Interreligious Dialogue

Religious Understanding

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Understanding one’s own faith tradition takes time and energy, and at times, seems too daunting to take on. This makes understanding other faith traditions even less of a priority. While this is entirely understandable, the lack of knowledge about others’ beliefs leaves people open to being  manipulated by opponents of those beliefs. Since we are not all going to become experts in world religions, Krister Stendahl’s rules of religious understanding provide a great starting point for understanding another faith.  He presented these three rules at a press conference in 1985 when some religious opposition formed against the building of an LDS church in Stockholm.  This Lutheran Bishop stood in solidarity with the LDS community and encouraged people  to consider these three rules for religious understanding:

Krister Stendahl

1. If you want to understand another religion, ask its adherents, not its enemies.

2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.

3. Leave room for “holy envy.” By this he means find some aspect of the other religion that you admire that you wish was a part of your own faith tradition.


Christians would do well to consider the following (according to the three principles):

1. If all we knew about Christians from the early church came from their enemies, then we would think that all Christians were cannibals who engaged in orgies which is what the rumor mill had produced about Christians. This was based on the opponents’ misunderstanding of the Eucharistic meal and the agape (love) feast.

2. Someone could compare violent passages from Christian texts with loving passages from Jewish and Islamic texts and conclude that Christianity is inherently violent. For example:

  • Christian Tradition: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).
  • Jewish Tradition: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD” (Lev 19:18).
  • Islamic Tradition: “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself” (Hadith 45).

3. One might be tempted to think that holy envy is expressed when Christians adopt the practices and traditions of another faith. This is evident in the growing number of Christians holding Seder meals and celebrating Hanukkah with their Christian communities. Holy envy is different.

“Holy envy names the experience of something so profound in the beliefs, rituals, polity, or practices of another religious tradition that one wishes it were part of one’s one tradition yet refrains from adopting it out of respect for the Other. Holy envy requires respecting boundaries of the Other.” -Berger, Trialogue and Terror, 129

The first two of Stendahl’s principles create space for mutual understanding, but it is “holy envy” that creates relationship and promotes peace. The two pictures below illustrate this beautifully.

Muslims protecting a church while Christians worship in Egypt.
Muslims protecting a church while Christians worship in Egypt. photo:
A group of Christians protecting Muslims while they pray. Photo:
A group of Christians protecting Muslims while they pray.                       photo: