Monday, February 2, 2015

Mutually Beneficial Interrogators: An Approach to Interfaith Friendships

My favorite radio format: What's In It For Me?
(Trigger Warning: Elements of this blog post make me want to take distinctly undiplomatic actions toward those perpetrating particularly egregious offenses against the human personhood of certain friends of mine. You may have a similar reaction toward those individuals—which I would recommend against acting upon—or a more serious reaction to the mere mention of their particular offenses. Please consider carefully whether you should read this post at this particular time.)

My friend, colleague, professor, mentor, and idol (depending as much upon my mood as the particular context), Paul Louis Metzger is associated with the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. The foundation recommends “approaching adherents of the respective faith traditions as ‘trustworthy rivals’ rather than as perfect, homogenous matches made in heaven.” (Dr. Metzger’s post on the topic is found here:

Pick one you don't recognize. Discover something about yourself.
At the end of his post, he asks, “Which would you rather be toward those of other faiths? A trustworthy rival, a mean-spirited and scheming enemy (like a former spouse), or a platonic and possibly even unscrupulous bedfellow? Can you think of other options?” My problem is that I cannot stop thinking about the options he presents. The imagery that comes to mind of “platonic bedfellows” is of those unscrupulous young men who complain about being relegated to “The Friend Zone,” as though their expectation of being kind, gentle men who treat women with egalitarian respect should be repaid for their friendship with some sort of benefits. The more recent encounters I have had with mean-spirited and scheming former spouses are seeking to resume abusive relationships, and violating restraining orders in hopes of whining, wheedling, cajoling, demanding, and threatening their way “back to normal.”

But of all the options Metzger suggests, the one that elicits the most repugnant memories is that of “a trustworthy rival.” I know that this is supposed to be “the right answer,” of course. But I don’t know why, any more than the intimidated Sunday Schooler who responded to her teacher’s badgering questions. “Come on, class, it’s not that hard a question. I live in a tree; I eat acorns; I have a bushy gray tail.” Her answer, “I know the answer’s supposed to be ‘Jesus,’ but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”

Unless, of course, you find someone to show you yours.
“A trustworthy rival?” Perhaps it’s my continued struggle with abandonment issues and the difficulty imagining that I should trust anyone with the authenticity, transparency, and vulnerability I try to live out in Christian integrity. But “trustworthy” doesn’t work for me. I don’t trust my fellow Christians. I make do with trusting Christ enough to compensate for putting myself at risk from what other Christians say and do. As for any rivals? In the context of poverty and scarcity, I want to know what it is we’re rivalling one another to obtain.

Rather than belabor my reactions further, I will say that there is great value in building friendships among those of differing religious and spiritual traditions. The advantage over Christian friendships is that followers of Jesus tend to believe that we all believe quite similarly, if not identically. In counseling, this is called “projection,” the assumption that others, especially where others fit our stereotypes and prejudices about ourselves, will believe and behave as we do.

Know friends, know yourself.
I would call the relationship between me and non-Christians friends one of “mutually-beneficial interrogators.” In the chart I remember from Psych 101 texts, what I know about myself extends beyond what others would know of me by observation. Likewise, though, what others know about me extends beyond what I would know of myself as well. Perfect strangers may ask of each other, “Why do you believe or behave as you do?” But where we develop friendships with those who refuse to assume that whatever they believe must also be our belief, the cumulative effects of such conversations reveal to them the answers to their questions, but may also reveal observations (and questions about them) of our beliefs and behaviors that would otherwise remain hidden from us.

So, when you see something about me that raises a question, please feel free to ask. Not only might your curiosity be gratified by my response, I may actually get to see something about myself that I would not have otherwise noticed! (For instance…my seething bitterness toward wife-beating rapists whose incestuous family members continue to fund their child-custody lawsuits…my overreaction to “mean-spirited and scheming ex-spouses” helped me realize where that comes from! Thanks, Paul.)

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