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Review: The INTRAfaith Conversation (2016) by Susan Strouse

Knowing Ourselves/Knowing 'the Other'

Review: The INTRAfaith Conversation (2016) by Susan Strouse

by Kay Lindahl

As a Christian who has been engaged in the interfaith movement for over 25 years, I found myself intrigued by The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters? (2016). Susan Strouse’s book explores the importance of intrafaith conversations as a path to deeper and more meaningful interfaith conversations. Strouse writes from her personal experience as a Lutheran pastor introducing interfaith to her own congregation, sharing the stories she has collected along the way, supplemented with a depth and breadth of remarkable research.

Hans Kung famously remarked that until religions make peace, the world will be at war; and that religions would not make peace until they were in dialogue. Less well known was his conclusion: until religions make peace within their own traditions, they will have a very difficult time making peace with other religions. In this context, the importance of intrafaith dialogue comes to the fore.

A common statement made by those involved in interfaith activities is that they find it leads them to a deeper, richer exploration of their own faith and beliefs. I know that I have grown and developed as a Christian from the hundreds of interfaith interactions and experiences I have participated in over the years.

Susan offers a guide for how we might be more intentional about exploring our own tradition in relationship to those with different beliefs and practices. She quotes Raimon Panikkar, a scholar of comparative religions: “If interreligious dialogue is to be real dialogue, an intrareligious dialogue must accompany it.” This concept has not been emphasized in the interfaith movement to date, much to our misfortune. Susan explores how intrafaith dialogue is a powerful way to introduce interfaith to those who have concerns about Christian participation in religious pluralism. And she points to the missed opportunity to connect more deeply with our sisters and brothers from other traditions when we haven’t built this internal foundation first. 

In a beautifully written book, Susan gently educates us as she leads us forward into new ways of thinking about the importance of intrafaith introspection. What does it mean to be a Christian in an interfaith world? She doesn’t shy away from the tough questions – how do we understand the way of salvation as Christians? How do we learn to understand our own beliefs in a world of ever-expanding religious diversity?

Each chapter leads us to asking more questions of ourselves. How is Christianity changing? What is the emerging church? What about the spiritually independent? Those who say they are spiritual but not religious? Humanists and theists? Those who practice a hybrid spirituality? What is our Christian identity now? She encourages us to engage in theology, God talk. John Cobb defines theology as: “Intentional Christian thinking about important practical matters.”

Rev. Dr. Susan Strouse delivering the childrens’ sermon during Sunday worship. – Photo: Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries

Rev. Dr. Susan Strouse delivering the childrens’ sermon during Sunday worship. – Photo: Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries

Not only does Susan Strouse teach us about these issues, she offers practical guidance on how to get started in our own communities. There are examples of projects that worked, tips on what to look out for, actual outlines for ways to proceed, each told with warmth and excitement about the possibilities that open up in the conversation.

An aspect of this book I found particularly helpful was the succinct and enlightening definitions of terms that are often used but seldom explained in the context of interfaith. To list a few: exclusivism, inclusivism, heresy, syncretism, and relativism. And she defines them without making your head spin! In addition, her in-depth description of the various aspects of pluralism provides a framework for understanding the complex nature of interfaith dialogue and the value of knowing more of the context for the variety of ways we experience it.

As she says: “If a congregation is serious about being a relevant part of life in the 21st century, interfaith awareness and encounter must be an integral part of its mission statement. And intrafaith conversation must accompany it.”

I highly recommend this book for all pastors/priests/ministers who want to get to know their non-Christian neighbors and who want to encourage their congregations to participate in interfaith activities. Susan guides you through some of the questions that will come up in your own community. I also highly recommend this book to all lay people and anyone from any faith engaged in interfaith work. You will come away with a greater understanding of the value and purpose of both intrafaith and interfaith.

Even though Susan’s book is written for the Christian tradition, my sense is that it would readily adapt for use in other traditions who want to explore their intrafaith roots. Before reading it, I thought that intrafaith was an optional part of interfaith dialogue. Now I see it as essential to authentic interfaith dialogue. How can we begin to open up to really listening to the stories of other faiths if we have not wrestled with the difficult questions of our own tradition? Whether you are new to interfaith dialogue or a veteran of many years, you will gain a new respect for intrafaith dialogue and the value it adds to the interfaith conversation.

Header Photo: City of St. Helens, Oregon