Inter-religious Dialogue as a Tool

I have recently, finally, started working on my book on Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD). I should not have been so slow. I will be teaching the course starting in October (2018). This is the third time I have taught the course, but this will be the first time with my own text. I hope to have at least a rough draft ready by then.

The following is the rough draft of the Introduction.

Imagine that you have a toolbox. Imagine you are a carpenter, and in your toolbox you have only one tool — perhaps a hammer. Can you build a house only with a hammer? Poorly at best. Can you hammer screws? Again poorly. Other tasks are likely even worse — leveling, sawing, drilling, and more. The results would be poor. The carpenter would be exhausted and the constructed house would be a disaster.

A wise carpenter has three things:

  • A toolbox with a variety of tools of the trade

  • Skills in how to use each of the tools effectively

  • Wisdom to know which tool to use for each task

Now imagine that each Christian has a toolbox of skills associated with serving God. Some tools may be spiritual disciplines such as prayer, bible study, witnessing, and mediation. Other tools may be less specifically religious such as teaching, polemics, argument, encouragement, and counseling. Having a wide variety of skills/disciplines is important, but this is not enough.

One must know how to use eachtool well. A carpenter may have a power saw, but still need considerable training to use it well. A minister may “know how to preach,” but still there is a great distance beween this and preaching well or effectively.

Skillful use is not enough. One must have the wisdom to know the right tool to use in each specific circumstance. Some people are very skilled in prayer, but as important as prayer can be, there are times when prayer is the wrong tool… or at least an inadequate tool. A hungry neighbor needs more than prayer. There are times when preaching is needed, and times when it is inappropriate or unhelpful.

This book is about a tool — dialogue. Specifically, it is about the tool of dialogue, and how it can be used effectively as a Christian minister in interacting with people of other faiths.

At a basic level, most everyone knows how to do dialogue. But this does not mean that everyone is equally competent to dialogue well. This also does not mean that everyone knows when to use it and when not.

This book is primarily aimed at missionaries and ministers who work in cross-cultural or religiously pluralistic settings. However, the places on earth that are monocultural and religiously monolithic are decreasing rapidly. Therefore, there are fewer and fewer ministers who can say that they are competent in their ministry without skills in inter-religious dialogue.

Philosophically, this book sees inter-religious dialogue as seeking understanding. This is in contrast to those who see it primarily in terms of relativization of beliefs at one extreme, and apologetics at the other. As such it is consistent with Evangelicals, who take very seriously their own truth convictions regarding religious faith. However, it also challenges the presumption of many Evangelicals that the most effective way to interact with people of other faiths is through preaching or teaching (one-way communication), or through arguing.

Sadly, a book is by its nature a form of one-way communication. Since this book is about dialogue, it is my hope that readers will have an opportunity to go through this book with others — and especially with others of a variety of viewpoints. Dialogue, as a tool, is practiced, not simply read about; and is made sharp through practice with those of diverse opinions.

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Seven Things Evangelicals Say to Atheists and Why They Shouldn’t Say Them

This is a redirect to a great post by Bruce Gerenscer. He was an Evangelical Pastor for decades, but left the church and faith in God some time back. He now writes from an Atheistic/Humanistic perspective that has been informed by his Evangelical Christian background.  The article can be found by clicking here.  SEVEN THINGS EVANGELICALS SAY TO ATHEISTS AND WHY THEY SHOULDN’T SAY THEM.

I would definitely recommend people reading his posts. They are well-written and well-thought out. You may ask why, as a Christian, I would recommend reading one who has “left the fold,” so to speak. But his perspective is priceless. He has that etic (outsider) and emic (insider) perspective of Evangelical Christianity that Christians need. We need to look hard at ourselves sometimes.  (American Evangelical obsession with rather creepy politics of late certainly deserves some informed critique.)

