Thoughts on Localization of Theology

I have been working on a couple of articles. One of them I decided to remove a large section. I will include it here. Most of it comes from parts of my books on on Interreligious Dialoge and Theology of Mission (using some of the work of David Hesselgrave, Stephen Bevans, and Paul Hiebert).

Theology that is not well-grounded in God’s revelation is untrue and irrelevant. Theology that is well-grounded in God’s revelation but not contextualized to the people will be misunderstood. Misunderstood is essentially the same as untrue, and thus also irrelevant. Bevans has also gone further and argued that a couple of tests of a good (orthodox) and healthy local theology are (a) it develops from the people in their local context, and (b) it is open to both challenge other theologies from other contexts in the universal church and accept critique from the same.

Paul Hiebert described three types of contextualization— non-contextualization, uncritical contextualization, and critical contextualization. Critical contextualization is considered the ideal type of contextualization, with the other two types essentially being to forms of inappropriate contextualizing. For Hiebert, critical contextualization occurs when there is an integration of a careful reading and understanding of the Bible with a sympathetic This is where Bible doctrines are “translated” into a new cultural setting through a careful study of Scripture and a sympathetic understanding of the recipient culture. While this appears to establish two stakeholders in the activity— the Bible and the recipient culture— there are, in fact, three cultures interacting. These are the recipient culture, the missionary culture, and the Biblical culture(s). A proper interaction of interpreting Scripture in light of these three cultures should, hopefully, lead to a good contextualized theology.

The other forms of contextualization occur when the process is unbalanced. Uncritical Contextualization places too much emphasis on the recipient culture. Too much of the recipient culture is essentially “blessed” that key elements of God’s message are downplayed or eliminated. In such a setting, the resultant faith may take on more of a mythic rather than parabolic role in that culture. That is, the resultant faith justifies the culture more than it challenges it. This is syncretism— an unhealthy mix of God’s message and culture.

The other form of unbalanced contextualization, according to Hiebert is non-contextualization. This is where the local culture is given too little value. Perhaps the thought is that since the culture is not considered Christian, all elements in which it differs from the missionary culture, thought to be a Christian culture, is bad. Hiebert notes that this often leads to the Christian faith maintaining a “foreigness” to it, and a faith that is often shallow. Below a thin layer of Christian behavior and answers to questions, is the unchallenged values and worldview of the local culture. Both Charles Kraft and Jackson Wu would note that this also is a form of syncretism. It is the unhealthy mixing of God’s revelation and the missionary’s culture. Often people express concern about contextualization saying that it leads, inevitably, to syncretism. In fact, the opposite is probably more true. If the local culture is ignored and the missionary culture version of the Christian faith is indoctrinated into the people, syncretism on some level has already occurred.

Earlier I noted the Three Culture Model speaks of interaction between recipient culture, missionary culture, and Biblical culture. One could argue that there is a fourth type of contextualization where there is an overemphasis on, or theological blessing of, the culture(s) in the Bible. This is true, and actually quite common, but functionally, it is essentially the same as non-contextualization. If one goes to a new culture and tells them, “Christians are supposed to wear white shirts and ties if they are male, and dresses if they are female” (because that is what we wear back home), there is no functional difference from telling them, “Christians are supposed to wear tunics and cloaks” (because that is what both men and women wore in the Bible).

Identifying the importance of balance in contextualization in no way makes clear how this is done. But each form of contextualization suggests a different strategy. These different strategies are described by David Hesselgrave. He applied these terms to a somewhat different problem, but they work here. Non-contextualization follows the Didactic Method. Didactic here implies one-way communication. The missionary enters a culture and takes on the role of teacher, and the people in the recipient culture embrace the role of student or learner. Good discipleship happens when people change a lot and missionary changes little. Uncritical Contextualization follows the Dialogic Method. I don’t actually care for Hesselgrave’s term here. He is using the term rather negatively, while I will be using the term Dialogue in a more neutral way later in this paper. However, I do understand the reason for his choice here. In the Dialogic method, little importance is placed on change. Dialogue is often seen as focused on two-way communication with the desired outcome to be mutual understanding rather than change of heart or behavior. Great importance is on interaction— Presence and Participation over Proclamation. <In the 1960s a divide formed in Protestant missions where conservatives focused on Proclamation of the Gospel with the goal of leading to radical conversion to Christ. On the other side, many liberals focused on missional Presence where Proselytization was seen as the “antithesis” of missions. The extreme of the conservative view would line up with non-contextualization, where the job of the missionary is to talk, and the job of the people is simply to listen and change. The extreme of the liberal view would line up with uncritical contextualization. The result of presence is generally to bless the best in the culture rather than inviting a call to change of allegiance.

Between these extremes would be a the Dialectic method. In this view there is dialogue (two-way communication) but the goal is a process where both sides challenge each other other with the goal of finding truth. Thus it is more focused on truth than what is described as Dialogic method. It is more focused on two-way conversation than the Didactic method. It also assumes the possibility that both sides may need to learn something. The Dialectic method also differs from debate or apologetics. The latter is interested in winning rather than finding truth.

