Views on Interreligious Dialogue and Salvation

Advertisements

Dialogue and Different Faiths

talking-and-listening-copy

In “Acts of Faith,” Eboo Patel (2007), founder and director of the Interfaith Youth Core, reflects on the issue of religious diversity. Mirroring W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous statement that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” Patel suggests that “the twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line” (p. xv). He goes on to defend a form of religious pluralism “that affirms the identity of the constituent communities while emphasizing that the well-being of each and all depends on the health of the whole” (p. xv). This approach neither reduces truth claims to the lowest common denominator, nor relativizes religious truth. Rather, it emphasizes the need for open dialogue between persons from different traditions that enables them to learn from, and even experience, each other’s perspective. Given the reality of the “faith line,” the need for interreligious dialogue on

-Marion Larson & Sara Shady (2009) Interfaith Dialogue in a Pluralistic
World: Insights From Martin Buber and Miroslav Volf, Journal of College and Character, 10:3, ,  http://dx.doi.org/10.2202/1940-1639.1086

I will be teaching Interfaith Dialogue this coming semester. I really look forward to that course. The above quote by Larson and Shady, I think is excellent. I would, however, not use the term “religious pluralism” as they use it since for me the term relates to a soteriological viewpoint, not an inter-religious attitude.

The key point is that good dialogue does NOT relativize our view regarding truth and faith convictions. A person of definite beliefs and understanding of ultimate truths is not necessarily less committed to or competent in interfatih dialogue.

It also does not involve trying to come up with common beliefs, often done by wording things vaguely enough so that it sounds like we agree– ignoring important differences. I remember talking to a guy who was a 5-point Calvinist (I am probably more like a 2-1/2 point Calvinist, or maybe a non-Calvinist) who was trying to dialogue with me based on the thesis that “really we both believe the same thing.” Then he went on and described his beliefs with language so loose and vague that almost any Evangelical Christian could agree with the wording. However, using language that obscures beliefs is not good dialogue. The same problem comes from the “Well, don’t we all really worship the same God?” camp.

Dialogue comes from honesty and respect, and just a wee bit of humility. Beyond that, I don’t know. I am hoping to learn a lot this semester, along with my students.

 

A Question of Contextualization

“After a significant pastoral ministry indewri-mandir an urban setting in the United States, a former student of mine returned to his home country of India to minister. When visiting him, I asked, ‘What is the most significant obstacle you face?’ He paused and then said, ‘The biggest I’ve seen recently has been working to overcome the impression left by some well-intentioned American short-term missionaries. When they came to my village, they gathered and marched around a temple in the village, asking God to tear it down in the name of Jesus. Later one of the priests of the temple told me, ‘You Christians are no different than we Hindus. We practice Hindu magic, and Christians practice Christian magic. I know because I saw those American Christians walking around our temple seven times praying. That’s no different from what we do.’

Was this prayer-walk an example of contextualization or syncretism? I am sure they thought they were engaging in appropriate spiritual warfare and would likely cite the Old Testament story of Joshua marching around Jericho (Josh. 6) to confirm it. The Hindu priest, however, read their actions as a ‘Christian’ version of a Hindu magical practice. The long-term worker was left to sort through the mess after the short-termers returned home.”

-Story told by A. Scott Moreau in “Contextualization in World Missions,” 2012, p. 123

Bronislaw Malinowski separated between Religious Thinking and Magical Thinking.

  • Religious Thinking is the view that one should seek to serve or be guided by spiritual beings or forces.
  • Magical Thinking is the view that one should seek to be served by these spiritual beings or forces. The goal, then, is to find ways to manipulate these powers.

If one accepts these definitions, then the STMers were certainly acting on magical thinking just as the Hindu priest stated. Of course, Christians seek to serve God… but entreating God is not outside of the Christian faith, so Christians should be mostly religious in their thinking, but still a bit magical, in thought, as well (based on the above definitions).

As far as whether these STMers were doing good contextualization or syncretism (over-contextualization), I would argue that neither was the case. Probably they were guilty of non-contextualization. Most likely they were bringing over the theology of “spiritual warfare” that they were taught in the United States. It is entirely possible that proponents of this sort of “spiritual warfare” or “power encounter” (such as Charles Kraft and C. Peter Wagner, along with others, developed) can be faulted with syncretism, but not these short-termers. They just took what they were told in the US to do, and did it. Additionally, grabbing the Jericho story and applying it to their situation is no more contextualization than if one of them brought five stones and began to fling them at the temple using a sling (another perfectly “Biblical” activity).

But if this group was only guilty of poor contextual theology and perhaps confusing a Hindu priest (although he doesn’t sound particularly confused) that would be understandable. What is much more worrisome is that their behavior was a poor reflection on Christ.