Many Christians seem to have a lot ofImage result for atheism trouble with Atheists. I am not entirely sure why. As a committed Christian, one should be far more concerned by people who call themselves Christians but who live in a manner that mocks what we claim to believe. Here in the Philippines, I have heard atheists/freethinkers say that people here think they are Satanists. While some Satanists are Atheists (rejecting an actual Satan or God, but embracing a Satanic “philosophy of living”) the labeling has no value but to insult and drive (further) away.

I had an uncle much like Mr. Genescer above. He was a devout Christian who went to Bible School, but later became an Atheist. At a funeral of my grandmother, the pastor who was speaking started giving all sorts of “scientific” reasons for believing in God. While I do believe that there is a good reasoned basis for supporting Intelligent Design, this pastor knew none of that. Rather, his mini-sermon showed how little he knew about Science. I was rather embarrassed by it. My uncle never mentioned how stupid the arguments were (perhaps he expected nothing better than that anyway). However, believing that the message was targeting him, he felt that it was highly inappropriate for a funeral. I have say he was correct on both counts— I am sure he was being targeted, and it was highly inappropriate.

Sometimes we need to see an outside perspective to see what we should really be able to see.

Another good article of his is on the similarity between Multi-level Marketing (MLM) and many Evangelistic Programs.  It is HERE.

…And Then Sometimes They Just Get It

I teach a class in Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD). Since I am a Missions professor at an Evangelical missionally-minded seminary, I like to challenge the notion that IRD is anti-evangelistic. IRD is not preaching (1-way communication to change someone’s mind) or apologetics (2-way communication to change someone’s mind).  IRD focuses on understanding, but I point out that, much in line with Dale Carnegie, one does not influence another person by trying to win arguments. Mutual understanding builds trust, and opens the door for more effective sharing of one’s own beliefs.

Part of that class was to have my students practice Inter-religious Dialogue. They were to have two good conversations with individuals of another faith.

Most did okay enough. There were some issues:

  • Some really did not talk to those of another faith, but of a different Christian denomination. Why? In some cases, they may have been shy about making a conversation with someone from a different faith. For others, I don’t know. This is a Baptist seminary, and there is a temptation (a very unhealthy temptation in my view) to identify people from other denominations as people of other faiths.
  • Some did a conversation more like a quiz. “Can you answer me these following questions about your beliefs?” and “Okay… thanks for your time. Good day.” That is not the worst thing. Evangelicals sometimes almost revel in their ignorance of other faiths… so I can’t really complain that they took time to listen. But perhaps they could have done more to build relationships.
  • A few quickly fell back into argument— trying to ask clever questions, or make poignant statements that would leave the other at a loss and realize that their faith is invalid. That rarely works. But I know that argument is commonly taught as if it is a great method of sharing one’s faith. Just this morning, I saw a tweet from a Christian author that said something like. “Evangelism today is spelled A-P-O-L-O-G-E-T-I-C-S.” Personally, in a post-modern society, most real (inter-religious or inter-faith, rather than inter-denominational) evangelism should be spelled D-I-A-L-O-G-U-E. But I know that the desire to be clever and “score points” can be strong… and there are valid roles for apologetics.

One student in particular really got my point. When I first started teaching the class, he seemed rather skeptical thinking that I am disrespecting Evangelism. This is not surprising since Dialogue as promoted by John Hick, Raimon Pannikkar, and others on the Relativistic side of the spectrum of Dialogue thought certainly did not support proselytization… and often found it to be anathema, or at least inconsistent with dialogue.

But over time, my student came around to the idea that there may be benefit in using dialogue to reach some people.

He presented a case where it was very helpful. He was having a conversation with a person from another of the Great World Religions. That person was quite cautious and suspicious of my student. My student was very non-combative– he did not preach, he did not argue. They talked about life and faith. Over three or four meetings, they were able to get to the point where they could talk about issues of faith and faith allegiance in a mutually safe environment. The other person decided to become a follower of Christ. My student is now mentoring that person… but is for now cautious in integrating that person into a church. (Sadly, there are far too many horror stories of well-meaning Christians who destroy young Christians from other religious backgrounds because they don’t know how to respond well.)