Recognizing that syncretism is an anticipated risk for either extreme (excessive and inadequate contextualization of the faith), this suggests that the spectrum of contextualization may be viewed as a circle where critical (or balanced) contextualization is on one side (such as at “3 o’clock”) and movement away from that side, occurs either clockwise or counterclockwise towards its opposite (“9 o’clock”). Referring to Figure 1, Clockwise movement could be used to indicate movement towards more non-contextualization. This direction would involve giving more respect to the missionary culture in terms of contextualization, and less to the recipient culture. Counter-clockwise movement could be used to indicate movement towards uncritical contextualization. This direction wou involve giving more respect to the recipient culture in terms of contextualization, and less to the missionary culture. The two movements are shown as joining together at 9 o’clock because both lead to the opposite of critical contextualization— syncretism.

Figure 1

Looking at Communication

Instead of looking at the movement of the Gospel message into a culture in terms of contextualization, one can look at it as an act of communication. In most cases the presentation of the gospel to a new culture comes through a process of cross-cultural dialogue. There are different models of dialogue, but I prefer one that breaks things down into three general models. Different authors use different terms, but I will use “Apologetic,” “Clarification” and “Common Ground” models. The Apologetic model focuses on the differences. The missionary goal is to win the argument. The goal is to show the superiority of one’s beliefs, and the inferiority of the others. The ideal result of such an encounter is a full surrender to the perspective of the missionary. The other extreme in terms of dialogue is the “Common Ground” model. In this model, the missionary seeks to promote dialogue by emphasizing similarities and minimizing differences. In this situation, the missionary is not so focused on changing the others’ beliefs, but that “we all are pretty much the same.” Between these extremes is Clarification. Clarification seeks a certain amount of balance. Both the similarities and differences are valued.

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows a way of showing this. Figure 1 shows the movement converges on the left side since both directions end up with syncretism. Figure 2 can also be shown this way. As one moves from the right side (“3 o’clock”) towards the left-side one is moving towards less focus on truth. This is obvious from the standpoint emphasizing similarities in Common Ground Models. Common Ground Models can be described as relativistic. The goal is to make connection, breaking down barriers, ignoring issues such as what one believes. Emphasizing differences moving toward Apologetic models also lessens the importance of truth. In apologetics, the primary interest is on winning, not determining what is true. On reflection, this just makes sense since focusing on agreement versus disagreement with beliefs would mean less focus on the truth of beliefs.

Comparing The Two Figures

While there are clear similarities, it is worthwhile to address the marked differences. The biggest difference is that the two are dealing with two different spectra. The first is about the spectrum of strategies for contextualization. The second is about the spectrum of strategies for interreligious dialogue. And yet, the two are very much related. Both involve the interactions between people of different beliefs from two different cultures. The spectrum regarding contextualization is more implicitly missiological, but both involve conversations in a similar setting.

A more important difference is a comparison of what is going on at the left side (“9 o’clock”). In Figure 1, the left side shows a greater tendency to syncretism. In Figure 2, even though not explicitly marked, the left side expresses a lesser interest in truth. This in itself is not problem since each figure could emphasize a different thing. However, if the two figures are expresses a similar experience, presumably the two tendencies should be compatible. At first brush, they do not. Syncretism is not necessarily linked to a lesser emphasis on truth. That being said, syncretism is a result, not a motive. So if one looks at Figure1, the argument could be made that an unbalanced contextualization, either uncritical contextualization or non-contextualization, involves a lesser interest in truth. Critical Contextualization involves determining how Biblical truth can be established faithfully in a new context. Non-Contextualization and Uncritical Contextualization rejects critical faculties in determining truth. This does not mean that syncretism is a rejection of truth, but rather that setting something else as a priority over truth establishes a a setting where syncretism can develop.

The similarities of the figures outweigh the differences. Most importantly, the two establish three categories that line up fairly well. Clarification Models for Interreligious Dialogue (IRD) would involve a search of the truth through identifying similarities and differences with regards to two cultures (and potentially three cultures if including Bible culture). Such a search would ideally be dialectical rather than dialogic (in this case focusing those forms of dialogue that focus on common ground rather than on truth) or didactic (being primarily unidirectional). Critical Contextualizaiton should be harmonious with the Clarification Models of IRD. In a similar way, Apologetic Models for IRD line up with didactic methods relating to non-contextualization. Although Apologetic Models would utilize two-way communication, the similarity lies in the premise that the recipient culture has little to offer the sending (or missionary) culture. Common Ground Models for IRD line fairly well with dialogic methods related to uncritical contextualization. In these, the focus is on covering over differences and minimizing change in the recipient culture.

My (Tentative) Rules of Interreligious Dialogue

I was starting to develop a list of rules of IRD by applying Grounded Theory Analysis to several other lists developed by others. I completed the first step (Open Coding) and got a ways into the Axial Coding. However, I sort of lost steam at that point and so I came up with a list of Six Rules (or Roles may be better) for good IRD. Some day, I may update these but generally I am quite comfortable with them as they are.

Six Roles in Interreligious Dialogue

#1. Be a Spirit-Led Mediator— Knowing that God is the third member of the conversation: active before, during, and after.

I consider this one to be very important. Strangely, only Max Warren discussed this point directly. Perhaps that is because most of those who were making their lists did not want to give the suggestion that one person is closer to God than another. One, however, does not have to make presumptions of how another person relates to God to recognize one’s role as a mediator, serving God and working with God.

#2. Be a Humble and Curious Learner— from the other and from God, knowing that God may speak to you in the conversation.

As much as you or I are convinced that we have unique access to the truth, we should never assume that we have nothing to learn. We are to be learners as long as we live. Frankly, an inability to express genuine interest in what another cherishes is likely to squelch any interest the other has in what you cherish.

