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Though poles apart, peaceful coexistence and dialogue possible


Christians have been divided into hostile factions since the first generation of the church. Contrary to the myth that there was once a perfect consensus on Christian teachings, from which “heretics” later deviated and created schisms, there has always been a diversity in the interpretations of the Christian faith. In the past this resulted in divisions into separate churches or sects, in which the less powerful group was driven out of existence by persecution or else divided churches continued as separate groups, preserving their distinct historical perspectives, theologies and polities.

In recent decades there has emerged a new form of division among Christians. Rather than separating into different churches, much of the division among Christians has taken the form of polarization between factions within the same historic churches. Instead of each church being relatively coherent in its views of theology and polity, defined against other churches with different views, there develops an ecumenical similarity between the progressive wing of many of the historically divided churches, but this progressive wing is deeply divided from the conservative and fundamentalists of their own historical church.

Progressive Catholics find they have more in common with progressive Protestants and vice versa than with the right wing of their own churches. The right wing of the different churches are less likely to be in ecumenical consensus with each other, but sometimes make tactical alliances against progressive Christians of their own churches on social issues, such as homosexuality, abortion and women’s ordination.

Dialogue between separated factions within the same historic churches has proved very difficult. Some who have tried to engage in dialogue have concluded that these separate factions hold such different presuppositions that dialogue is impossible.

One such effort to dialogue between progressive feminist Catholicism and right-wing Catholicism was undertaken by Mary Jo Weaver, professor of religious studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. She engaged in a several-year process of discussion with leaders of the Catholic right, which was published in the book she and Scott Appleby edited, Being Right: Conservative American Catholics (Indiana University Press). Weaver subsequently edited a parallel book on liberal American Catholics, called What’s Left? (Indiana University Press).

Weaver went into the process of discussion and book editing with the hope that some consensus or at least improved understanding between conservative Catholics and progressives such as herself would ensue. She came out of the dialogue convinced that this was impossible. Her presuppositions and those of the Catholic right were incompatible. Weaver reported on this process and her conclusions in a lecture given April 15, 1996 at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif., called “What’s Wrong with Being Right?”

Weaver is not the only person to come to the conclusion that dialogue is impossible between polarized factions within their historical churches. Dr. Linda Thomas, African-American womanist theologian and a United Methodist minister, was part of a process of dialogue between right-wing and progressive Methodists a few years ago. In her report on those meetings to our faculty at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, a Methodist-related seminary, she expressed the conclusion of the liberals that dialogue with the conservatives was impossible, even though they had gone into the dialogue expecting to come out with better understandings of each other.

Rather, the more the two sides dialogued, the more they realized that their differences were irreconcilable. For example, those who assume that the Bible is divinely inspired and those who see the Bible as a historical collection of writings that point to inspired insights, but don’t contain it in a final and unchangeable form, simply do not have the same starting point for discussion.

For many years I have been a part of interreligious dialogues, between Christians and Jews, Christians and Muslims and Christians and Buddhists. Certain ground rules have evolved that help make dialogue possible. Each side must give up the assumption that they are out to convert the other side to their faith, that they alone have the true faith and the others are heretics, idolaters or demon-worshippers. Each starts with an attitude of mutual respect for each other’s faith. They assume that there is some truth in both religious perspectives and both are partial and historically constructed, although pointing to deep truths. Each can learn from the other, both to more deeply appreciate the other’s faith, and also to better understand their own faith. These presuppositions make dialogue possible.

I would suggest that the same presuppositions that make dialogue possible between religions are also necessary for dialogue between Christians, even Christians in the same denominations. Dialogue is impossible if some Catholics start with the assumption that those of the other side are stupid, perverse or evil, and that your group alone has the fullness of the truth, that the goal is to make the other side either submit to your fullness of truth or get out of the church.

Such presuppositions, unfortunately, are exactly the presuppositions of right-wing Catholics and Protestants with regard to the liberals of their churches. It is these presuppositions that make dialogue impossible.

What is to be done? I believe it is essential that neither side gain the power to drive out or silence the other side. Each must continue to coexist within their churches, even if it means constructing distinct media of communication, educational institutions and networks to maintain one’s own existence. We must continue to clarify not simply the surface points of difference, but the difference of presuppositions. These will not lead easily to a new consensus, but rather to a clarification of the depths of the differences. But both sides must continue to exist and to try to communicate. Perhaps eventually a new synthesis will arise. Perhaps it won’t. But neither group should be allowed to destroy the other.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002