Theology and Dialogue

Image credit: Taking time to answer questions
by James Emery
License: CC BY 2.0

 by Rabbi Lewis John Eron, Ph.D.

Theology is talking about God, while Dialogue is talking with people. They are both significant expressions of human spirituality and both strive to put into language the deep sensitivities that have given rise to all our religious systems.  Yet, despite these similarities, they are radically different.  They begin in different places and end in different places, and yet, they complement each other.

At least within the framework of Western Religion, the great family of religious traditions with which I am most familiar, theology is the attempt to comprehend the word of the ultimately other one, God, as expressed in Scripture and in Creation.

Dialogue, however, tries to hear the words of other people who live in a world shaped by their understanding of Creation and Scripture. Theology strives, as it is so clearly expressed in medieval thought, to bring us to a mystical comprehension of the divine. Dialogue’s goal is to enable us to understand each other’s full humanity. 

Images from an interfaith dialogue on December 19, 2011 at Faisal Mosque’s International Islamic University. Image credit: U.S. Embassy Islamabad
License: CC BY-ND 2.0

The wider our dialogic circle grows the more comprehensive our theology becomes.

Rabbi Lewis John Eron

As different as they are, dialogue and theology need each other. On a basic level, dialogue sharpens theology and theology gives meaning to dialogue. Interreligious dialogue can only take place between people who are religious and can give voice to their religious experiences. 

Theology is the tool we use to organize and describe the breadth and depth of our spiritual lives. Yet, without dialogue, theology is a self-focused activity. The wider our dialogic circle grows the more comprehensive our theology becomes. As we talk to each other, we share who we are. When we share how our faith has shaped us, how we view the world through our spiritual traditions,

Interfaith Thanksgiving Dinner, Nov. 20, 2014
by U.S. Embassy Jerusalem.
License: CC BY-SA 2.0

how we hear the divine word spoken in scripture, in prayer, in ritual and in creation, we discover how our words about God, our theology, allow us to hear the words of others. As we listen to each other, we learn what our dialogue partners tell us, and it sculpts the way we discuss the divine.

The story of creation which opens the Book of Genesis establishes the dynamic tension between the God who speaks and the creatures gifted with a voice. The rest of our related but different scriptural traditions can be seen as a conversation on how to live within that relationship. If our talk focuses solely on the sovereign God who commands the world into being, we can easily miss the glorious variety in nature and diversity of humanity. Our need to defend our description of the divine, whether it be an inherited orthodoxy or our own idiosyncratic revelation, cuts us off from the full range of human responses to blessings and challenges in creation. If we center our attention primarily on our interchange with others without probing the values and commitments that impel our words and support our positions, we can easily grow deaf to the sacred voice behind creation. Theology without dialogue describes a world without people.  Interreligious dialogue without theology is chatter about a world missing the divine.  

Rabbi Lewis Eron, Ph.D. is the rabbi emeritus of Lions Gate CCRC in Voorhees, NJ.  He graduated the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1981 and received his doctorate from the Religion Department of Temple University in 1987. He has been involved in interfaith dialogue on the local, national and international levels.

Interested in reading more about dialogue, interfaith dialogue and the possibilities it creates for peace and understanding in our world? Check out these books from iPub Global Connections, The Power of Dialogue: Jewish – Christian – Muslim Agreement and Collaboration by Ruven Firestone, Khalid Duran, and Leonard Swidler, and The Age of Global Dialogue by Leonard Swidler.

Read more blog articles on dialogue here at iPub Forum: Spotlight on Organizations that Promote Dialogue: One Small Step and Dialogue Dimensions, Directions & Degrees. You can find more articles on dialogue by searching in our dialogue category of this blog. And look for future articles by Rabbi Lewis John Eron coming soon!

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