#3. Be a Competent Witness— knowing one’s beliefs and able to express them honestly and with integrity.

Know what you believe and why you believe it. If the other person is truly interested in what you believe (and this is something you should certainly hope) do your homework not only for your own sake, but for the sake of the other.

#4. Be a Respectful Ambassador— demonstrating courtesy at all times and expecting to receive no more or less respect than one gives.

It has been jokingly stated that diplomats manage to say the worst things in the nicest ways. As a Christian dealing with religious beliefs (one of the most intense hot-button issues out there), one must find ways to express truth in courteous ways. If the other person is a person created by God in His own image, and the he or she is sharing his or her deeply treasured beliefs, they truly do deserve your respect. Tied to this role is Mutuality. If one truthfully demonstrates respect in word and deed to the other, one should expect and enforce some level of respect from the other.

#5. Be a Fair and Skilled Interpreter— able to express your beliefs in a manner that is clear and relevant to the other.

It is your job to express your faith in a way that is understandable and relevant to the other. Even though it is the Spirit of God who ultimately illumines his message to the other, it is your job to understand their world from their perspective, and remove barriers that lead to miscommunication or misinterpretation.

#6. Be a Golden Rule Disciple—Speaking, Listening, and (seeking) Understanding as one would desire of the other.

This is the application of the Great Commandment. Regardless of the words or behavior of the other, one is required to follow the example of Christ. Speak and Listen in a manner that you would desire of the other… and try best as one can to understand the other as one would seek the other to try as well.

These roles are aimed more at a Clarification Approach to IRD, as opposed to an Apologetic (Argumentative) approach, or a Relativistic (Common Ground) Approach. I believe such an approach is consistent with a form of evangelism, but does not force all dialogue into a polemic or apologetic form of evangelism. It also accepts that much IRD may not be directly evangelistic at all. Even the most dedicated evangelist needs to learn and listen, to be able to understand the other and effectively interpret.

I believe this approach is also effective for those who do not embrace a primarily evangelistic role, but seek to work with those of other faiths competently, while still “adorning the gospel” (Titus 2:10).

My Rules of Interreligious Dialogue Project

I have been teaching Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD) for several years now. While teaching it, I teach several different list of “rules” associated with IRD. However, the one I tend to focus on is the 7 Rules compiled by Max Warren. But as I have been thinking about it, it occurred to me that I should make my own list, or at least my own model for IRD. However, I am not sure that I am suitably experienced in IRD to ignore others and simply create my own list.

After thinking about it, I decided to use the various perspectives of several to come up with a model. So I am taking several lists and bringing them together and inductively creating a model… or a list of rules.

Here is the background information of the Who, What, Why, and How of this project:

  1. Who am I doing this for? I am doing this for Christian missionaries first of all who work in multicultural and/or multi-religious settings. As such, I am not seeking data from sources at the extremes of dialogue. I am ignoring data that views dialogue in terms of argument or debate. I think argument has little value in missions. However, even if it does have value in some rare circumstances, I feel it really stretches the meaning of dialogue. Dialogue in my view is more focused on mutual discussion rather than a more adversarial relationship. On the other hand, having a role where one brackets one’s own beliefs and enters the conversation without presuppositions with regards to faith, may be valuable to some, but seems hardly of value to missionaries, whose role is, in part, proclamation.
  2. Who am I using as informants? For the most part, people or groups who are viewed as experts in dialogue who have created lists of rules regarding IRD are used. The lists are rules that are deemed by me to be valuable to Christian missionaries. As such I chose to use experts who would describe themselves as Christians. (One at this time would no longer consider herself to be a Christian.)
  3. Method of Analysis? I am using Ground Theory Analysis. I am utilizing lists from 11 experts in IRD with a total list of statements being 78. Each of these statements goes through three levels of coding— open, axial, and selective— to ultimately produce an model that is grounded in the data.

Grounded Theory Analysis is sometimes thought a bit… “soft” in that it does not have the rigorous statistical checks that are associated with Quantitative Analysis. In my view, this is not true. Quantitative analysis is rife with problems that qualitative analysis lacks. I am not saying that GTA is always better, but it is certainly better in these circumstances. But people are often concerned with the Reliability, Validity, and Generalizability of GTA. With that in mind, for GTA:

Reliability: In Quantitative Analysis, reliability is demonstrated by randomness of the sample population. For GTA, reliability is established by the diversity of the interviewees (especially in terms of perspective).

Validity: In Quantitative Analysis, validity is demonstrated by careful definition of the target population (ensuring one is not analyzing two or more populations by mistake). For GTA, validity is established by expertise of the interviewees.

Generalizability: In Quantitative Analysis, generalizability is demonstrated by having an adequately large sample size. For GTA, generalizability is established by achieving data saturation.

This research project is not for peer review (probably) but I still don’t want to do something that lacks rigor. In terms of reliability, I chose a pretty good range of experts in terms of IRD. These range from relatively conservative (Warren, Stott, and Neill) to fairly liberal (such as Panikkar and the World Council of Church). I have not included all views, as I noted above, centering on Christian practioners in IRD who tend to value clarification over argument or common-ground. The range should be adequate for the reliability I am seeking.

Validity is no problem. I am using established experts in IRD. Generalizability is the most uncertain thing. Because of the range of perspectives and the limited number of interviewees, it is quite likely that I will not achieve data saturation. However, I believe that I will be able to achieve a model that is grounded in the data and plausible based on the data. I am will to accept the possibility that there are issues not addressed in the informants.

