Taking Responsibility for Interreligious Engagement in Prayer

[1] Interreligious engagement belongs to the same set of activities undertaken by an assembly as gathering offerings for food-shelves, or pleading for the cleaning up of highways.  These activities are often the same thing because a somewhat ordinary kind of interreligious engagement takes place in the interaction of many peoples to redress problems they share.  No matter if the engagement undertaken is academic dialogue, civic effort, or work of charity, this interreligious work has its upshot for the baptized when they assemble.  These activities conclude in the assembly where the baptized take account and responsibility of the problems they address with others.  Taking responsibility in that assembly occurs in many ways, of which the one I will discuss here is prayer.

[2] This endeavor requires two connected reorientations:  to rework how interreligious engagement can be about more than what we call religious matters and to consider the assembly as the place to which the baptized go, their destination rather than their departure.  This amounts to pleading with God to take responsibility in addition to the assembly.  These two adaptations belong together and result from fusing dialogue to practice in the happy coinage of “diapractice” made by Lissi Rasmussen.[1]  By following the orientation diapractice provides, we need to take interreligious engagement as a specific set of practices undertaken by groups and people who acknowledge a problem to cut across ordinary ways we divide secular and the religious or individual experience and ecclesial doctrine.

[3] Over many decades, many important theological practices have emerged and solidified:  scriptural reasoning, comparative theology, interreligious theology, and others.[2]  Those involved in any of these inter-religious engagements take several risks.  Some are worth taking such as the chance to learn wisdom from others and to discover new dimensions of one’s own life thrown into relief as a result of dialogue.  Studying sacred writings that are not one’s own has many benefits; studying those texts with those who use them adds to that learning with the camaraderie of fellow-learners, if not more.  Clarifying the doctrines and practices of one’s tradition, explaining them to others, or even debating the truth of one’s beliefs all are healthy and important parts of the life of faith.  Calling Jesus of Nazareth the Christ or Lord does not only invoke long-standing theological and practical questions in the Christian tradition.  Calling on Jesus and ascribing him these names has different consequences depending on the religious or non-religious neighbor.  And other issues abound!  Does moksha as taught by an Advaitan guru matter to the baptized?  Can sin be treated as ignorance?  Persistent questions concerning whether the God of Sarah and Abraham is the Triune God matter immensely.  All of these exemplify the many problems that emerge from interreligious work that directly considers the practices, doctrines, and histories of religious communities in dialogue.  They all need a public and liturgical orientation.

[4] That body’s prayer is the specific practice I shall take as an act of responsibility.  Doing so will orient ecclesial work toward the publics developed out of the associations who engage problematic situations and draw all such work into the liturgical life of the assembly in a place.  It will allow the publics engaged by the local assembly to inquire after their work and take responsibility for the problems confronted in their assembly.  In schematic form, I propose that congregational work oriented in this way to be a practical echo of the prayer included in the Didache to be made in the Eucharist:

As this fragment of bread was scattered upon the mountains and was gathered to become one, so may your church [ekklesia] be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.[3]

Rather than considering the liturgical assembly as the beginning of action in the world, the Didache takes the Eucharist as the place that draws all to it.  Prayer, repentance, hearing the Word of God, and communion in the Body of Christ:  all are ways the liturgy offers those engaged in problem-directed work to test, explore, experiment, and conclude their work.[4]  If we take interreligious engagement as kin to other kinds of problems the assembly confronts, the matters and concerns that arise in such work are drawn together with others into the one Bread of Life as their conclusion.  Without such a focus on the liturgical assembly of the baptized as the place of gathering, the baptized could avoid taking responsibility for their own traditions and shield themselves from the consequences of interreligious engagement.

[5] Taking responsibility, deepening commitments, or revising teachings are some of the results of public diapractice.  When people confront a problem they acknowledge and share, they draw themselves and their concerns together across their communities, traditions, and groups.  This gathering gets the name public, the dubbing of which shifts the meaning of public away from the idea that there exists only a singular public, fixed and unchanging.  It also recognizes that a public ought not be possessed by anyone except those to whom that problem has consequences.  This means those who engage in diapractice not only have to attend to the common questions and gatherings that recognizing problems result but also to keep watch over that public and its connections to what ordinarily seem to deserve the name:  media in print or social, legislative bodies, councils, or commercial markets.  As those involved in work in their neighborhood quickly realize, sometimes the public problem gathers into itself a city council or a state agency just as much as it includes the people who live on a certain street.  Publics come and go, intersect, and multiply depending on the ways that people engage each other and communicate.[5]