So does that mean that Dialogue can work in Evangelism. Absolutely Yes. Is it the only thing that works? No, but for a person from a radically different faith background, canned presentations, clever arguments, and polemics are likely to create a hostile response, not the desired response.

My student was thankful for the class because it helped him respond in a way that the other person was prepared to respond well to… rather than react against.

I find it amusing sometimes, and sometimes disappointing, when I teach a class and my students do almost the exact opposite of what I recommend. It is their right, and I don’t really trust professors who feel that their students must mimic their own views and behaviors. Still, one hopes that the students at least struggle with what they learned from the course trying to figure out what to value and practice, and what to set aside….

… And then sometimes they just get it.

 

Human Exegesis

Consider Three Statements:

A.  Wife:  “We have been married for 20 years,interpretation and have never had an argument.”

B.  Friend:  “My neighbor died yesterday.”

C.  16 year old son:  “I am going to quit school.”

In each of these statements, we know two things— we know who said it, and we know what it says. But there are things we do not know, and these things are huge.

First, we don’t know the situational context of the statements. Second, we don’t know the feelings associated with the statements. Because of these unknowns, we are left with two even more critical unknowns

WE DON’T KNOW WHAT THE STATEMENTS MEAN.

WE DON’T KNOW HOW WE SHOULD RESPOND.

Now you might think that you have no problem in figuring out what each of the listed statements mean, and how to respond— BUT YOU DON’T. Consider, some feeling and situation contexts added for each of the above statements.

A1:  “We have been married for 20 years, and have never had an argument. I am blissfully happy. We have the perfect marriage.”

A2:  “We have been married for 20 years, and have never had an argument. I am sad. We never talk about what really matters.”

A3:  “We have been married for 20 years, and have never had an argument. I am frustrated. Whenever there is a conflict, he just walks away.

A4:  “We have been married for 20 years, and have never had an argument.  Our marriage feels dead. We don’t talk, we don’t disagree. We just go through the motions.”

B1:  “My neighbor died yesterday. I am devastated. He was like a father to me.

B2:  “My neighbor died yesterday. I am positively thrilled. He was such an evil man.

B3:  “My neighbor died yesterday. I am angry. His self-destructive, selfish, behavior, now leaves behind a widow with three young children.

B4:  “My neighbor died yesterday. I don’t feel much of anything. I hardly even knew him.

C1:  “I am going to quit school.” <I am irresponsible, and don’t understand how difficult life really is without an education.>

C2:  “I am going to quit school. I am bullied constantly. I am terrified about showing up there again.

C3:  “I am going to quit school. I am so bored. The classes do not challenge me. I want to learn, not just occupy a seat.

C4:  “I am going to quit school. Life is hopeless and meaningless. In fact, I am quitting everything. It’s over.”

C5:  “I am going to quit school.” <Maybe now you will pay attention to me.>

Each of these statements now have emotional and situational contexts added. Has the meaning changed from the original statement? Not really. The original statements had no meaning. They only have meaning, when contexts are added.

So why do we think that the original statements (A, B, or C) have meaning? It is because we unconsciously supply the situational and emotional contexts. Sometimes, this is done through transference. That is, we draw from our own past relational and emotional situation and use that to supply the missing information.

Let’s go back to statement A.  “We have been married for 20 years and have never had an argument.” There is not enough information here to provide meaning. So we guess at the context. Maybe past experience in marriage and observing the marriages of others has led one to be, perhaps justifiablly, cynical. Perhaps, on hearing the statement, one is tempted to assume the person is lying. One might assume that the person is trying to brag unjustifiably about the marriage. Certainly, the woman is getting ready to give unwelcome marriage advice and so is seeking to back it with the false credentials of “the perfect marriage.” But that is an awful lot of presumption. Statements A1, A2, A3, and A4 are quite reasonable alternative meanings.