There is, in my mind, no satisfactory justification for publicly praying down a temple (or mosque or something similar). You might be tempted to say that it is justifiable because we find some kings of Judah praised for tearing down Ashteroth poles and the like. But even if it was done as part of national policy, I don’t believe there is examples of Jewish believers going to other lands to desecrate or attack other temples in other lands.

Even if one feels that one could see justification in the Old Testament, a point I would dispute, no such justification exists in the New Testament.

  1.  Jesus did not do it. He reacted to sacrilege of the Temple in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Decapolis, Galilee, and more, He certainly had opportunity to decry alien places of worship, but we have no record that he had done so.  In John 4, he referred to the worship place of the Samaritans, but outside of pointing to the correctness of Jews in this matter, spoke nothing against the place or the people who worshiped there. (That is not to say that the Hasmoneans before or the Byzantines after were so respectful.)
  2. With Paul the evidence is even stronger. In Acts 17, we find him speaking publicly to the Areopagus without disrespecting the Athenian beliefs. Also, in Acts 19:35-41, we find the clerk in Ephesus defending Paul and Silas:

The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.

But there is more:

3.  There is no way that people will recognize the love of Christ in people seeking destruction of a people’s treasured structure. In a somewhat parallel even here in Baguio City a few years ago, pastors and missionaries were joyous that they had managed to prevent the building of a mosque in the city. But why be overjoyed? The blocking of such a building was very temporary, it was probably illegal in a country that supports freedom of religion, and certainly helped poison a positive of witness of Christians in the Muslim diaspora here.

4.  It is inconsistent with the Golden Rule. If one is bothered by others attacking, destroying, or praying against church buildings, than one should certainly not take any of those stances against other houses of worship.

I think that if they truly felt the need to pray against the Hindu temple, they could have done so quietly and privately. Why hamper Christian ministry by behaving publicly in such a disrespectful manner?

(By the way, I do strongly recommend A. Scott Moreau’s book. It is a great expansion of Bevan’s book on Contextual Theology. One can click on the title after the top quote to get more info on it.)

7 Rules of Dialoguing

How does one do interfaith dialoguing? From the John Hick camp comes the idea that both must relativize their own beliefs. That is difficult to do in practice, and hardly seems appropriate for many— suggesting a sort of virtue in weak convictions.

A better, in my mind, view comes from an article (written in Afrikaans, one of many many languages I cannot read) from South Africa. I am drawing from someone else’s blog– a South African who can read that language. It all ties together with “Seven Rules for Dialogue Between Christians and non-Christians” by Max Warren. So rather than rehash anymore, I would suggest clicking on the various blog posts by

So… Yes… this is a blog of a blog or an article of an article.

     Introduction Blog:         Click Here

     First Rule: Acceptance of our Common Humanity:     Click Here

     Second Rule:  Divine Omnipresence:    Click Here

     Third Rule:  Accepting the Best in Other Religions:      Click Here

     Fourth Rule:  Identification:   Click Here

     Fifth Rule:  Courtesy:  Click Here

     Sixth Rule:  Interpretation:    Click Here

     Seventh Rule:  Expectancy:   Click Here

 

Fear and Power in Ministry, and Five Encounters

I just recently did a short talk on Folk Islam. Not the center of my expertise, but our regular speaker was not able to make it. So I tried to position the talk from an area of greater strength for me… anthropological reflection. So I showed the classic cultural triangle.

Cultural triangle

“Western” Cultures are more interested in Guilt/Forgiveness. “Eastern Cultures are more focused on Shame/Honor, while (so-called) tribal cultures emphasize fear and power.

The orange region tends to be the cultural setting of most Christians, while the green region tends to be the cultural setting of many, but not necessarily all, of other “great religions.” This arguably includes Islam.

The range is dependent on three factors:

  • The Broader culture. An adherent to a religion in a broader culture that is, for example, honor-shame focused would tend to share that focus.
  • Religious Denomination. Denominations tend to needs in a specific region or range on the triangle. For example, I was raised Fundamentalist Christian. There is a strong proclivity toward Guilt and Forgiveness. Charismatic groups are more like the half-way point between Guilt/Forgiveness and Fear/Power.
  • Religious Class. Religions have Formal Religion and Folk Religion. Formal Religion tends to have “religious thinking”— with the adherence to formal doctrines and having the goal of serving spiritual powers. Folk Religion is more emotional rather than doctrinal, and tends towards “magical thinking”— seeking to manipulate (rather than be manipulated by) the spirit work. Folk Religion tends more toward the Fear/Power side of things while Formal Religion (at least of major, non-primal, religions) is away from that vertex of the triangle.

