Interfaith Dialogue – Define Your Terms!

I’ve come to the conclusion that interfaith dialogue could be greatly benefited by having the participants take a moment to define the religious terminology they use. Not doing so leaves a great deal of room for misunderstandings between those involved and risks simply reinforcing the assumptions already held by the parties involved.

I remember a conversation long ago when I was trying to explain to a person dear to me, who is Christian, what it meant for me to be a polytheist. I believe I started out with explaining that I believed in non-human, non-animal, intelligent beings that have far more influence upon the world than I have. I continued by expressing that I believed these beings to be gods. This belief made me a polytheist. I’m not exactly sure if I received more than a confused stare, but it was clear I wasn’t understood so I started again from another angle. Knowing my listener was a Catholic, I tried to use an example from the structure of that belief system to get across what I meant. I said that if one took the choir of angels and removed God from the picture, you would basically have my polytheistic belief. She paused and the asked, “Which of these ‘angels’ is the most powerful?” In response to my exasperated look she continued, “The most powerful of these ‘angels’ is God.” My reply was that there is no ‘most powerful’ amongst them. The question simply wasn’t appropriate to the perspective I was trying to explain. Still, for her, the question made perfect sense and, if it could be answered, would make my polytheism make sense to her (and monotheistic). I believe from there the conversation sorta sputtered out.

I realize now that we were starting from fundamentally different definitions of the term ‘god’.

Her usage of the term of ‘god’ involved, and was perhaps inseparable from, her understanding of the Christian God. For her a ‘god’ is:

  • A unique being
  • All knowing, all powerful, perfectly good/loving, (ya know the Big ‘3’)
  • Immortal, eternal and unchanging
  • The creator of everything
  • Always worthy of veneration (never an evildoer)

For me the term ‘god’ referred to :

  • A being belonging to a type or category of being
  • A being who is vastly powerful and knowledgeable but not omnipresent, all knowing or all powerful
  • May be long lived, perhaps immortal but not eternal (i.e. they may die or cease to exist)
  • Not necessarily benevolent or malevolent
  • May or may not be worthy of veneration

Sure, after laying these things out, it’s no surprise that there were issues which arose in the conversation. By not defining our terms we weren’t really discussing anything, we were simply talking at each other.

Now, I’m sure there are some that would look at this post and simply shake their heads thinking that I’m simply pointing out the obvious. But, am I really? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen potentially beneficial dialogues tank because one person was saying “I’m a witch” when describing herself as a Wiccan and the person across from heard heard “Hi! I’m a baby eating, Satan worshiper.”

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