I will give more info as things develop.

Reasons for an Evangelist to Take IRD Seriously

Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD) is often looked at critically, or straight-up negatively by Evangelicals. I teach a course called “Dialogue with Asian Faiths” and for me, I take the title seriously. It is about dialogue (two-way) conversation with people of other faiths— especially the great world religions that have their origin in Asia (which is pretty much all of them).

Many times when people join the class I ask why they want to take the class. I am given different answers, but commonly the answer given is, “I want to be more effective in evangelizing people of other faiths.” This is a bit of a challenge, because that is not the primary purpose of the course. And as we get further into the course, some of those students get uncomfortable, as I suggest that:

  • Good dialogue is not built on argument.
  • Good dialogue is not agenda driven.
  • Good dialogue is more focused on creating mutual understanding.

But I am an Evangelical as well in historical terms (ignoring some toxic elements that have crept in over time). As such, I do believe that evangelism is a normal part of the Christian faith, and so one does not need to be embarrassed or uncomfortable about one’s desire to lead non-Christians to Christ. Some people who value IRD believe that dialogue is directly in conflict with evangelism.

I believe that positive dialogue with people of other faiths is important, even necessary, for all Christians, and even more so for those involved in Christian ministry. However, I would like to share some reasons that I believe that Inter-religious Dialogue is valuable for a Christian Evangelist.

Before I do, I need to clarify that I believe good Inter-religious Dialogue, IRD, is a balance between two extremes. At one extreme is an Apologetic view. Dialogue is focusing on differences in hopes to make Christianity appear good and true and the other religion bad and wrong. In other words, Dialogue is pretty much only to change the other person’s mind. The other extreme I would call the “Common Ground” approach. Instead of focusing on the differences between Christianity and other religions, one focuses on the similarities and downplays the differences. Usually this includes a certain relativization of belief, assuming that both sides are seekers of truth but not necessarily possessors of truth. In other words, Dialogue is not only NOT evangelistic, but evangelism would be a violation of the principles of IRD. I take a middle ground, where IRD seeks to clarify BOTH similarities and differences. Additionally, IRD is quite open to share one’s cherished beliefs in hopes that the other converts, but also open to the possibility of learning from the other.

Additionally, however, I am contrasting the form of IRD also with the most common form of evangelism today, which is canned presentations (Romans Road, Hand Illustration, Four Spiritual Laws, Bridge Illustration, EE, etc.)

Okay, with that out of the way, reasons I believe that Inter-religious Dialogue is valuable for a Christian Evangelist.

#1. It takes truth seriously. Some speak of evangelism as “Truth Encounter.” If that is an accurate term, Jesus is seen as the way and the TRUTH and the life, and the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, an Evangelist should be deeply concerned about truth. First, it establishes a promising foundation of truth. In US courts, witnesses are supposed to take an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The extremes HOPEFULLY tell the truth, but not the whole truth. The Apologetic approach often ignores areas of sizable agreement, while the Common Ground approach minimizes or even ignores potentially important differences. Second, in talking to the other seriously, dialogically, one is more likely to learn truth (truth in terms of that which is actually true, and truth in terms of that which is actually believed).

2. IRD establishes a better foundation for the evangelism encounter. The Common Ground approach may be relationally friendly, but the ‘bracketing off” of treasured faith perspectives and other differences means that the relationship developed is likely to be a bit artificial. In the Apologetics approach, the relationship is essentially antagonistic. Neither is ideal. Proper IRD should be friendly and still rich in its complexity. People tend to response more to warmth than to brutal logic anyway.

3. IRD is more likely to “scratch where it itches.” Evangelism is not targeting people groups or religions. It is targeting individuals. We are not trying to “Save Souls” if one is using the term ‘soul’ in any way less than the total person in their cultural and familial setting. IRD is not a canned presentation but deals with the individual and seeks to understand him or her, including (but not limited to) his or her hopes and fears. Nicodemus did not need to hear about the “Unknown God.” The Woman at the Well did not need to be challenged with the metaphor of being ‘born from above.’ The Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at Mars Hill did not need to hear about water that will quench one’s thirst forever.

4. IRD takes a lot of fear away in talking to others. This is especially true in contrast to an Apologetic/Argumentative stance. In this stance, one must be always able to give a sound response to every challenge, and give as good as one gets. It is much like fencing with effective thrusts and parries. If one does not feel up to that task, one goes into a canned evangelistic presentation that seeks to prevent the other person from interacting except in a fairly predictable manner. However, with the Clarification approach to IRD, “I Don’t Know” or “You have a good point” are perfectly acceptable. In fact, it may help. If an agnostic says, “So if there is an all-powerful loving God watching over us, why are there deadly natural disasters?” giving some clever (and doubtful) response is likely to drive the other away. On the other hand, a “I really don’t know… what do you think” is likely to be seen as more honest and engaging.

5. IRD is not dependent on the particular hearer. Most canned presentations (pretty much all presentations except one’s own personal testimony) target a specific hearer. Most of them really are not even an evangelism tool at all, but a way of presenting one’s Christian faith tradition in such a way as to hopefully be attractive to a person of a different Christian faith tradition. Most presentations work on the baseline presumption that the person believes that the Bible is God’s Word, there is only one God, and Jesus should be loved and obeyed. With these as common ground in those most likely to respond to the canned presentations, it is questionable as to whether these are primarily evangelism presentations or denominational presentations. Canned presentations that do indeed target those who are not Christians typically have unique features that would hopefully connect to a typical _________ (Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Daoist, etc.). Nothing wrong with this, but IRD is not dependent on the particular hearer. The main qualities are that they are human, they share a common language, and they are willing to connect with you in conversation. The evangelist may not know the sort of points that are likely to be taken seriously by the other person, but that is okay. Over time, this will be clear— and will be true for the individual, not for the group you may assume the individual fits into.