[6] A problematic situation confronts those drawn together by it in different ways, calling for resolution in different kinds of adaptation, adjustment, or revision.[6] In other words, the need for safe drinking water in a place becomes a problem once those that are affected by it recognize it.  Problems are lively when I acknowledge them as important and take them as needful for me to address or they are busy work forced by coercion.  For a concern to become my own I need to take it on as a lively problem since there are many things that do not concern me.  But this does not mean that everyone readily accepts problems as live concerns they should have, even when those problems are desperately theirs.  Several features of life, whether ordinary blindness, systemic ignorance, or the weight of sin, prevent the recognition of problems and these problems are part of interreligious engagement.

Problems of Interreligious Engagement

[7] The prominent and seemingly permanent ways of dividing up human life into distinct or separate domains get reinforced by inter-religious engagement separated from these publics. Service is divided from doctrine, religion from the secular, and peoples are divided by ascribed identity.  Trip-wires and fault-lines abound when trying to talk and act on what we take religious life to be. Indeed, many of the social philosophers who articulate problem-driven forms of dialogue hold that religious communities cannot go far in this kind of public work because they can neither adapt, adjust, nor revise their lives to respond to problems.  Their appeal to permanent or fixed principles, unbending authority, or infallible dogma seems to make religious groups poor conversation partners in public.  Because they depend so significantly on commitments that they do not share with others, they seem to stop the conversation that is necessary for solving publicly shared problems.[7]  This picture, fortunately, is largely unfair, even if the worries expressed about authority and unbending principles need consideration.

[8] Further, interreligious engagement can be forced on a group in an arbitrary way or seem extrinsic without such organic and pressing matters as a problem that gathers peoples into a public.  Instead of seeking to find a “we” by searching for differences or similarities among those who have come together, a particular problem or problematic situation initiates diapractice to assemble a public out of various groups or people.  What makes us a “we” in diapractice is identifying that common problem instead of finding cross-community commonalities.  If we were to search for commonalities or differences, we might isolate one aspect of our social groups or ascribed identities to the exclusion of others.  Instead, in a diapractial orientation, we are made to be a public by a specific problem.  There’s no need to search for ground that’s common except that problem shared.  In fact, finding common ground could be dangerous.

[9] This is especially important because the dominant approach to interreligious engagement excludes secular people and associations, forcing them to adopt a “worldview” or other analog to religious belief, which does violence to secular people.  Such patterns consider secular people by what they are not and what they lack rather than what they are.  To be sure, the upshot of any kind of engagement is to expand one’s imagination and think about oneself in new and better ways and many people who are not engaged in religious communities do have practices, rituals, or worldviews.  Including people on the basis of what they lack cannot help but alienate.[8]  Diapractical orientation creates a public by invoking a problem that affects a collection of people, no matter how different they may be.

[10] Diapractice is a social and demotic form of inquiry.  This orientation starts with some concern or problem that gathers together those affected by it, provides them with the impetus to consider how to amend the problem, and then asks each person or group involved to take responsibility for what they need to do to address the problem.  This responsibility requires various groups to consider, change, or recover beliefs, traditions, or other practices that they encountered or developed in response to the problem.

Prayer and Its Public Problems

[11] Taking responsibility is the consequence of tracing the problems those engaged in diapractice encounter into the assembly of word and sacrament.  There, the baptized recognize one another as baptized and call to one another to confess and to attend to the speaking of God’s promise in the Crucified Jesus.  Of the many ways that the baptized may take responsibility for their involvement in addressing problematic situations, prayer offers unique ways to show how tradition, revision, and practice work.

[12] In particular, the prayer of the day demonstrates this since it varies from commemoration to festival and from Advent to Pentecost.  While the prayer of the day or collect brings together the lessons read and the calendar day of the church’s life, the prayers of the church give space for the baptized to petition for the parochial and wide-ranging.  Their subject matter constantly changing, they are prayers that are theological in the most direct sense:  they are speech addressed to God and an exceedingly compressed act of theology.

