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A Christian Theology of Dialogue

by Henry Neufeld

Not Ashamed“Why would you even consider publishing that book?” is one of the more common questions I’m asked as a Christian publisher. Well, that or questions very much like it. Behind these questions lies the idea that I should recognize a particular view of the faith and of ethical issues and then publish things that support this view. Often this hypothetical view is identified as the TRUTH.
There are a few excellent answers to this question. I can point out that I doubt my ability to fully identify absolute truth so as to limit my proclamation to only that which is absolutely true. And no, I don’t trust your ability to identify that absolute truth any more than I trust mine. Because I cannot ever be certain that I have found absolute truth, I believe that it is imperative that we never waver or lose heart in our search for it. The search does not mean that we never make decisions or that we cannot have clear ethical principles. What it does mean is that we have the confidence needed to open those principles to constant examination. Maturity is not a destination; it is a constant and repeated process of growth.
I can also quote verses such as Matthew 7:12, also known as the golden rule. This is often a good guide for behavior and it does apply to dialogue. When you have something to say, do you want other people to ignore it, dismiss it, or misrepresent it? No! You want them to listen. The golden rule suggests that you do the same thing for them.
But in reality, my view of dialogue as a Christian comes directly from my view of the incarnation. No, I don’t mean the detailed issues of just how the incarnation worked, or how one can properly describe the nature of Jesus as the Christ. Rather, I refer to the practical impact of the incarnation.
As I said in my book, Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic,

I’m sharing my experiences and my understanding of those experiences. I’d like you to come alongside and try to understand me and dialogue with me through the words of this book. But I view this sharing much as I view the way God shared with humanity through Jesus. He is infinite, or something so close to that we can’t tell the difference, and we are finite. In Jesus God crossed that gap—by definition as wide a gap as is possible—and asked us to share with him. I’m speaking across a much narrower gap, infinitely narrower, and I’m asking you to share with me. God is not the God of the gaps—the one who fills in the spaces where we don’t understand. He is the God who crosses gaps, and invites us to cross them with him and for him.

Everything is from God, who was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, and who has given us the task of reconciliation.2 Corinthians 5:18 (pp. v-vi)

In the incarnation God certainly reached out to us to speak to us, but God also heard from us. Jesus lived as one of us, learned as one of us, and experienced life and death as we do. I believe that picturing this as a one-way street does not live up to all the scriptures that we have nor do they live up to spiritual experience. God joined in our experiences.
If we are to live with integrity as followers of this Jesus, we cannot cut off communication, which is a key way in which we can continue to test our understanding of the truth and to improve our understanding of it. In a very real way this is how we can become more God-like.
Again let me quote what I said in Not Ashamed of the Gospel:

Lonely Christianity is not an option. I don’t mean routine church services each week with formal greetings in the few minutes provided by the order of service. I’m suggesting long term, deep relationships with people you care about and who care about you. I mean seeking relationships where you don’t have them. I mean seeking relationships without an ulterior motive. Don’t go out making relationships in the hopes that the person will go to church with you and become a Christian. Seek relationships because you care, and because you enjoy that God-like activity. You are never more God-like than when you open your heart’s door to another person. The more different they are, the more God-like that action is. (p. 32)

I say this as a person who is an introvert, someone who does not find it easy to build relationships. I prefer a small number of close connections, but often find myself engaged in many. This is what I mean by gap-crossing.
So what subjects are out of bounds? I would suggest that when we can no longer discuss a subject, when it is no longer subject to examination, we have cut off an important avenue for growth. This should be even more true of subjects on which we are near absolute certainty.
God was not put off by the distance between heaven and earth in the incarnation. God communicated with us through the Son. We must never be put off by the much smaller distance between us and one another. Can our fellow human beings possibly seem as distant from us as we have seemed from God?
This has become the foundation of my view of publishing and of Christian education. There are two aspects tied together. First, an ever more open communication with God through prayer, study, and spiritual disciplines. (And by study I mean much more, but never less than Bible study; everything in the universe in some way reflects the God who created it.) But second, a constant effort to better understand one another, which in turn feeds back into the first.
Is there ever a conclusion? For the individual, yes. Not a conclusion to communication, but rather we do come to an understanding of God’s will for us that we can live with. We will certainly form fellowships and organizations to support particular ideas. These may be selective and include people who support a common goal. But that doesn’t mean that those groups need to cut off those of other views from communication. I work to facilitate that communication and that continuous growth, as by beholding we become changed.
One might even call this the operation of the two laws: Love for God and love for one another. And that, after all, is what is to characterize believers. It seems to me that the same thing is what grows believers as well.

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  1. Although I love the snippet I chose for the “point to ponder,” another truly important paragraph should not be overlooked:
    “God was not put off by the distance between heaven and earth in the incarnation. God communicated with us through the Son. We must never be put off by the much smaller distance between us and one another. Can our fellow human beings possibly seem as distant from us as we have seemed from God?”
    Through the incarnation, God bridged the gap between the human and the divine. If God can draw so intimately close to “those not like God’s self,” what could possibly keep us from doing the same with our “others”? When we do, we find that the differences diminish into near nothingness, and those that remain can be celebrated as a distinctive contribution to the magnificence of humanity. This should not come as a surprise to Christians who understand that all people are created in the image of God. Not just “us.”

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