Better than “I Don’t Know.”

I like to tell people that my favorite answer to questions, “I don’t know.”

And I think that is a good answer.

-It is honest. No one knows everything and no one knows as much as we think we do.

-It leads to discussion. Giving a direct answer often ends conversation, or leads to argument. Giving a vague, dance around the issue, leads to annoyance.

But I must admit that “I don’t know” can sound dismissive, or desirous of changing the subject. So what are some better answers:

  1. I don’t know, but will find out. This is one of the standard military responses (along with Yes sir, No sir, No excuse sir.). It is honest, but also shows that one is taking the question seriously. Additionally, it opens the door to another meeting.
  2. I don’t know… what do you think? This inspires dialogue and shows that one is interested in the other person, and (perhaps) what they believe.
  3. I don’t know… maybe we can figure this out together. This is similar to the previous one, but is more strongly relational.

I have heard people give confident answers to things where I don’t know would have been so much a better answer, a more honest and respectful answer. But a relational answer is better still.

Inter-Theological Dialogue (ITD). To Love or to Loathe?

I saw an interesting little poll that was put on a Philippine Pastors Group. I can’t find the poll on a quick search right now but the question was something like:


Since no two people on earth have ever had exactly identical theologies, the question really is more like, WHAT DO YOU DO IF YOU MEET A PASTOR OF A DIFFERENT DENOMINATION, OR FAITH TRADITION, OR PERHAPS ONE YOU BELIEVE “MAJORS ON A MINOR”?

The three options given were:

#1. Pray to God that He would give enlightenment to this pastor.

#2. Argue strenuously with the pastor to convince him (her) of the error of his (her) beliefs.

#3. Love them

I think the poll was meant to be more instructive than exploratory. I think it was meant to make pastors think and then realize that love (#3) is the correct response. I found it both disturbing and charming that the Filipino pastors who had taken the poll were honest enough to have #3 as their least popular answer.

I get it. #1 (the most popular answer when I looked at it) is a very satisfying response. It assumes that the reader is on God’s side (or perhaps God is on the reader’s side). Most people want to feel like God has given His seal of approval not only ourselves, but also our beliefs.

I get #2 as well. A lot of people (and pastors are, generally, people) are not very comfortable interacting positively with people of other beliefs.. Therefore, “If you can’t join them, beat them.” Many groups simply assume that the relationship between different faith traditions within Christianity will be (and perhaps should be) antagonistic and competitive. Books on theological perspectives often are rather polemic and/or argumentative. Some take competition further and see an alternative theological perspective as something that must be rooted out and destroyed. <I recall a friend of mine on FB sharing approvingly a post from someone else that stated everyone who disagrees with the writer politically and philosophically should “Get out of my country.” That writer then listed al of the people who meet that criterion— a long list. This is a stupid thing to say, certainly, but the emotions behind it are pretty understandable.>

Of course #2 tends to be defended as an effort to root out heresy. However, heresy is not always easy to identify… and many theological positions can fit within the “tent of orthodoxy.” If not, then there is between zero and one theologically orthodox person on earth since no one shares exactly the same theology. There must be some wiggle room.

I think that #3 is a good answer. Yes we should love ministers who have a different theological perspective. But I feel like the answer has a risk of being… SNARKY. After all, to say that one should love those of other theological positions, makes many (I don’t think I am alone in this) think of the command of Jesus, “Love your enemies.” So Option #3 can be a subtle acknowledgement of the belief that Christians of divergent theological perspectives are actually our enemies.

So, despite how theologically sound Option #3 is, I feel like some other options should be given in the poll.

#4. Embrace the opportunity to learn about their beliefs to not only to increase understanding of said beliefs, but to better understand the other pastor as well.

#5. Seek dialogue to explore and appreciate the rich diversity within the Christian faith.

#6. Learn from the other pastor as part of my own path of theological reflection and theological growth.

These other options, especially #6 sounds wishy-washy. Some may hear the subtle strains of relativism in them. Let me be clear on this. I am pretty comfortable with my own theological perspective, and most any conversation with a person of a different perspective, I am likely to think I am right and the other wrong. After all, if I thought I was wrong, why would that be my belief anyway? But my own theological perspective is NOT CANON. It is a contingent, contextual interpretation of God’s general and special revelation. The most fundamental statement of Theological Anthropology is, “God is God, and I am not Him,” so it is wise for me to accept my own limitations, including in terms of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. As such, my theology should always be embraced with a tentativeness. Some aspects of our beliefs we may embrace with a certain amount of confidence. Some aspects we may embrace with a certain amount of (Kierkegaardian) “leap of faith.” But theological (over-) confidence can easily take us to a bad place.