Since the vast majority of most religions are more folk practitioners than formal practitioners, one has to deal with the fear/power side of things more. I noted that for Folk Islam, Charismatics, and probably to a lesser extent Pentecostals, have an advantage over Conservative Evangelicals because their cultural center is closer on the cultural triangle.

That brought up the question, not surprisingly, as to what Conservative Evangelicals can do to reach Folk Muslims. Two bad solutions present themselves above. Becoming “charismatic” (unless of course one decides to based on personal theological reflection) as a means to connect more with Folk Islam seems a bad idea, as is becoming a Folk Christian. While the distance may be reduced, it is reduced by violating one’s own personal integrity. Another bad solution is syncretism… mixing one’s religion with the religion of another to make it more palatable. In my mind, Charles Kraft did that in taking the Fear-Power orientation and spirit world of West African religions and redefining it with Christian language. (Not everyone agrees.)

Some better solutions I believe are here (although they might sound a bit at times like the options above).:

  1.  Reduce cultural distance. Enculturation comes through interacting in and seeking to understand the behavioral and cognitive patterns of a culture. Removing distance culturally does not undo one’s beliefs, but it may broaden them. After all, Jesus was not only an atoning sacrifice, but was also a liberator, and bestower of honor. Understand what the people are most concerned about. They may not be most interested in Heaven. They may not be most interested in forgiveness. They may be most interested in family, community, health, and prosperity. One doesn’t necessarily have to redesign Christian doctrine to these different priorities, but it should speak prophetically to these concerns.
  2. Be open to the possibility that God will demonstrate Himself through power. I have little time for those who feel that God constantly does demonstrate Himself through power. It tends to lessen focus on God’s more common method of working through the weak, the foolish, and the vulnerable. It also puts pressure on people to “fake it,” label as from God what was not from God. However, God has power, and it seems like, especially in situations where the Gospel message is first entering a community, God will demonstrate power as a sign.
  3. Focus on symbols and rituals. Power is often seen in amulets, talismans, incantations, and various rituals. I don’t recommend totally embracing this worldview (wiping handkerchiefs on a religious icon, or getting them “blessed” by a televangelist) adding to local beliefs on contagious magic. But one can’t simply throw away these things and assume that there is not a vaccuum that will be filled by something else. Consider rituals. Rituals are tied to lifecycle, to crises, and to the calendar. In each case, they provide comfort in the providence of God (or god, or gods) that the future is secure. Rituals and symbols can and should be used to provide comfort, while helping them understand that true faith is more relational than magical.

Consider Five major “Encounters”

  • Power Encounter.  The interaction of the power of God with the powers (whether spiritual, natural, or human) within a people.
  • Truth Encounter.  The interaction of the truth of God with the false beliefs within a people
  • Allegiance Encounter.  The interaction of the call of God with the prioritizations/allegiances within a people.
  • Cultural Encounter.  The interaction of the Biblical perspective and behavioral patterns with the culture of a people.
  • Love Encounter.  The interaction of the Love of God with the selfish valuations within a people.

What should be done first? Love Encounter should always be first, I believe. To encounter a community demonstrating God’s love is always foundational. In folk religion, faith is more emotional than cognitive, so love encounter is even more critical.

But what is next? For some cultures it might be truth encounter… but for Folk Religionists, power encounter tied to cultural encounter hand-in-hand probably comes next. After all, folk religionists commonly are linked to their faith through their culture and their priority of power to overcome fear.

Next would be truth encounter. After a foundation of God’s love, and the bridges of God’s demonstrated concern and power translated through culture, God’s message must be made clear in the language, thought patterns, and priorities, of the people..

Ultimately, there must be a change of allegiance. They must choose to follow Christ or the old way. Of course, following Christ does not destroy all aspects of the old way, nor, on the other hand, should it syncretize it. It should transform and fulfill it.

An interesting thing to note is that the five encounters start and end with emotions. It starts with dealing with love and fear and ends with dealing with trust. The other two are more cognitive, truth and culture… dealing with symbols and meanings. None of the five are, strictly speaking, addressing behavior directly. Behavior is the natural fruit of spiritual transformation. Spirituality is the intersection of power and meaning (ideas and values). If behavior does not change, one must question the spiritual transformation.

Strangers in the Land

<NOTE: The image here for vulnerability, I am using as synonymous with weakness. Some don’t feel that way. For them, vulnerability is a virtue while weakness is a well… weakness. I would suggest that both, properly understood, are virtues, and… well… strengths.>

Two passages with regard to the life of Abraham are especially meaningful to me.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”    -Genesis 12:1-3

13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.    -Hebrews 11:13-16

These passages make it clear to me that Abraham left a place he knew as home and never reached a new place he considered home. While God told him in Genesis that he would be made a great nation, the Hebrews passage makes it clear, that the concept to Abraham in no way suggested a governmental power, or a nation of possession. In fact, the only land he owned was a burial site.

