We need more consideration and exploration of the emotions in multi-faith engagement. I hope we can see more evangelicals pursue dia-pathos, compassionate lifeways of discipleship as they rub shoulders with those in other religions.