Peter originally saw salvation as to the Jews and through the Jews. His interaction with Cornelius helped him to evaluate, and ultimate change, his theological view. Paul early on spoke confidently of becoming a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks, to win the more. However, he seemed to struggle for years in how to address a multicultural setting. In Galatians we find Paul chastizing Peter for seemingly doing what Paul taught (adjusting behavior to the setting), but in a way different than Paul preferred. In Acts 16 Paul encourages Timothy to get circumcised, seemingly in a reversal. Both situation it was unclear who was right. What does this mean? I am not sure… but if Peter and Paul struggled with their theology, don’t expect to have gotten it all correct yourself.

In fact, embracing a level of theological diversity in the church does not lead to heresy and cults particularly. It is far more likely that schisms devolve into cults when people think that their own theology is perfect and immune from challenge. Think about it… the ultimate way to win a theological argument is to state with confidence— “I talked to God and He told me I was correct.” That is what happened with Islam. Islam came out of a long history of discussions about the nature of the Godhead and the nature of Christ. There were centuries of discussion based on New Testament and Old Testament scriptures. Then in the 7th century along came one who said, in effect, “Here are my views, and these views were given to me directly from an angel of God.” The founder of Mormonism came out of a time of intense theological arguments in the “Burnt Out District” of New York, and did pretty much the same as the founder of Islam.

Rather than canonizing one’s own beliefs, dialogue with others and theological self-reflection is valuable in a diverse environment. Therefore, I don’t believe any of the three options in the original poll is a complete answer. In fact, they may hardly serve as partial answers.

Men of NO Ideas

One of my favorite essays is “Men of One Idea.” It was written by Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881). Some sources say it was written by Timothy Titcomb. However, that was his pseudonym. I have a copy of the essay in the Union Sixth Reader, a book published in 1862. Long have I sought an electronic copy of the essay. I really did not want to type it out. Thankfully, someone else did. If you want to read it, you can CLICK HERE.

Here is a short excerpt from that relatively short essay…

Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, whether spoken through nature or revelation. There is no one idea in all God’s universe so great and so nutritious that it can furnish food for an immortal soul. Variety of nutriment is absolutely essential, even to physical health. There are so many elements that enter into the structure of the human body, and such variety of stimuli requisite for the play of its vital forces, that it is necessary to lay under tribute a wide range of nature; and fruits and roots and grain, beasts of the field, fowls of the air, and fish of the sea, juices and spices and flavors, all bring their contributions to the perfection of the human animal, and the harmony of its functions. …

A mind that surrenders itself to a single idea becomes essentially insane. I know a man who has dwelt so long upon the subject of a vegetable diet that it has finally taken possession of him. It is now of such importance in his eyes that every other subject is thrown out of its legitimate relations to him. It is the constant theme of his thought–the study of his life. He questions the properties and quantities of every mouthful that passes his lips, and watches its effects upon him. He reads upon this subject everything he can lay his hands on. He talks upon it with every man he meets. He has ransacked the whole Bible for support to his theories; and the man really believes that the eternal salvation of the human race hinges upon a change of diet. It has become a standard by which to decide the validity of all other truth. If he did not believe that the Bible was on his side of the question, he would discard the Bible. Experiments or opinions that make against his faith are either contemptuously rejected or ingeniously explained away. Now this man’s mind is not only reduced to the size of his idea, and assimilated to its character, but it has lost its soundness. His reason is disordered. His judgment is perverted–depraved. He sees things in unjust and illegitimate relations. The subject that absorbs him has grown out of proper proportions, and all other subjects have shrunk away from it. I know another man–a man of fine powers–who is just as much absorbed by the subject of ventilation; and though both of these men are regarded by the community as of sound mind, I think they are demonstrably insane.

Timothy Titcomb’s essay: Men Of One Idea

Since we are talking about the Bible, I am reminded of a few verses that (I would argue) relate strongly to the point of Holland…

Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.

Proverbs 15:22

Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.

Proverbs 11:14

For by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.

Proverbs 24:6

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:17

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.

Proverbs 12:15

Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance,

Proverbs 1:5

After three days they found him (Jesus) in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.

Luke 2:46

By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom.

Proverbs 13:10

Reading these verses, one sees a couple of clues to gaining wisdom. First is Dialogue. Luke 2:46 and Proverbs 27:17 suggests this directly. The Luke passage is especially important since Jesus (we are tempted to think of Him as one who needs no wisdom from others) is described as holding dialogue and asking questions with experts. A few verses later, in verse 52, Jesus is described as growing in wisdom. The other verses I shared describe interaction with others, and presumably this implies dialogue of 2 or more people. Second is Counsel. Wise people listen to others. They don’t simply trust in their own self-sufficient awesomeness, but take seriously others’ perspectives, knowledge, and understanding.

But if the counsel of many leads to wisdom, what is the character of this wisdom?

#1. Broadly defined. What I mean is that it should be BOTH eductive and deductive. Deductive is classic advice-giving. The counselor tells the other something that this person does not know. This is the classic one. Eductive is the preferred method of modern psychological and pastoral counseling. Eductive counseling is a form of drawing out. It presumes that the person already knows what is right and true, but needs help in drawing this out or identifying the internal inconsistencies in that person. We see Eductive counseling masterfully integrated into broader counseling in Nathan’s counseling of King David regarding his affair with Bathsheba (and with killing Uriah). I think broadly defined also suggests both “sofia” and “phronesis.” These Greek terms suggest wisdom based on theoretical understanding of the way things are (sofia wisdom) and the practical understanding of the way things should be and how to accomplish this (phronesis wisdom).

