Contestation vs. contention

It wouldn't be hard to guess that the first chapter of a religious foundation based in Utah might be Mormon. It may be harder to anticipate that the next chapter will be Evangelical Christian and that Sunni Muslim, Shi'ite Muslim, Mahayana Buddhist, Orthodox Jewish and other chapters are in the works.

The Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy announced the formation of its Mormon Chapter and Brian D. Birch, director of Utah Valley University's religious studies program, as the chapter's director. In a press release, Birch said, "I'm delighted to be part of the foundation and to contribute to constructive interreligious dialogue."

Each chapter of the foundation, which began in 2001, is designed to be relatively independent. The goal is to have the chapters create dialogue — in person and in publications — to help deepen relationships between religions and to proclaim the truth of their own religious traditions.

"The chapters will have their own interests. Each religion has its own interests in why they would want to affiliate with us," said Dan Wotherspoon, the foundation's director of operations and communications.

But strong interests doesn't mean interreligious dialogue can't be civil.

"We believe dialogue is contestation without contention. Contestation is a word that means 'to witness with,' to share, in other words, your deepest beliefs ... contention, of course, means 'to twist or to turn or to pull' or to somehow coerce. Contention inevitably, as the Book of Mormon says, creates anger and is not of God," said Charles Randall Paul, president of the foundation. "Contestation is one of the deepest and most ethical forms of human communication in which you speak the truth from your heart and listen to the truth from another."

Why would a religious group want to engage in this level of dialogue?

Paul said it is because of two reasons. First, some public issue may have caused pain to the group. Misunderstandings about Islam, for example, have brought Shi'ite Muslims and Sunni Muslims to the dialogue table. The desire is for improved relations with other religious groups.

Second, religious groups want an opportunity to clearly and accurately proclaim their truth to people. There is still civility and respect, but there are no rules against arguing for the rightness and truth of their own claims. The type of dialogue promoted by the foundation allows this, according to Paul.

"Imagine the Pope inviting President Monson to sit down in dialogue, or vice-versa, in a private discussion of their deepest beliefs. Ethically, they would both feel compelled to speak and proclaim the truth as they see it," Paul said.

"Evangelical Christians rarely participate in interreligious discussions because of these restrictions against being able to declare their truth claims. We are allowing them to have a reason for fully engaging again," Wotherspoon said. The Evangelical Christian chapter may be ready to launch at the end of summer. This chapter is under the directorship of Terry C. Muck, a member of the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy's board of directors, dean of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelization, and professor of Missions and World Religions at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.

With one chapter formed and several others in process there is still a lot of work ahead.

"There are many who are not at the table today. We acknowledge that we do not speak for everyone in our group," said Paul. This is a statement made at the beginning of each dialogue.

"We have big plans," said Wotherspoon.

Those plans are international in scope. Dialogues have been held or are planned in other countries. There are educational plans to help train diplomats — chronic compromisers — in how to work with the noncompromising aspects of various religious groups. Many publications are planned, as are videos.

The Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy's website, has videos and information about their methodology. The Mormon Chapter has its own page on the site.

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The Mormon Chapter's board includes Daniel C. Peterson, James Faulconer, Robert Millet, J. Spencer Fluhman, Truman G. Madsen, Sterling Van Wagenen, Richard L. Bushman, Claudia Bushman, Jana Riess, Sylvia Cabus, J. Bonner Ritchie, Boyd Petersen, Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, John Kesler, Sharon Adams, James McLachlan, Jade Romney and Gerald T. Snow. The chapter's Web page says its members are "dedicated to peace-building through understanding and the respectful exchange of ideas."

"If you can imagine a high-quality Mormon missionary sitting down talking with a high-quality Sunni missionary. Or, a Catholic missionary sitting down and talking with a Buddhist missionary. That's the kind of dialogue we're having," Paul said, "where people are clearly interested in proclaiming the truth that they have. But the price of admission is that they will listen genuinely and sincerely to the other party proclaim to them as part of the dialogue."