How Do We Dialogue Among Faiths?

I will be teaching Inter-religious Dialogue this next semester at seminary. First time I have ever taught such a course. I look forward to it. But it is challenging to find good sources within the Evangelical Realm as far as how to do Interfaith Dialogue.

I think some of this is because there is a basic disrespect, and distrust, of Dialogue. To be fair, some of the concerns have merit. There are genuine concerns regarding the practice of Dialogue. But instead of dealing with that directly here… I would rather look at three basic approaches to Dialogue. Note:  These are my terms. I suppose I could use someone else’s terminology, but I like my own.


The spectrum above is based on how similarities and differences are handled.

  1.  Relativistic Approach.  On one side, people can dialogue where the emphasis is on finding similarities. The interaction seeks to be positive and finding common statements of belief. Although it sounds good, it does have problems from and Evangelical standpoint. First, there is a tendency to whitewash differences with vague terminologies. Second, a “lowest common denominator” is often sought– emphasizing as important the things we share, while trivializing the differences. Third, as the sketch suggests… there is a temptation to relativize belief– suggesting that all belief systems are equally valid and relevant. One might note that emphasizing similarities does not automatically lead to relativism… it seems to commonly happen.
  2. Apologetic Approach. On the other side, dialogue can be focused on differences. This can be problematic since it tends to lead to arguments (thus “apologetic approach.”) Additionally, by deemphasizing similarities, there is a temptation towards stereotyping or exaggerating the differences, and treating similarities as trivial. The apologetic approach often finds a welcome place among Evangelicials since it tends to promote an Exclusivistic (or at most Inclusivistic) view of Salvation. Tied to this, many Evangelicals, valuing evangelism, have the ill-considered notion that focusing on differences and arguments is a good strategy to convert other people. It is hard to imagine where such a notion would come from.
  3. Clarification Approach. Rather than emphasizing one or the other, the goal is to identify similarities and differences. The aim is neither to argue nor to relativize… but to gain mutual understanding. From such mutual understanding, one can lead to finding areas of common ground that could lead to partnerships in some areas (more in line with Relativistic end of the spectrum). On the other hand, it can also lead to finding areas of honest conflict and then develop means to express these differences in ways that can be understood and evaluated by all  (more in line with the Apologetic end of the spectrum).

It is pretty clear from the way I described these, that I primarily value the middle path… of clarification. I believe it is the most:

  • Intellectually honest. It is a bit dishonest to stereotype beliefs to emphasize differences, or to relativize or whitewash beliefs to emphasize similarities.
  • Useful. Evangelicals want to share their faith, but this is done best through open dialogue that compares and contrasts openly the beliefs of two faiths. One extreme (apologetic) makes the other faith irrelevant. The other extreme (relativistic) makes the need for change irrelevant.
  • Respectful. The Apologetic approach tends to disrespect adherents of the opposite side by emphasizes areas of conflict. The Relativistic approach tends to disrespect by trivializing the treasured beliefs of one or both groups.  The middle ground seeks to respect the beliefs (honestly clarifying similarities and differences) and respecting those of other faiths.

Frankly, the extremes are not only less respectful, they can be a bit insulting. I have had people talk to me about their own faith in such vague, generalized terms, to try to give the impression that I should really join their group because “we really believe the same thing, don’t we?” At the other extreme, I have had people from other groups who will throw verses at me from the Bible (like JWs repeating any verse using the term “Jehovah/Yahweh,” Adventists repeating any that mentions the Sabbath, or radical monotheists that refer to God’s “oneness”) as if verse dropping adequately divides the world into two groups… those who are correct and those who are dead wrong. I tend to find it insulting because it seems to me that they assume that I don’t know my own beliefs well enough to understand the complexities that go beyond “proof-texts” or generalizations. Maybe I am too sensitive… but I really doubt that I am alone in this.

Consider looking at an issue through all three approaches of the age-old question:  “Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God?”

Relativizing Approach.  Of course we worship the same God. All three groups say that there is only one God. If there is only one God, it is impossible to worship another anyway. But not only that but key aspects of the revelation of the three groups identify the God of each group as being the same. This includes His Transcendance, His intent to interact and reveal Himself in history, and His power and wisdom. Additionally, we share some commonality of prophecy, such as God revealing Himself through Abraham and Moses.

Apologetic Approach. Of course we DON’T worship the same God. Both Muslims and Jews see the Christian God as really being three Gods, and thus not monotheistic. Christians reject the views of Muslims especially that minimize God’s immanance, and reject the Jewish view that does not see prophetic relevance in the teachings and nature of Jesus. In fact, our understanding of who God is, comes primarily from our Sacred Scriptures. Since Christians and Jews both reject the Quran, and Jews reject the New Testament, and Muslim Scripture in many places contradicts Jewish and Christian Scriptures (even while claiming to find value in them), it is ridiculous to think we worship the same God. If the characteristics of God in the three groups is different, and the sacred texts that are suppose to reveal God are different, clearly these are three different “gods.”

<Both of these points have merits. The Relativizing Approach can whitewash differences with common terminology. As I have noted in another post, three people may believe in “the largest animal on earth.” Since they all believe in the same term we might guess they believe in the same thing. However, if one gets past the common terminology, one may discover the person A believes that animal to be a huge fish-like creature that breathes air, person B believes it to be a large gray land animal with big nose and ears, and person C believes it to be a giant winged reptilian-like creature that breathes fire. The terminology disguises the vast differences. On the other hand, the Apologetic Approach may seek to “major on the minor,” focusing on relevant but somewhat minor differences while minimizing the major, and perhaps more important, similarities.?>

Clarification Approach respectfully listens to both sides and tries to understand their beliefs from the other’s perspective. In line with that, try to understand the terminologies so that differences are not hidden by similar terms, and similarities are not hidden by different terms. So if Muslims use the term Allah, Christians use God or Dios, and Jews use the Tetragrammaton, Elohim, or Adonai, the different terms do not necessarily point to worship of different Gods. On the other hand, using a mutually agreed upon term, like “The God of Abraham” does not necessarily mean that each understand the divine being behind the term the same way.



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