#2. Multi-perspectival. Wisdom comes from listening to different perspectives. Because of this having a group of “Yes Men” does not count. This is not counseling. It is parroting back what the one says and thinks. They tickle the ear and confirm the prejudices of the one who needs wisdom rather than affirmation. There is no doubt that this is a failure… because there is only one perspective— the “Perspective of the Self.” But that brings up another thought. What if there is only one perspective— the “Perspective of the Other?” That is, what if one surrounds oneself with only one perspective. I would argue that this is no better. We learn by being surrounded in a sea of ideas. While we may fear drowning in such a sea, we are likely to be parched with the trickle from a spring that feeds only one stream of thought. Walter Wrigley Jr. has the great quote, “When two men in a business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” Perhaps this bit of wisdom applies in life as well.

It seems to me that we are suffering from this today. Perhaps as a defense against being inundated with too many ideas, we shield ourselves off from all but one viewpoint. I see this a lot. I teach in a seminary and am often shocked at how little seminarians (who are supposed to be “experts” in religion and theology) know about other religions, or even the church of a different denomination or tradition just down the road. I occasionally get notes from friends sharing interesting information. They tell me where they got this information. That is a good thing because citations are important. However, in some cases, it is clear from the context that I should believe it because it came from news source “A,” and not from news source “B.” In fact, I have had people gainsay things I have said simply because I referenced a source that they have identified as “fake.” Often, however, fake just means that it expresses a different perspective. Truthfully, I get that. There are some sources of information I am tempted to reject off-hand. I have to remind myself that even a person who is 99% wrong, must then be 1% right, and it is possible that in that 1% is something I need to hear.

If you think about it… surrounding oneself with those who share one perspective is likely to create an echo chamber that leads to more extreme and unquestioned opinions. It is in this environment that groups with cultic tendencies (authoritarian and separatist structures with extremist views) and fascination with conspiracy theories thrive. Sometimes people describe this as the “new tribalism,” and perhaps the term has some merit. Years ago, people spoke of the Internet, along with migration, and ease of travel and communication leading to a sort of globalistic mega-culture. But we love to identify with smaller groups. There are good and bad sides to this. But one bad side is the temptation to sanctify our own group (and our opinions), while demonizing other groups and opinions.

And if one places oneself into this setting where one willingly becomes a reflector and transmitter of the insulted views of another(s), it may not be enough to say that this person has become “A Man of One Idea.” Such a phrase suggests some amount of personal creativity… a bit of innovation. Creativity comes from interacting with diversity, rather than indoctrination from uniformity. As such, this person perhaps may be best described as “A Man of NO Ideas.”

I believe that God has gifted all of us with the potential for wisdom that, in part, springs from our uniqueness. This uniqueness comes from our:

  • Talents
  • Calling
  • Circumstances
  • Experiences
  • Relationships

To give a trivial example. I am “White” (Swedish-American) raised up in a region that was almost 100% White (a small percentage of Native Americans made up the remainder of the population at that time). I was raised up in a culture where an awful lot of people shared a common identity and perspective. Nothing wrong with that… geography and socio-economic factors would drive a lot of people to a common perspective. However, the US Navy got me out of the area and allowed me to see many other parts of the United States and the World. This travel in some ways helped me to treasure the uniqueness of my upbringing, but it also helped me to see its limitations. Marrying a woman who was raised up in a different country of a different ethnicity, and raising children who are considered biracial, helped me see things from a yet broader perspective. Then living for 17 years in a country where I am not part of a 99% ethnic majority, but rather a 1% ethnic minority, has further helped me see things from a decidedly different perspective.

I believe that these different circumstances have helped me grow as a person. I also believe that my perspective may also be valuable to someone who has had a decidedly different background. This doesn’t mean that I got it all together. This doesn’t mean that people of narrower experiences are of no value to me.

Multi-perspective dialogue helps. Some express fear of individuals “losing their faith” whatever faith position one is speaking of. For me, however, a faith that goes unchallenged is likely to both brittle and rotten. Rotten means it goes from something good to something bad (Holland’s essay speaks to this). This is where extreme viewpoints tend to take a person to a very bad place. Brittleness means that one has not developed the faculties to think through ones beliefs. When challenged, the person is either forced to react with hostility, or retreat ignobly. “Losing one’s faith” in this situation may be either (a) losing a faith that was unworthy of basing one’s whole life upon— or (b) never having really embraced that faith in a constructive, reflective, and creative way.

A “Man of No Ideas” will devolve toward a from of insanity (falling pray to the mind-control of a few), or instability of poorly reflected upon opinions that yield to the will of others.

Dialogue with Bad History

Teaching a class on Dialogue with Asian Religions, a question was brought up by one of the students (one raised as a Christian in a country where Christians are most definitely a minority faith). How does one effectively have dialogue (and possibly evangelizing) with someone who is focused on bad history with other Christians, or perhaps are focused on the challenging history between Christianity and the other person’s faith?

I don’t know that I have awesome answers. But I can start with one answer I believe is really wrong. When I took Intro to Evangelism class, the textbook author stated if the other person brings up such things, toss those issues aside. They are a distraction. But I really don’t think they are a distraction. Perhaps they are, but commonly they are brought up because the concerns do actually matter to the person. Completely ignoring them seems pretty insulting. People like to be heard and acknowledged.

Of course, one can’t really go into a 3 hour discussion of the moral issues of colonization, or who is at fault in the Crusades, is not really helpful either. There may however, be a middle ground.