How about statement B?  “My neighbor died yesterday.” Commonly a hearer would try to put him or herself in the speaker’s shoes. Well, actually, the truth is the reverse. The hearer will try to put the speaker in his or her own shoes. So if one had a beloved neighbor, especially one that died, the hearer would tend to assume that the speaker is greatly saddened by this event. Again, it is very presumptuous.

Consider statement C.  “I am going to quit school.” Once again, presumptions are likely to spring up. One’s child must be lazy and irresponsible. But that is only one possibility.

So why does this matter? In ministry, we do an awful lot of guesswork as well. How often do we frame a statement of another with our context and our emotions, rather than another. Consider a fourth statement.

D.  Female parishioner:  “I am struggling with my marriage.”

What does that mean? It means nothing… nothing whatsoever. We don’t know what it means until we know the emotions and the situational contexts. Here are a few possibilities:

D1.  “I am struggling with my marriage.  Will you help my husband and I mend our relationship so that it is as God wants?”

D2.  “I am struggling with my marriage.” <I am giving up on my marriage, but I am going to talk to you first so I can let others know that I “made an attempt” to save it.>

D3. “I am struggling with my marriage.”  <Maybe you can give me the emotional support that my husband no longer provides.>

D4.  “I am struggling with my marriage. I am afraid for my life but have no idea who to talk to about this.”

D5.  “I am struggling with my marriage. I have done horrible things. I don’t deserve forgiveness or a happy family.”

It is tempting to go into answer mode before one has even understood what the other wants or needs. We really have to listen for the meaning first.

Exegesis, drawing out meaning from a text, also applies to human beings. It is wrong (arguably evil) to take a passage of scripture and use it out of its context– thus without meaning. For example: Jeremiah 29:11 simply cannot be used to guarantee individual prosperity. First, it was given to Jews in exile, not to us. Second, even to the direct recipients, there was no direct prosperity… only hope that in a few decades future generations would be doing better. We need Exegesis, not Eisegesis.

Anton Boisen liked to refer to people he ministered to as “Living Human Documents.” We don’t need Eisegesis of a life. We can’t minister to someone by guessing at a meaning when no meaning was given… only statements.

Argument and Ego Response

I find this an interesting phenomenon. Maybe you will as well. I am teaching a course in Inter-religious Dialogue. The first third of the course is on some principles of IRD, while the second deals with the beliefs of some major word religions.

We had covered Rabbinical Judaism already54169d1c6e7a2ce8d29a09433db6a687 and were now in Islam. One of my students is much more of an expert in Islamic beliefs than I am since he was raised in a culture where these beliefs were really deeply ingrained in the educational system. I was happy to let him teach parts of this section. So he gets up and says that he will teach Islamic beliefs from an insider perspective. As he started to teach, it was interesting that some of the other students begin to challenge him in some of the points and bringing up counter-arguments. I found that interesting because:

  • The student who was teaching Islamic beliefs is not a member of that faith, and yet the very fact that he was teaching it from an insider perspective appeared to make some of the fellow students uncomfortable.
  • One of the principles I drilled into my students is that one should try to “walk in the shoes” of those of another belief system. That is, listen respectfully and try to understand their faith from their position. After all, beliefs (no matter how crazy they may sound from an etic position) make a lot of sense from an insider (emic) position. I recall reading an Islamic tract that was trying to convince Christians that they should become Muslims. It became pretty obvious that they did not understand Christian theology. The writers were writing from a specifically Islamic perspective to people they were not even trying to understand.
  • I have equally pointed out the general futility to argument in changing people’s minds. Generally, argument leads to backfire where the beliefs of the two parties tend to diverge rather than converge via argument.

So when the students were bumping up against other belief perspectives and standards of authority, they became defensive and started drifting into argument mode. Even though the person “on the other side” was also a Christian, the circumstances triggered the response.

I am sure that some in the class would look at the situation differently. They might say that the arguing was a fun or even humorous response. However, that response, whatever the cause, still tended to sabotage the learning experience because it involved a rejection of trying to understand things from the non-Christian perspective. They were listening to respond rather than to understand.