[13] The prayer of the day makes petitions.[9]  Collects, another name for the prayer of the day, are not prayers that indirectly address their hearers, paternalistically didactic on the sly.  Whether done out of wisdom and practice on the spot, composed in advance, or relying on the tradition of collects that span the centuries, these prayers are words about God that are words that are spoken to God:  praying to God, telling God who or what God is, and then pleading for something while trading on what the prayer said God is.  This pattern, as strict as a haiku or sonnet, of course tolerates variations within it but on the whole the following prayer of the day from the Baptism of Our Lord shows the crucial turns in the form:

Holy God, creator of light and giver of goodness, your voice moves over the waters.  Immerse us in your grace, and transform us by your Spirit, that we may follow after your Son, Jesus Christ, Our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.[10]

Here in this prayer the baptized address God as holy, giving God due as the creator and giver, invoking the creation narrative from the first chapters of Genesis.   They ask for transformation in nothing other than the Spirit who “moves over the waters,” to follow Jesus.  God can so give, create, and transform because of who God is.  Prayer is both an action and also shows the relationship between action and inferentially implicit conceptual norms.

Testing Prayer in Practice and Doctrine

[14] The somewhat inflexible form of the prayer of the day does not seem like a good candidate for the pragmatically-oriented diapractice since it ties together the liturgical calendar and the lectionary readings.  Yet it allows the assembled to test their experiences.  Bringing into the assembly efforts with others to remedy food insecurity, the baptized test whether God is holy in this prayer.  They do not merely affirm something that is already the case.  The prayer gives them a place to integrate their experience with the narrative of Genesis as a way to think about God the creator of light.  The goodness God gives – does it include the good that I pursued with my neighbor?

[15] Depending on the people I have joined in public, other questions might come to this prayer.  When my neighbor calls on names I do not use in my own prayer, or has a very different picture of God than I do, does the holiness God to which I attribute God in this prayer separate God from my neighbor’s?  This prayer of the day does not use the Triune Name but many do, which would elevate the urgency of this question:  how can I say that YHWH is the Triune God?  Can I expect my neighbor to recognize my prayer to God, the Father of Jesus, the two bound in love in the Spirit? The ambivalence of calling God holy deepens depending on what I have learned about my neighbor, what questions I have that are lively and forceful.

[16] Prayer suits questions or testing well since it differs from an assertion, making a claim, or articulating a teaching.  By test I mean that prayer is a practice at hand which can be done in order to try out not just the activity itself but to test the one praying as well.[11]   Similar to testing a bicycle on a ride, I can say that prayer tests me as much as I test it.  I can quickly find this bike does not fit me and I do not fit it.  Prayer requires liturgical theological criticism and attention to the lively models and norms present to guide its adaptation and revision.[12]

[17] A consequence of belonging to a public that involves religious and non-religious people does not just underline the names used to call on God but also whether God is at all.   Calling God holy, creator, or attributing God to have a “voice that moves over the waters” because prayer has to do with holding out the chance not just that God is creator but also that God is.  Prayer, we might say, surely treats God as if God hears what those praying say.  Prayer tries God by risking to speak not only about God but by addressing God, risking there may be a God who may so communicate.[13]

[18] Without attention to the work the baptized have done in public they could reinforce authoritarian institutions or strive to re-enchant the world by mutually ignoring the canons of natural scientific inquiry.  The prayer of the day, which uses the poetry of Genesis 1:1 when it takes God’s voice moving over the waters in order to plead for transformation in baptism, needs to be placed alongside concerns I’ve gotten for safe drinking water.  I need to be able to find a place for corroded pipes or inaccessible aquifers in the invocation of the waters of creation and that of baptism.

[19] A final consideration of religious exclusivism shows the importance of diapractice.  When the assembly prays, it prays to God–a specific God whose identity and names get ascribed to God in prayer and confession. Reorienting interreligious engagement to fit to publics constituted by problems and orienting the assembly as the place for taking responsibility makes questions of religious exclusivism or pluralism into practical ones.

[20] The question is not just how to pray, or in what way, but also to whom to address such prayer?  The prayer of the day shows this tight connection between that for which prayer is made, ascribing to God the name, attribute, or activity that allows the prayer to be made!  God’s holiness permits those praying to ask to be hallowed themselves.  In much theological reflection on religious pluralism, it seems pressing to sort out whether or not there is only one God, one salvation, or one truth.  If it is simply true that there is only one God, salvation, and truth, this amounts to the claimant to hold a strict form of religious exclusivism that, in affirming the one, seems to refuse to allow others to claim truth for their own.

[21] Principled religious exclusivism seems entirely prior to the practical question and activity of prayer, something that necessarily comes settled in advance of prayer.  Resolve what’s what first.  Sort out the truth of religious matters and then pray in a corresponding way.  Practically, this is in the wrong order.  Even if people so committed to a principle of religious exclusivism cooperate on problems in public, they quit at the crucial point diapractice requires them to take responsibility.  They have already decided in advance they cannot even test out what they have learned or connect their questions to prayer.  The doctrines they hold admit no revision as a result of public engagement.