  1. Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman in John 4 used the past to move things forward. The woman brought up the disagreement between Jews and Samaritans regarding place of worship. Truthfully, she was being pretty diplomatic (as would be culturally expected). After all, 200 years before, Jews had destroyed the Samaritan temple— a pretty awful thing to do. Jesus did not attempt to defend the Jewish position. Jesus diplomatically (again) noted that the differences are real and relevant… but times are changing. The barriers between Jews and Samaritans are being torn down (elsewhere noting that Jewish temple will be torn down… much as the Samaritan temple was)— the argument of Mt. Zion versus Mt. Gerizim will soon be moot.
  2. I have always liked a story I heard years ago about a college chaplain (I would love to think that the story could be true). Incoming students have a meeting with the chaplain. Commonly the conversation would go something like this…. After the orientation spiel, the students says, “Thanks chaplain, but you won’t be seeing much of me in the future.” The chaplain responds, “So why is that?” The student explains, “Well, I don’t believe in God anymore.” The chaplain responds, “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in.” After a bit of confusion, the student describes God as he or she was led to understand. Perhaps this God is harsh, judgmental, and unloving. After this the chaplain says,
    “Well, that is good. I don’t believe in that god either.” Sometimes at least, that helps establish a positive relationship with the chaplain. After all, they now share something with the chaplain they did not think they did.

If one brings the two points together, it can be useful to explore the problems, explore the history. For example, if the other person had a Christian neighbor who was a horrible person, it can be useful to let that story be told. It is honoring to hear their story and to affirm what one can affirm. Frankly, a good person… a good Christian… would reject the behavior of that bad neighbor. Additionally, acknowledge the past while still moving the conversation into the future. After all, the past is important, but the potentialities of the future are even more important.

God, Man, or Satan

This image above is considering where other religions come from. (from Sir Norman Anderson). Some people believe they come from God. If that is true then other religions are a Preparation for the Gospel. Other people believe they come from Satan. If that is true, then other religions are a trap, snare, and distraction. Others believe that other religions are Man’s attempt to understand the great mysteries of life, and are seeking meaning and hope in a confusing world.

Each have implications on other things. If other religions are from God, then that suggests continuity of God’s work (God is working everywhere, not simply through the church). If other religions are from Satan, then it may be more correct to think that God’s work is discontinuous… God ONLY ministers to the world through the church. If other religions are from Man, it is not so certain as to which (as I marked) but it is probable that God’s ministry is discontinuous. I am using continuity and discontinuity the way Andrew Walls does.

If other religions are from God, then our goal is for the gospel to fulfill/complete other religions. If other religions are from Satan, then other religions need to be destroyed and replaced. If other religions are man-made… it is not so clear what should be done, but the key point is that things have to change… transformation is needed.

If other religions are from God, then the contextualization form that is best (from Paul Hiebert’s model) is probably uncritical contextualization— quick to embrace what is good, focusing on common ground and ignoring problematic details. If other religions are from Satan, then non-contextualization makes more sense. Cultural imperialism, throwing out the bad and replacing it with what the missionary believes is good from outside, hopefully will work. If other religions are from Man, then Critical Contextualization makes the most sense. We have to understand others and their beliefs openly and sympathetically, but recognizing the need for God’s message to challenge and change in some areas.

If other religions come from God, then dialogue makes the most sense. We need to talk together and learn from each other. If other religions come from Satan, then didactic speech (teaching/preaching) makes the most sense. If other religions come from Man, perhaps dialectic makes the most sense— recognizing the competing values and beliefs to challenge and be challenged by the other. (Using terms as David Hesselgrave does here… I think.)

But, what if ALL THREE IS TRUE? God is at work everywhere drawing all to Himself, even before the church has arrived (like with Cornelius and Peter in Acts). Satan is the accuser and deceiver roaming over the whole earth, and is perfectly happy to work both inside and outside of religion to do this. And Man is always seeking to know what is true and what is good and what is right, and will develop religion as a vehicle to answer to answer these questions. If all three are true, then our response cannot be as simple as the diagram would have for any individual.

I put purple squares around those responses that I think make sense if other religions come from all three sources. Do you agree?

Offending for Good Reason

Darrel Whiteman says that one of three reasons for good contextualization is to “Offend for the Right Reason.” After all, Paul noted that the Gospel message is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews. Yet at the same time, Paul did try to make the Gospel message palatable or adorned for these groups. Paul expressed the Gospel in terms of Deus or the Unknown God to Greek philosophers. Paul expressed the Gospel in terms of Jesus as the Messiah predicted in Scripture to Jews. So this suggests that there is Offending for good reasons and Offending for the bad reasons. And by inference, one can NOT Offend for good and bad reasons.

Offending for bad reasons can break down communication. It can make the message rejected. It can also cause the Christian faith to be viewed as foreign to the culture rather than a fulfillment of the culture.

Not offending for bad reasons can lead to confusion where the Gospel may be seen as nothing more than “the best of that culture.” Ultimately, it may result in some form of syncretism. That syncretism may be seen in “Situational Reformation” (syncretism due to confusion) or “Syncretistic Incorporation” (syncretism based on the intentional creative act of the receiver).

Not offending for good reasons helps the gospel to localize… feel at home in the new culture. Much of a local culture is good (or at least not bad) so the gospel should not undermine what is worthy of embracing.

Offending for good reasons gives motivation to transformation. If the gospel is totally in line with the culture in every way, causing of no offense, one essentially has a “state religion”– justifying the status quo. But offending for the right reason points to necessary transformation.