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A popular belief among today’s gentle partisans of inter-religious dialogue is that sharing of individual journeys succeeds where other approaches fail.  If only this were the case. Except that our beliefs shape our reaction to the experiences of others.

The sharing of individual journeys sounds promising, at first glance. What counts as success? —More humane views.  What counts as failure? —Arguing about beliefs. At the core of this approach is the assumption that talking about beliefs leads to arguing about beliefs, impasse, raised voices, bruised feelings, and, for all of these reasons, it is worse than a waste of time.

Hence the impetus to find other ways to “do” inter-religious dialogue.

One partisan of the sharing-of-life-journey approach to inter-religious dialogue is the Reverend Peter Laarman.  In Laarman’s view, if I say yes-there-is-a-God and you say no-there-is-no-God, we should avoid talking about why I don’t believe in God and why you believe in God.  Instead, we should talk about how we came to hold these views.  This kind of exchange, for Laarman, would give us the best shot at finding common ground.  It might even change our hearts and minds.  At the very least, it can lead to greater empathy.

Except that gentle and admirable folks like Laarman who recommend sharing-our-journeys as a way to make headway in inter-religious conversation are not taking into account how our beliefs influence our interpretation of experience.  In other words, our reaction to someone’s life journey is largely determined by the beliefs we already hold.

Here are a couple of scenarios illustrating the role of beliefs:  if I believe that God gives men dominion over women, then I will react differently to the life story of a woman whose nose was cut off because she shamed her husband than I would react if I believed that, to God, women and men are equally precious.  If I consider homosexual sex a sin and believe that God banishes homosexuals from his Kingdom, I am likely to react differently to the life story of a gay man whose family shunned him after he moved in with his boyfriend than I would if I believed that God loves all of God’s children, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Still unconvinced that our beliefs influence our interpretation of other people’s experiences?  Let’s take a look at what Laarman wrote in a recent article in Religion Dispatches:

We can see how ineffective our argumentation is by looking at the interminable debate over whether to welcome LGBT persons as full and equal members of congregations—not to mention as ordainable leaders, marriageable people, and members of normal families.  

Every poll and every wise observer points out that gay-affirming folks have not been winning on account of superior arguments, whether arguments from the Bible or theology or science. They aren’t winning on account of their superior debating skills. They’re winning by being present and visible in faith communities: by coming out in ways that clergy and congregations can’t ignore. Gay people are winning because straight people who love and respect them are coming out right along with them.  

The classic instance is the faithful older church woman—a devoted and beloved member of the community—who, at just the right moment in a congregational meeting, stands up and says, “Well, friends, I guess we can argue about all of this until the cows come home. All I know is that ________, my ________, is as dear a child of God as I will ever hope to be.” She then goes on to tell the story of she found out about ________, how they stayed close, and how her heart was changed. Bingo. Are we ready for the vote? 

Sure, those of us who welcome GLBT persons as full and equal members of our congregations would like to believe that sharing-our-life-journeys could change neah votes to yeah votes at a congregational meeting.  But it’s not that simple.  Only in a GLBT-friendly, progressive congregation would the outcome that Laarman describes be a likely one.  Members who believe homosexuality is wrong (for any number of any reasons) will not be swayed by our church lady’s experience with her ____________.

Let’s take a closer look at Laarman’s account of the faithful older woman.  Let’s suppose that another faithful older church woman—also a devoted and beloved member of the community, had said the following at the congregational meeting: “Well, friends, I guess we can argue about all of this until the cows come home.  But I know is that ____________, my ____________, is no longer a dear child of God, because the day he chose to take up with that boyfriend of his, he said his goodbyes to God.”  Then our beloved church member tells the story of how she found out about ___________, how he’d had a good head on his shoulder until his boyfriend came along and led him astray and how heartbroken she was and his parents too.  If God was against these shenanigans—and clearly God was, because sex between men was unnatural—well then, the congregation would be wrong to smile upon what God forbade.  Besides, does this congregation really want to send people like ___________ and his boyfriend the message that what they were doing was okay?  Bingo(?).  Are we ready for the vote?  Not on your life.

Our beliefs are the lenses through which we view the world.  The telling of a personal story will either reinforce what we already believe (because it aligns with our beliefs) or we will discount it because it doesn’t fit what we already deem to be true.

Until our lenses change colors, our views remain the same.  Fortunately, minds, like lenses, can be changed.

No doubt, though, on some issues we’ll have to be inflexible.  Should we give any credence to the belief that homosexuality is wrong in the eyes of God?  No way, Jose.  We don’t BELIEVE it.  In our mind of minds we get it that GLBT persons are full and equal human beings.  God, we believe, doesn’t give a fig leaf whether men are doing it with men or women are doing it with women.  So there.  Beliefs matter.

About such issues we can talk about our life journeys until we’re blue in the face.  The two beloved church members described above, one in favor of welcoming GLBTs into her church and the other against, have about as much chance of finding common ground as Barak Obama and Mitt Romney.

Although we may admire the Peter Laarmans of the world and find them praiseworthy, some issues call on us quite simply to declare:  “Here I stand.  From here I will not budge.”

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