[22] Instead of relying on prayer as a vehicle for doctrine or claims, we need to see how the practice of prayer relates to doctrines and claims by inferential explication.[14]  By making explicit the ambiguity and expectation that praying infers, the claims the baptized might make depend entirely on the hedging prayer makes on the future.   The problem of prayer and religious exclusivism can be met in several ways.  Prayer could be taken to be an entirely non-cognitive and affective practice, meaning that prayer has nothing to do with claims or concepts.  To be sure, prayer does involve my affections and does exceed my thinking.  It involves my body and the place of prayer.  I have been discussing the assembly’s prayer, which is surely more than just the meeting of minds.  Nevertheless, prayer is more than just body and affect and is also more than just a species of metaphorical language that always dodges translation into a claim or proposition.  Similarly, if prayer is about anything, to avoid religious exclusivism might mean to give up on the idea that holding that there is one God contradicts other claims, discarding the idea that speech about God can only be true or false in a bivalent way. Without discussing these alternatives in detail, I think it sufficient to point out that they all seem to distract us from the prayer itself, each trying to redescribe prayer as being something other than an address to God, ascribing God something that permits the asking of a specific petition.  Inferentially considering prayer, by contrast, holds that praying a prayer puts us on the hook for accounting for what we have asked.  The other strategies, even if they do have some way of taking responsibility, further fail to hold God responsible.

[23] Hewing as close to the prayer as prayed as possible prevents any principled religious exclusivism even if it still only addresses the Triune God.  Drawing credit on the future to come weakens any claim I can assert if I pray to God for transformation in baptism to follow Jesus.  If they did not cast the burden of that transformation onto God and wait for its future, those praying would seem to treat God as a blank slate onto which people would draw their desires and wishes, which is a continuous criticism of prayer, treating God as the projection of one’s self, inventing a God to fulfill one’s wishes.[15]  Prayer needs continued testing to discard these projections and recognize those that persist and endure.

[24] Prayer to God still is prayer to God.  If it depends upon God to be God then exclusivism is only justified as a claim in consequence of God’s self-demonstration in history, experience, or the consummation of all things.  This puts direction and substance to hedging prayer and cannot offer any surety that resists any future response of God’s to prayer.  While we cannot entirely determine in advance of that demonstration what kinds of prayer fit to the Holy God who creates and speaks in the waters, we have room to try out what might fit, to recognize it, and connect it to the problems we face, such as drinkable water or food insecurity.  Prayer charges God to take responsibility and be God in the baptized assembly’s taking responsibility.

[25] But without that prayer, there is no specific future for which to long or to plead.  Prayer is practice for the baptized that draws their public work into the very address they make to God.  Taking our practical questions first, prayer remains open to testing, indeed as a vehicle for such testing and taking responsibility, so the baptized might continue to pray and not to faint.



[1] Lissi Rassmussen, a Lutheran theologian and scholar of Muslim-Christian relations in several African countries, in Indonesia and Denmark, first developed diapractice in her studies of particular communities facing problems through joint deliberation and action.  See Rassmussen, “From Diapraxis to Dialogue : Christian-Muslim Relations” in Dialogue in Action, eds. Lars Thunberg et al (New Delhi, India:  Prajna Publications, 1988), 277-93 among other publications.  See also Ulf Zackariasson, Pragmatic Philosophy of Religion:  Melioristic Case Studies (Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books, 2022), 129-158.  Zackariasson gives many examples of taking responsibility as a result of dipractice.

[2] For an overview and concise history, see Marianne Moyaert, “Interreligious Dialogue,” in Understanding Interreligious Relations, ed. David Cheetham, Douglas Pratt and David Thomas (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013), 201–12; Diana Eck, “What do we mean by dialogue?,” Current Dialogue. December (1986): 5–15.

[3] Didache, 9, 4 in The Apostolic Fathers, ed. and trans. by Bart D. Ehrman.  Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2003), vol. 1., 431.

[4] I have considered how the Eucharist acts as a mode of recognition and repentance in Walter, “Recognizing the Other in Liturgical Acts:  Religious Pluralism and the Eucharist,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 10:9 (2010) (https://learn.elca.org/jle/recognizingtheotherinliturgicalactsreligiouspluralismandeucharist/  accessed 10 July 2023)

[5] On this definition of public, see John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems:  An Essay in Political Inquiry, ed. Melvin L. Rogers (Athens, OH:  Swallow Press, 2016), 67.

