The Fruitful Power of Trustworthy Disagreement
by Charles Randall Paul
The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy is a nonprofit in Utah organized to promote and facilitate communication among people experiencing conflicts inspired by religious differences. It seeks to enroll and train religiously bi-lingual “interreligious diplomats” who can engage in deep dialogue encounters to decrease ill will and build trust, even in the midst of difficult conflicts. The Foundation has been particularly successful in providing ‘conservative’ communities from a variety of religions a safe multi-religious haven and platform to build enriching friendships through honest contestation and collaborative efforts. Ed.
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I was a Mormon boy raised in a devout family in the 50s and 60s in northern New Jersey, observing my Protestant, Jewish and Catholic friends. They seemed to enjoy life, I thought, even though they were unfortunate enough to have been born in an inferior religious tradition. They and their loved ones were ingesting diluted spiritual gruel compared to the delicious banquet that Mormonism offered.
So like Paul of old I felt responsible to declare to them for their own good that their well-intended worship was ignorantly misplaced on a way of life that would not yield the benefits of the one true church. I believed my Mormon Church contained a rich fullness that they would find comparatively irresistible if they made the effort to taste it. Therefore, because I cared for them dearly, I often looked for opportunities to show them the higher path to true happiness.
Now when you really try to get to know people well enough to have honest and deep conversations with them, the flow of influence goes both ways. In spiritual medicine, the patient more often than not contaminates the doctor; and soon the line between doctor and patient blurs in mutual contamination.
As I came to know my young friends better, and many like them since, I discovered that their religious lives included uniquely beautiful and inspiring beliefs and practices that were in fact not being served on my bountiful Mormon table. This awakening created a small crisis. Why had God not given all truth to the One True Church? More, why had a loving God been so uneven in spreading the truth among humanity? Why had God not made the same divine truth clear and obvious to all good people?
In facing these questions I was blessed to see that no one can evade parochial socialization. No matter how cosmopolitan or educated, to be human is to have a personal viewpoint that is given as much as chosen. So I did not trade my parochial religious worldview for another parochial secular or religious worldview. Instead, I delved into my religious tradition more deeply, but with the expanded context of other worldviews that my friends and others provided.
I discovered Mormonism acknowledges that the fullness of divine love requires endless billions of different expressions that no single institution can contain and that at times are unresolvedly contradictory. Heaven and earth are both social places where freedom allows honest disagreements over weighty things to prevail, providing thereby the testing condition in which proven loving friendships can thrive. God provoked a condition of everlasting comparative difference that includes potential envy, in trade for always interesting love. At Babel, God blessed a culturally unified humanity with the division of languages, cultures, and thus religious worldviews. These unresolvable differences lay bare the proof of love most valuable. God is watching to see HOW we treat those God designed to be our religious critics and rivals.
Doing Something about It
So in 2000, after a decade at the University of Chicago exploring historical forms of religious conflict, I concluded that humans are mistaken to presume that “common humanity and mutual understanding” lead to peacefulness within and between persons. Theologically and socially our simultaneous desires for co-resistance and collaboration yield at best a fruitful peaceful tension. Overturning the notion that compatibility yields trust and loyal commitment, social scientists have observed the practical fact that successful long term marriages, partnerships, and societies actually sustain multitudes of unresolvable conflicts within them — not by avoiding conflict — but by engaging it respectfully from time to time in honorable contests of mutual persuasion between trustworthy opponents who are also admiring friends.
Such is the backstory of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy (FRD), a non-profit group of social entrepreneurs seeking pattern-breaking social change that will improve our lives by recognizing many value conflicts are unresolvable by any means. In particular, FRD aims to change the common manner of thinking and treating our inevitable religious critics and rivals. We emphasize how invigorating it is to have and to be a trustworthy opponent. We are promoting a new telos or purpose that is not tranquil world peace. It is a telos of honorable engagement between trustworthy rivals that expect conflicts over ultimate purpose, truth and value always to remain in play, and thus aim optimally for continual peaceful contests.
FRD’s “Way of Openness” for trust-building conversations between those with opposing or rival worldviews is a refinement of sound social psychological research in group dynamics and marriage therapy. The key FRD concept that conflict is explicitly included in lively peaceful relationships derives from my study of religions, social psychology, conflict theory and, most importantly, from personal experiences in business and my forty-two year marriage. The invigorating experience of honestly sharing feelings and thoughts in a safe environment has demonstrated to me how humans can develop mutual trust with those who are different through authentic two-way openness. It includes the openness of disclosure (speaking from the heart/mind) and openness to influence (hearing with the heart/mind).
In conclusion, FRD promotes intra and interreligious wrestling without suspicion or contempt. Trusting love that lasts always includes resistance and embrace. We discover our true religion or highest values when we display our attitudes and actions toward our critics and rivals. FRD facilitates this experience in a practical way that gives peacefulness a fighting chance.