A small but extraordinary organization called the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy (fidweb.org) is headquartered here in Utah.
It isn't committed to ecumenical efforts, working toward some sort of negotiated merger of different religious movements, and not even merely to interfaith dialogue. Instead, it's designed to promote what its founder, Charles Randall Paul, calls "respectful contestation."
One of us (Daniel Peterson) has been involved, over the years, in numerous interfaith gatherings. Two memorable instances — not altogether positive — took place in Graz, Austria, in 1993, and in Jerusalem, Israel, in 1994.
They were billed as "trialogues" between Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The Jewish and Muslim participants were very impressive, but some of the Christians were, frankly, rather less so. It seemed that they believed little or nothing, and certainly little or nothing that was distinctively Christian.
Since they enthusiastically conceded just about anything when challenged, they were easily able to agree with their Jewish and Muslim partners. But the process seemed pointless. They represented nobody but themselves — in fact, a few of them actually seemed to regard the less "enlightened" adherents of their own traditions with contempt — and their concessions and agreements would manifestly carry no weight whatever with the communities they purportedly represented. (One or two of the Jewish and Muslim participants grew visibly frustrated with the talks as they went on, for precisely those reasons.)
One evening, a participant in the small, private, daytime discussions — he's now deceased but was then a very prominent theologian affiliated with Harvard Divinity School — gave a lecture on behalf of the group to the general public in Graz. Interestingly, the audience that attended was largely made up of local members of the Islamic community. Not trained theologians, imams or scholars, they were ordinary, mainstream, faithful Muslims.
This theologian had, it seemed, once been a believer himself, but it was difficult by that point to discern what kind of faith, if any, he still retained. He obviously intended his lecture as a peace offering or olive branch to the Muslims and Jews in his audience, whom he also evidently presumed to be offended by forthright Christian belief. Accordingly, he essentially abandoned and apologized for every distinctive tenet of Christianity.
If, though, he imagined that the Muslims in the hall would be won over by his preemptive surrender, he was badly mistaken. They weren't at all pleased. In fact, they were vocally upset with him. During the question-and-answer session that followed his remarks, he received several stern tongue-lashings from the Muslims, admonishing him on what they saw as his disrespect for revelation, for God and for Jesus.
It was, on the whole, a painful evening, though that shouldn't have been even slightly surprising. Faithful Muslims will never warm up to an essentially agnostic take on the other two Abrahamic religions.
As the lone Mormon participant in the meetings in Jerusalem, Peterson even felt obliged to defend the pope — John Paul II, at the time — on several occasions against attacks from two of the Catholic priests participating in the "trialogue." And when, at the conclusion of those meetings, Peterson suggested that it would be valuable, in the future, to include one or two academically sound conservative Protestants among the discussants — he wanted to say "actual Christian believers," but didn't — one of those priests guffawed at the proposal: "Intelligent Evangelicals?" he snorted. "That's like a square circle!"
The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, by contrast, proceeds on the assumption that what's really needed is to get the most committed members of various religious communities — including secularists and atheists — to converse respectfully with each other. Not as if or because their respective faith claims don't matter, but precisely because they do.
In an age where tolerance is sometimes depicted as the highest if not the only virtue, it's often claimed that religious believers are intolerant of members of other faiths. Paradoxically, however, only people who actually have sincere and firmly held beliefs regarding religion can be tolerant of the religious (or irreligious) beliefs of others. Indifference may masquerade as tolerance, but it's really quite different and inevitably lacks the power thereof.
Achieving genuine dialogue between committed believers is obviously more difficult than getting the most liberal members of the various communities to talk among themselves. But the results, if such discussions are successful in creating better mutual understanding and good will, are almost certain to be far, far more significant.