So far, I’ve been able to identify three or four really good reasons to engage in inter-faith dialogue: to learn from more about other religions from real adherents, to promote peace and harmony among different peoples, and to work together to address common societal problems, such as poverty or hunger. Tony Jones suggested a fourth to me based on his experience: to seek a special experience of God in the midst of the interaction and dialogue.
Evangelism, then, is different from inter-faith dialogue. Each has its place, but it’s important to know what your goal is when talking to others. When I visited Thailand, for example, my goal was not evangelism, but learning and growth. Thus, I focused on listening rather than talking, except when asked a question. At times I had an opportunity to express my own faith in Jesus Christ and appreciation for my personal relationship with God. I also had a number of opportunities to express my deep appreciation for Jesus’ role as Savior, because, in contrast, Theravada Buddhists rely entirely on themselves for their hope of reaching Nirvana. Most of the time, though, I just listened and tried to let God speak to me through the encounter, since that is why I went. I hoped for more interaction, but few of those I interviewed seemed interested in what I believed or might say. Surprising and disappointing.
Interfaith dialogue also raises some very important questions that all Christians need to address. Just what is God’s involvement in the 4 billion plus people in the world who do not place their faith in Jesus Christ, and what is their ultimate fate? They’re not new questions, but they have taken on new urgency as our world has gotten so much smaller. (Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims living next door; internet connecting us nearly everywhere in the world, better information about the values and practices of other religions, etc.) We simply cannot ignore the question of how Christianity fits in with all the other world religions, unless we want to render ourselves irrelevant in an increasingly cosmopolitan world.
But there are no easy answers here. Along with points of connection, which are more numerous than many acknowledge, there clearly seem to be irreconcilable differences. For example, is God relevant or irrelevant in life? Do we need a savior or is our ultimate hope (liberation perhaps) entirely dependent on ourself? Is Jesus the only way to forgiveness and eternal life, or are other prophets/saviors/teachers equally reliable?
If you’re an “exclusivist” the answer is easy: Jesus/Christianity is the right way, and everyone else is wrong. If that position feels uncomfortable, since it leaves about 4 billion people in deep doo doo, you might posit that Christ is actually saving nonChristians in some mysterious, hidden way (the “inclusive” view). Or more popular still among some is assuming that somehow all religions are different paths to the same end (the “pluralistic” view).
The issue, of course, if those who conceive of Christianity in exclusive terms are right, is how could a loving God pass over two thirds of the world? Is God truly just and loving if so many are bound for eternal damnation, since they have so little hope of hearing the Gospel message in terms they can understand and receive? However, according to traditional scriptural interpretation, there are numerous passages to suggest just such a dismal scenario.
Pluralism, on the other extreme, seems to offer the best hope for promoting peace among religions/peoples and affirming the relative goodness (or lack thereof) in all human beings (including Christians). It also seems more plausible to many that God would be at work throughout the world and not just among one third of its population. But as attractive as it sounds, where is the basis for believing in pluralism, other than in our wishful thinking? There are verses that can be found to support the possibility of universal salvation in one form or another, but what do we make of all the other verses that suggest otherwise? Meanwhile, no other major religion suggests there is universal salvation/liberation outside of their own belief system either.
Philosopher-theologian John Hick (see particularly, A Christian Theology of Religions) has been working for decades to create a meta religious view to incorporate all religions under one big umbrella. Basically, he starts with his conclusion: there must be a way for all religions that promote true transformation and social concern to be authentic responses to God/Reality. He then sets out to show how there is indeed this common thread in all religions and to dispense with assertions about Christian uniqueness. Where exclusive teaching is found in any religion (which turns out to be nearly every religion), it is to be rejected in favor of Hick’s hypothesis, because he is committed to his conclusion from the onset. Now before you throw stones at his position, take up his challenge: find an alternative explanation for why 2/3 of the world pursues God/Reality more or less as urgently as Christians do and why they have more or less the same moral code and same level of morality! (His book is a must read for anyone who is seriously grappling with this issue. Countless books and articles have been written challenging him, and you can find many references to these in Hick’s footnotes.)
For me, I am in process on these issues. My main concerns are these: 1) If God is a God of love and grace revealed in Jesus Christ, what is the plan for the majority of the world who don’t know God this way? 2) Why do so many who hear the Gospel still prefer to stick with their own religion? There are obvious social, political, and cultural barriers, not to mention a lot of misinformation about Christianity, but why doesn’t the Holy Spirit seem to get through to more people? 3) Are Christians truly more spiritual, moral, or “transformed” than those of other religions? Most of the true believers from various Christian sects, so-called cults, and other religions, with whom I have discussed spirituality and morality, seem quite similar to people I’ve met in traditional Christian churches. Some are more devout, more moral, more generous, more kind–almost, more “Christ-like” than a good many Christians. There are reasonable answers to each of these questions, but my encounters with others is leading me to stay open to broader possibilities than I would once consider.
I have other issues, but too many to address here. My main point is that there are many valid questions for the exclusivist position that demand thoughtful answers. The inclusivist and pluralist positions are not panaceas, though. We are dealing with very challenging questions for those who both take Scripture seriously and who also are willing to face the truth about reality all around us. I don’t think our goal should be to try to come up with easy answers as much as it is to learn how to listen better to others and to talk about what is real in our lives, not just what we might believe in our heads.
So, please join me in seeking to be honest about what we’re experiencing and learning. Be authentic and open. Be loving, gracious, and kind. Seek to listen and learn. If the Christian God is all that we Christians claim our Lord to be, we have no need to fear genuine questions, meeting people who are different, and engaging in sincere conversations and dialogue with them–for all the reasons listed in the first paragraph.
Caveat: However, I do recommend engaging in inter-faith dialogue from a well grounded position. Or to put it in Jesus’ words, be sure to “abide” in him if you want your life to bear much fruit (John 15).
What I mean is this: Along the way of exploration, questioning and seeking answers, keep seeking to grow in your knowledge of and love for God. Do not lose sight of the main Christian goal of transformation: not just to become a better person, but to become more like Christ (Romans 8:29; 12:1-2). Keep seeking to be Spirit-filled and Spirit-led. Staying grounded spiritually is safer for you, and will make you a far more effective dialogue partner! You’ll actually have more to share.
What about all the other religions? I don’t know what to think for sure, and probably never will in my lifetime. But I’m going to keep asking the questions, seeking answers, and engaging others who believe differently than I do, while staying close to the God I already know along the way. Let’s be humble enough to learn from others, acknowledging that we don’t know everything about God/Ultimate Reality. We stand on a solid Rock that moves with us. Let’s not be afraid of the quest or the encounter with “others”.