When I brought this up, the class adjusted. But I don’t think this response is unique. Much of my class went to the local mosque for Friday noon prayers, and also did a tour of the school at the mosque where they teach Arabic and the Tawhid. While there, one of the Islamic students tried to strike up a theological argument. One of my students did respond well. He said, “That’s really not why we are here today. We are here to learn, not to argue.”

Our religious beliefs are not only what we believe, they also become part of our values and self-understanding, so the very existence of people who don’t value those beliefs, and even have counter-beliefs, tend to trigger a reaction.

It is curious that many people think that arguing over faith is a good method to convince others to change to their own beliefs. This is simply not true. Most people respond to warm words and actions rather than cold logic.

The trigger for argument in many cases is not a desire to evangelize, but ego response.

 

Conversion or Fulfillment?

I have posted before on the question of whether we all worship the same god or not. I noted that when it comes to the Abrahamic religions– most notably Christianity, Judaism, and Islam– there is a lot of discussion as to Willi-Heidelbachwhether or not we worship the same God. The same question could equally apply to religions that have as their center of worship a god who is the creator of all things. Some of these may be described as polytheistic or henotheistic, but really only have one being that they worship who is truly ultimate.

Some say NO. Since the characteristics of the god each worships is different, then clearly each worships a different god. The challenge with this view is two-fold. First, it works against a missiological connection. Missionaries have often used a group’s belief in a creator god as a starting point for bringing in Biblical revelation. Second, since there are perhaps no two people who completely imagine God identically, and no single person who has ever envisioned God as he truly is, a NO response opens the door to the bigger question of whether anyone truly worships God in both spirit and truth.

Some say YES. If there is only one God, it is almost nonsensical to say we worship different gods. However, with different faiths have so radically different descriptions of god, how can we really say that the object of our worship is really the same?

I suggested an intermediate response before of NO, BUT

That is, No we don’t worship the same God, But we SEEK to worship the same God. This is most clearly true in the case of the Abrahamic faiths, since all of them seek to worship the God of Abraham as revealed in the Torah. However, any group that worships the one creator god could be seen as seeking the same object of their worship.

With further reflection, I would like to add another answer that does not replace “no but,” but does enhance the answer. The answer is YES, BUT

That is, Yes we do worship the same God, But some do not know the God they worship.

This answer is quite supportable in Scripture. In John 4, Jesus seems to give this answer to the woman of the Samaritan faith, an Abrahamic faith.

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.

John 4:19-23

Jesus appears to acknowledge that the Samaritans worship the same God as the Jews, but it is a god they do not know.

The same could be said regarding non-Abrahamic faiths. In Acts 17, Paul links the God of the Bible, rhetorically to Zeus and to Deus. In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas note that they are speaking of the living god who created all things who has revealed himself and his goodness to all nations at all times. These presentations of the Gospel also could be viewed as consistent with a message to people who ultimately worship the same god, but one that they don’t truly know.

There is not a lot of difference between NO BUT and YES BUT. Yet there is some reason to value YES BUT.

A major value is that it offers the possibility of reframing Conversion as Fulfillment.

Some of the Hill tribes of Myanmar and India for example, worshiped the god who created all things, but they believed that they had failed in losing the Great Book that was once given to them. Many of them, now Christians, do not see the transition in terms of rejecting their former faith, and conversion to a new faith. Rather, they see themselves as believing the faith of their ancestors, but now fulfilled with a restored book and Savior.

This is not so different from the first century Jewish Christians who saw their faith in terms of a fulfillment of the faith of their forefathers, rather than a replacement. I believe the Samaritans could also see acceptance of the Gospel of Christ in terms of a fulfillment of their ancestor’s faith rather than a replacement.

Could the gospel of Isa fulfill the faith of those who have followed what was established by Muhammad, Bahá’u’lláh, or Nanak? Can God’s revelation in the Bible fulfill other faiths as well?