What is an intrafaith conversation and how is it different from interfaith?
The simplest explanation is that the prefix matters. “Inter” means “between,” “among,” “together.” Therefore, interfaith is different religions being together. “Intra,” on the other hand, means “within, inside.” So, intrafaith is one religion looking within itself in light of its interfaith experience.
The conversation begins when we ask ourselves: what does it mean to be a Christian in our religiously diverse society? This is not merely an academic question. In my experiences in both congregational ministry and interfaith dialogue, I have come to appreciate the people “on the ground” who wrestle with the implications of openness to other religions and how this affects their own beliefs and practices.
The seeds of my desire to create a user-friendly process for interfaith and intrafaith engagement were planted in the days after 9/11, when many congregations wanted to learn about other religions. At North Park Lutheran Church in Buffalo, NY, where I was serving as pastor, our adult forum decided to begin a study of the world’s religions. 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. 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 I accept 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 quandary and I realized that she had raised an important theological issue for Christians today (and this book is dedicated to her). Her worry about “betraying Jesus” by meeting and respecting a person of another religion confronts us all with the question raised by Marjorie Suchoki in Divinity and Diversity: “How do Christians deal with this phenomenon?
“Our Christian past has traditionally taught us that there is only one way to God, and that is through Christ. But we are uneasy. Our neighborliness teaches us that these others are good and decent people, good neighbors, or loved family members! Surely God is with them as well as with us. Our hearts reach out, but our intellectual understanding draws back. We have been given little theological foundation for affirming these others – and consequently we wonder if our feelings of acceptance are perhaps against the will of God, who has uniquely revealed to us just what is required for salvation.”1
As pastors and lay leaders we are responsible to our congregations to provide the theological foundation for affirming “these others.” Rather than succumbing to what John Cobb calls “the danger that sensitive Christians will simply delete central beliefs rather than transform them,”2 I believe that we have some serious theological and Christological work to do in defining, or perhaps re-defining, ourselves in light of our interfaith milieu.
The good news is that there is a great deal being written and discussed at the academic level; books, essays and articles by theologians and biblical scholars abound. However, an exclusively academic approach will not suffice for a task that enters so deeply into the life and religious identity of all Christians. My intention in this book is to provide a practical approach as a parish pastor. To do this, I will 1) relate stories from my own evolving journey; 2) share accounts from people I’ve met in congregations, workshops, retreats and other circumstances; 3) ask questions to help you reflect on your own situation; and 4) offer resources that might help you in your own setting.
While I do not go into great theological detail, this book can easily be used in conjunction with more academic resources for those who want to explore in more depth.
My intended audience is intentionally broad: from lay members of congregations with little or no theological training to seminarians and clergy with extensive theological backgrounds, albeit not necessarily in this area. Some sections may seem more academic, others more practical. I hope that you will read with this in mind. If a difficult section engenders lively discussion, my goal has been accomplished.
Since my first struggling attempt to answer Elsie’s question, I have been following a quest to learn and grow in my own understanding of my faith in relationship to those with different beliefs and practices. After seventeen years of parish ministry, I left Western NY to pursue a Doctor of Ministry degree in interfaith studies at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. I also became actively involved with the Interfaith Center at the Presidio in San Francisco and served as interim executive director in 2011-12.
I have been blessed to serve congregations that love to explore matters of interfaith and intrafaith as much as I do. They have been willing partners in this quest and I am grateful for their willingness to stretch and grow.
I hope that you will find this book helpful. Many people who become involved in interfaith activities say that meeting and learning about other religious traditions transforms their rootedness in their own tradition and makes it stronger. This has certainly been true for me. I hope it will be so for you.
1 Suchocki, Marjorie, Divinity & Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003, 9.
2 Cobb, John, Lay Theology (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1994), 96.
Praise for The INTRAfaith Conversation
“I personally have been involved in interfaith work in the Bay Area for over 35 years and have never seen a book quite like The INTRAfaith Conversation. It addresses a very real issue with depth, humor, and pastoral sensitivity. I highly recommend it not only to pastors and other leaders in Christian churches, but to lay people who may be asking some of the same questions. Further, although it is specifically aimed at a Christian audience, it offers a model for how similar questions might be raised and wrestled with in non-Christian contexts as well.”
—The Rev. D. Andrew Kille
“This crisp and cogent book by the Rev. Dr. Strouse is published at a time when both interfaith and intrafaith dialogue are critical to the vitality of spiritual life in our nation. As a parish pastor in a small, struggling congregation I have become increasingly aware of the insularity and isolation of many of our parishioners. This seems less the result of inadequate parish education as it is the byproduct of too many people getting their information from biased TV networks, so-called social media or word-of-mouth. We parish pastors need to examine our internal (intra-congregational) conversations about diverse faith traditions and how they bear on congregational mission.”
—Richard G. Eddy
This book was written so that in this pluralistic world in which we now live, we, as Christians can better understand our own faith, and the issues involved with interfaith dialogue, so that we might be more comfortable being in conversation with our neighbors who are not Christian. While this book was written to the larger interfaith dialogue within the broader culture, I find the insights in this book to be very applicable in the clinical pastoral care setting in which I minister. I hope the saying is true that we are judged by the company we keep so by keeping company with this book I might be somewhat smarter than before I read this book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading The INTRAfaith Conversation. Susan’s writing style is engaging, easy, and conversational, yet theologically intelligent.
—The Rev. Barbara Peronteau, M.Div., Interfaith Chaplain Resident
About the Author
Susan M. Strouse is a native of Pottstown, PA (near Philadelphia) and a graduate of Antioch University/Philadelphia (B.A. in Human Services) and the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg (Master of Divinity) She has previously served congregations in Buffalo, NY and Novato, CA. She served at First United Lutheran Church in San Francisco from 2004 to 2017.
In 2005 she received a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. Her area of study and interest is interfaith theology, particularly working with congregations and clergy to explore the meaning of being a Christian in our religiously diverse world. She is a member of the board of directors of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio and served as Interim Executive Director in 2011-2012. You can follow her work here.