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?


Among Them and Overwhelmed

Quote from PGJ Meiring’s article, “Max Warren and His Seven Rules for a Dialogue Between Christians and Non-Christians. “Actually, the article was originally written in Afrikaaner (Max Warren en sy sewe reëls vir ’n dialoog tussen Christene en nie-Christene” DEEL 47 # 3 & 4 SEPTEMBER & DECEMBER 2006, P. 588-599.)

The fourth rule/principle is “Identification.” Here is a rough translation of an excerpt of Meiring’s article regarding Identification:


Preparation of the Prophet Ezekiel

The fourth principle probably asks the most of the conversation partners: the willingness to identify as far as possible with the other person’s life and conditions he lives in. It asks you to understand “the language of his heart”. It does not come naturally of itself: it requires imagination, endurance, humility and much love. Warren loved to refer to the example of the prophet Ezekiel, the prophet to the exiles in Babylon, sent with an all-important message from the Lord. Even though Ezekiel cannot be in the modern sense a “missionary” – after all, he is a prophet sent to his own people – he provides a model for all to consider as the Lord prepared him for his preaching task. Before the prophet was sent to speak, he had to first experience and learn to listen – and this is a lesson that every missionary in our day needs to seriously consider.

In the Authorized Version, Ezekiel 3:15 is translated as: “I came to them of the captivity … and I sat where they sat, and remained astonished among them for seven days “. The Revised Standard Version translates this slightly differently: “I came to them of the captivity … and I sat there overwhelmed among them for seven days”. The emphasis is different, says Warren: the first-mentioned translation emphasizes Ezekiel’s “entering into the experience of the exiles” while the latter “the ‘Overwhelming’ character of what the prophet experienced by joining these exiles where they were ” is emphasized (Warren, 1960: 60vv).

Both emphases are important: first of all, we must meet people where they are, we must “Sit where they sit”. We must understand their situation – their joy and their pain and how these experiences influence their views and beliefs (Warren, 1960: 17). “You and I can not bring men to Christ by whistling to them at a distance. We have to go and meet them, as God does, and psychologically speaking, this means coming to them imaginatively where they imagine themselves to be “(Warren, 1955: 31). The second emphasis, however, is just as important: that we become “Stunned.” We find ourselves speechless because we find it so difficult to really understand the other because their need is so great, and we are struggling to make clear the salvation of Christ because our vocabulary is too inadequate. But also speechless because we experience God already there, that He has already made his voice heard in the situation (Warren,1960: 17).

Maybe I Should Never Read those FB Comments

On FB was an article “Open Letter to John Piper on White Evangelicalism and Multiethnic Relationships” by Raymond Chang. It was shared by ChurchLeaders and Ed Stetzer, but originating in Christianity Today. It seemed to be a rather nice article, a bit too benign if anything, on race relations in Evangelicalism.

I am a “white evangelical” in a multiracial marriage and having multiracial kids, attending a non-white church in a non-white country. To me Revelation 7 describes an ideal— with people of every tribe, nation, race, tongue worshiping God together. Unity with Diversity. One could argue it describes Unity empowered by Diversity.

I thought it might be interesting to read the FB comments. Perhaps I shouldn’t. I won’t quote any, singling any out, but I would like to give some comments to some.

  • One suggested that it was a silly thing to bring up… that “white evangelicalism” is a made up term, and that these “peripheral cultural arguments” lead to divisions. I would say that all terms are made up… the question is whether a term is useful or not. In the US at least, the term seems useful, not so much where I live here in the Philippines. I must say though that culture is NOT peripheral. Culture wasn’t peripheral in the book of Acts, and cultural issues were faced squarely, not ignored. Dealing with the issues prevents divisions… not ignoring them. This problem is also in local churches, where it is assumed that problems are best handled by ignoring. But ignored problems OFTEN become big problems. Not always but in good Game Theory, the risks of silence outweigh the benefits.
  • One noted that blacks are racist as well and are part of the division in the Church. Well of course. That’s why what is suggested is Dialogue. Dialogue is two-way conversation. Anyone who thinks that Dialogue involves one side accusing and the other side is apologizing, either doesn’t know what dialogue is, or doesn’t take dialogue seriously.
  • More than one suggested that this is “Affirmative Action” for the church. Another suggested that this was Christianity Today “going liberal.” I know it is always fun to rile up political conservatives by throwing around words they absolutely hate such as “Affirmative Action,” “liberal,” “Obamacare” and such. But, first, this is an article of theology, ministry, and religion, not political science. (There is no self-evident connection between “conservative theology” and “American conservative politics.”) Shaking the political ant farm may be fun, but is ultimately a misdirect. The one who said it was CT “going liberal” may have meant theologically liberal, but I can hardly see how dialogue should be seen as the domain of liberal Christianity. Does that mean that conservative Christianity is the domain for polemics and apologetics only? A different respondent was a bit more direct speaking of the article in line with a “leftist” political agenda, and then as a non-sequitur brought up that we are not nice enough to Israel and too nice to Muslim refugees. (I wonder how mean Jesus really wants us to be to Muslim refugees?)
  • “White Evangelicalism” is a divisive term. One might make the argument that it is a racially insensitive term (like the Washington Redskins) but I see it as identifying a divide. That divide does exist, it is not something created through language. As Martin Luther King Jr. noted, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Since the divide exists in a statistically relevant way, the real question is whether the term “White Evangelicalism” is a good term to identify the disunity. I honestly don’t know.
  • One noted that we should get people truly born again and filled with the Holy Spirit and this would become a non-issue. While I like the hopeful sentiment, again the book of Acts showed a lot of born-again people with the Holy Spirit struggling in how to embrace diversity of culture in the church. While the Spirit of God bridged the gap through allowing the disciples to communicate with those of other languages in Acts 2, the rest of the book involved struggles. This includes struggles between Hellenstic and Hebraic Jews in Jerusalem, what to do with Samaritans who come to faith, what to do with Roman and Greek respondents, and how to contextualize the faith to pagans and Gentile philosophers. Living in the Spirit is a good start, but Acts 15 describes a church that chose to wrestle with the issue rather than describe it as irrelevant.
  • At least one suggested that there are only two groups that matter in Christianity… those filled with the Holy Spirit and those who are carnal. As enticing as reductionism and dualism is, the Bible simply does not discount diversity within the unity of faith. When Paul said that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, Greek nor Gentile, nor Male nor Female, Paul suggesting they are not issues. If they were not issues, he would not mention them. They must be dealt with to move past them.
  • Some noted that their church is multi-ethnic and they don’t see those problems describing their context. I suppose I could say that as well since I am a “white American” part of a multi-ethnic (majority non-white) non-American congregation with completely non-white pastoral staff. But I have seen the problems the writer was concerned with, and I suspect you have too. I am actually a member of two churches. I am a member of a predominantly white church in the US, and a predominantly non-white church in the Philippines. I have had American white Evangelicals assume, for example, that I share their political opinions because I am a white Evangelical. A very bad assumption. I have never had non-white Evangelicals assume I share their political opinions. Of course, one could argue that both views are racist in their own ways. In the end, we REALLY need to talk.

I think this is a good place to stop.