Book Review: The INTRAfaith Conversation by Susan Strouse

In this increasingly irreligious world, Churches face declining membership and a lack of stability. In her 2016 work, The INTRAfaith Conversation, Rev. Dr. Susan Strouse documents her work to unite peoples of differing faiths as pastor of First United Lutheran Church in San Francisco.

Strouse raises some good points. While America was once predominately Christian, that is no longer the case. It likely never will be again. Her work argues that those who do believe in a divine creator, be they Christian, Hindu, Abrahamic, non-Abrahamic, etc., can work together to put their differences aside and come together as people of differing faiths.

Strouse argues that the “nones” in our society (the roughly 40% who claim no religion) aren’t actually “nones” but instead are “alls” who don’t ascribe to one particular faith. Instead, they pick and choose the best aspects of each and apply it to their lives. I don’t argue that point, but I do question the salvatory aspect of it. The old “not all good people go to heaven” trope drilled into my head as a former Baptist seminarian is hard to overcome. The book has a strong underlying theme of Universalism and “all paths lead to God.” My personal approach is that I’ll do my thing and others do theirs. If we disagree, alright, but let’s do so civilly and not hate each other about it. Strouse’s method seems to be throwing the agreed-upon parts of our faith traditions into one big post and stirring it into Universal Stew.

Strouse comments on how “exclusionary” some basic Christian dogma sounds, and how we must change it so that it doesn’t offend those of other faiths. I strongly disagree with this sentiment. We are Christian. Our dogma and liturgy will naturally reflect this. While she is correct that prayers for “the unsaved heathens” (my words, not hers) need dialed back a hair, I disagree that the notion of prayers for the salvation of others need to be tossed out altogether.

On page 180 we read how, in her view, John chapter 19 speaks too harshly of Jewish people. She writes “the Jews” could be read as “the temple authorities” to not inadvertently give off a vibe of antisemitism. I get the point, however the temple authorities were Jewish. Wouldn’t we just be making a “six-of-one, half-dozen of another” change? Would it not be better to provide a contextual view of why the Jewish leaders of that time acted as they did rather than hide their identity with synonyms?

Jesus’s own words are not spared from the charge of being exclusionary. Strouse discusses how John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” is potentially offensive to non-Christians. While I acknowledge that one who doesn’t believe in Christ’s work on the cross might be put off by that, I don’t believe we should ignore it. I mean come on, this is the guy our entire faith is based upon. I will admit there is an argument, albeit a small one, that when Christ died, he didn’t just die for the people who believe in him. That his death was atonement for the whole world, not just Christians. But again, we return to the same point I raised earlier. We should explain these things contextually, not change or rephrase them.

Theological differences aside, the book does provide a useful framework for interfaith dialogues. For example, from page 164:

  1. If you are going to ask the question ‘what do others believe,’ ask them, not their critics, not their enemies.
  2. If you are going to compare, don’t compare your bests with their worsts, but compare bests with bests.
  3. Leave room for “holy envy” (the ability to recognize something in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish, in some way, could be reflected in your own.)

While there is much in this text I politely and respectfully disagree with, I do agree that people of faith, no matter what that faith, can and should work together in areas of commonality. Strouse asks, “What does it mean to be a Christian in our religiously diverse society today?” I don’t agree it means watering down our faith to make it less exclusionary. I do agree that it means accepting others and working with them.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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