The Intra-faith Conversation: In Memory of Elsie

Elsie LearyI’m launching this new blog as a way to begin an intrafaith conversation (yes, I said intrafaith, spellcheck).  For over 10 years now, I have been convinced of the necessity of taking seriously the questions that arise from our interfaith encounters.

One of the defining moments that launched me on this  quest was a conversation with Elsie, a member of the congregation I was serving at the time.

In the days after 9/11, our adult forum wanted to study the world’s religions and they decided on Hinduism as their first venture into an interfaith encounter. In light of the fact that we would be looking at another tradition solely through our own lenses, I asked the group if they would be open to inviting a Hindu guest to one of our sessions, someone who was willing to share her story as well as answer any questions. Their answer was an enthusiastic “yes” and I invited a Hindu woman who was active in interfaith activities to come to our next meeting. The visit went well. The Christian participants were welcoming and respectful. They asked insightful questions.

However, after the session one of the participants, Elsie, asked if she could stay and talk about something that was bothering her. She began by saying how much she was enjoying the study. She had appreciated meeting our guest and hearing her personal story. But she had a big concern. If she accepted the Hindu path as equal to Christianity, she said, “I’m worried that I’m betraying Jesus.”

Elsie had presented me with both a pastoral and a theological quandry. And so my venture into the intrafaith conversation began. It led to enrolling in the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley (part of the Graduate Theological Union) and getting a Doctor of Ministry degree in 2005. While my thesis is entitled Crossing Over and Coming Back: What Does It Mean to Be a Christian in an Interfaith World, I have always referred to my work as The Elsie Project. Elsie died in 2007 and when my book on this subject is published, it will be dedicated to her. I will always be grateful to her.

And so, I hope this might be a beginning to an ongoing discussion. To get us started, a few words about the difference between interfaith and intrafaith. The most concise explication I’ve found comes from GTU professor Judith Berling’s book Understanding Other Worlds: A Guide for Interreligious Education. While geared towards the academic setting, it’s also valuable for our purposes.

She describes the two poles of the interreligious learning process as:
1) understanding another religion faithfully (this is interfaith), and
2) reappropriating Christian tradition in light of new understandings and relationships (this is intrafaith).

John Dunne, in The Way of All the Earth, goes even deeper: “What seems to be occurring is a phenomenon we might call ‘passing over,’ passing from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another. Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion. (interfaith)

“It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back,’ coming back with new insight to one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion.” (intrafaith)

I am in complete agreement with Dunne’s assessment: “Passing over and coming back . . . is the spiritual adventure of our time.”

I hope that many of you will follow this blog and join in the adventure.




1 thought on “The Intra-faith Conversation: In Memory of Elsie

  1. Susan, thanks for starting this blog! I look forward to the conversation. I’m part of a volunteer group called the Saint Paul Interfaith Network (SPIN) in St. Paul, MN. We’ve done a couple things recently that are relevant.

    We invited six Christian clergy who had been involved in some of our activities to a three session dialogue/study group based on the book “Your God, My God, Our God: Rethinking Christian Theology for Religious Plurality,” by Wesley Ariarajah. Former director of interfaith dialogue at the World Council of Churches and professor of ecumenical theology at Drew University School of Theology, Ariarajah works through primary Christian doctrines and shows how each can be understood in a way that is faithful to the core of the tradition, and still non-exclusively appreciative of other traditions. He calls for a Jerusalem II movement, or coming together of Christian re-thinking of the symbols of belief, as dramatic as the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15, through which Christianity became relevant to the Gentile world. The book was well-received and the conversation stimulating. One pastor convened his own group of colleagues for another round of reading and dialogue. We hope to do more

    The second thing we’ve done is offering of presentations on “Being Christian in a Pluralistic World,” in which the case is made for active engagement and dialogue with people of different traditions, seeking understanding with respect, as opposed to the silence, avoidance, ignorance, stereotyping and judgment that often prevails. These, too, have been well-received. Many seem to be questioning and seeking an understanding of how we think about and relate to people of other religious traditions. I think we need to provide more opportunities and stimulus for such dialogue.
    Tom Duke, (ELCA pastor-Ret.), Program Coordinator, Saint Paul Interfaith Network (SPIN)


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