[6] While this concept derives from John Dewey’s discussion of “situation” as a conglomerate gathering of elements that initiate inquiry, I do not mean that problem only intends obstacles or difficulty.  In addition to the itch or irritation that interrupts our daily life to stop and think, a problematic situation could also be an occasion for play, museument, or attention to something not noticed before.  Church paraments, art, and architecture have started much reflection for those captivated by boredom.  See Logic:  The Theory of Inquiry in John Dewey, The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale, IL:  Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), vol. 12, 72-73.

[7] Richard Rorty, “Religion as Conversation-Stopper” in Philosophy and Social Hope (New York, Penguin, 1999), 168-174.  Rorty’s point is that when someone speaks from their specifically religious tradition or community, they should expect that such speaking will stop conversation with others who do not share that tradition.  While those people will at least understand the point the religious person makes along with its force, since such a contribution is not a live option for them, it cannot represent a way forward for their resolution of a problem that they share.

[8] Lois Lee, Recognizing the Non-Religious:  Reimagining the Secular (Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press, 2015);  Terry Shoemaker and James Edmonds, “The Limits of interfaith? Interfaith Identities, Emerging Potentialities, and Exclusivity,” Culture and Religion 17(2016): 200-212.

[9] On the history of the prayer of the day in liturgical history, see Frank Senn, “The Collect in American Lutheran Liturgical Books:  Evangelical Worship (2006)” in The Collect in the Churches of the Reformation, ed. Bridgit Nichols (London, UK:  SCM Press, 2010), 106-122.

[10] Evangelical Lutheran Worship:  Leader’s Desk Edition (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 67.  I selected this prayer out of my affection for the Gospel of Mark and the festival of The Baptism of Our Lord.

[11] I do not mean that those who pray subject their prayer to empirical testing by proposing to observe the seeming results of prayer.

[12] A comprehensive and accessible discussion of such criticism is available in Can We Talk? Engaging Worship and Culture (Chicago, IL:  Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2016).  (https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Can_We_Talk_Engaging_Worship_and_Culture.pdf  Accessed 10 July 2023)  For examples of criticism and reflection on the prayers of the day, see Senn, “The Collect in American Lutheran Liturgical Books”; Marit Rong, “Why Bother With the Prayer of the Day?,” Studia Liturgica 45(2015): 143-157.  Rong discusses the specific history of the prayer of the day in Norwegian Lutheran liturgical books, Reformation era revisions, and other histories.

[13] Theologians writing on prayer continually discuss the importance of God’s susceptibility to prayer, whether by articulating a command Jesus has given to pray (and not to faint) or articulating a conception of God that shows God’s readiness to receive prayer.  It seems a common throughout Christian history that those who pray need this assurance since prayer in this petitionary sense closely relates to the practice of asking another for something.  I suspect that this need arises since in most experiences of such asking, the petitioners can discern at least that there’s someone there to ask but also can readily gauge their chances of success in asking.  Part of the horror and humor Franz Kafka evokes from Josef K’s attempts to sort out his seeming accusation in The Trial owe in part to K’s inability to determine to whom to speak about his concerns.

[14] Robert Brandom, Making it Explicit (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1998); Kevin Schilbrack, “Are Religious Practices Philosophical?” in Philosophy and the Study of Religions:  A Manifesto (Malden, MA:  Wiley & Sons, 2014), 29-48.

[15] Stated by Ludwig Feurbach: “In prayer the human being speaks to God, directly and personally; they take God especially as another ‘I’,” Das Wesen des Christentums in Gesammelte Werke, ed. Werner Schuffenhauer (Berlin:  Akademie Verlag, 1974), vol. 5, 221.  Instead of a philosopher, perhaps a comic book character, the Minstrel, gets to the point:  “They say we are created/By the gods we cannot see–/Each person fabricated/As the gods themselves decree./But still a basic question irks–/A riddle short and terse–/Is that the way the process works?/Or is it the reverse?” in Sergio Aragonés et al., Groo:  The Fray of the Gods (Milwaukie, OR:  Dark Horse Comics, 2017), 100.  People create gods in their own images every day.  The crucial practical need is to judge when they have not.

Gregory Walter

Gregory Walter is Harold H. Ditmanson Professor of Religion, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.