Let’s consider some implications of this.

  • Abraham is to be a blessing, but to be a blessing as a stranger among those who are part of the power structure.
  • Abraham, and arguably Abraham’s descendants, is not presumed to “bless” from a position of power but from a position of weakness.

We struggle with this. In the book of Joshua, the descendents of Abraham (through Jacob) set up a homeland, a place of power, and were to drive out or kill those who oppose. Of course, this fact is also challenged by the Mosaic Law that stated that one should always be kind and generous to strangers, foreigners, aliens. After all, the Israelites were aliens in Egypt. (Being powerless should always inspire one to be kind and generous when one has power.) It seems that the Mosaic Law expected the long-term normal was that Israelites, descendants of Abraham, would always live with those who were not. Israel was never very good at being a blessing to those around as long as they were a political entity. They spent too much time taking care of themselves, and fighting the “enemy”– both internally and externally.

This all is relevant to us, because Jesus and the Apostles always spoke and wrote from the presupposition that Christians would always live as strangers within larger (non-Christian) communities. The assumption was that they would be salt and light to those around them. One could argue Jesus and His disciples did not foresee Osrhoene, Armenia, Roman Empire, Ethiopia, Holy Roman Empire, and the series of “Christian nations” supporting what sometimes gets called Christendom. <But Christendom is now dead… and we as Christians, I argue, should be happy with this.>

But maybe it is not about what Jesus and His disciples foresaw or did not foresee. Maybe the point is that Christians ARE SUPPOSED TO LIVE AS STRANGERS/FOREIGNERS/ALIENS IN WHATEVER LAND THEY LIVE. If that is the case, there are some things we need to consider:

  • The concept of the “Christian Nation” is flawed from the start. Islam embraces earthly kingdoms, but Jesus actively rejected the concept of an earthly kingdom… both in word (My kingdom is not of this world, John 18:36), and in deed (opposing Satan’s lure to human governmental power). If other religions are seduced by this lure, that is their own call. For Christians, we should not.
  • While we may grieve for the evil behaviors that we see around us, our job is to live holy lives, and generously, sacrificially, help those around us, in word and in deed. Our call is not to try to legislate conformity to Christ’s standards.
  • We should show solidarity and concern for Christians who have the misfortune to live in regimes that hold to the unconscionable behavior of mistreating Christians because they have the power to do so. We should be able to have enough empathy as human beings for that. But as Christians, our empathy should be greater, and we should show real concern for minority groups among us.
  • David Tracy in “Plurality and Ambiguity” notes the Religion is always meant to be revolutionary… anti- (or at least counter-) cultural. The reason is that it challenges the way things are, and points to how things are supposed to be… to challenge people to see the “Ultimate Reality” not the shallow, vilolent, self-satisfied reality around us. Once religion (Christianity especially, but others as well) assumes a mythic role (supporting culturally the status quo) it has lost its role as a religion. Thus, Christianity is not part of the State this side of Heaven.

I have lived as an alien, stranger, foreigner, in the Philippines for 11 years. Although the Philippines is a pretty friendly place… I will probably always be a bit of an outsider. That is okay. It does help me see the other side a bit. As an alien, I am weak. Living in the Philippines, I also live in a weak country overshadowed by a much stronger country.

Christians should spend time embracing weakness. Christianity has always been at its best operating from a position of weakness… rather than from a position of military, or political strength. Maybe one day we as Christians can embrace the words of St. Paul:

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.  2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Good Littering

Despite living in the Philippines for 10 years, my Tagalog is still pretty poor. Living in Baguio City, a very English-friendly city, does not help. Having a quadrilingual wife also has allowed me to be slack in my language. However, a couple of phrases I learned quickly here:

BAWAL UMIHI DITO

BAWAL MAGTAPON DITO

The first one says “Do not urinate here.” The second says “Do not litter here.” These are written all over the place along roads. Apparently people need a reminder.

This got me reflective about littering (not so much about urinating). Littering is essentially to place things where they do not belong. Receptacles are available to put stuff in, and when you put them in other places outside of these receptacles… well, that is littering.

I have heard of evangelistic littering. Jehovah’s Witnesses forget their newsprint quality magazines lying on tables of places they visit. A visitor to our house decades ago “forgot” his Book of Mormon. It had a tract inside explaining how the book predicted a lot of events, such as the coming of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Since there are no copies of this book existing prior to the early 1800s, and the style of the writing is at best a sort of AV1611, hard to see who would be impressed by this. But who knows.

Evangelical Christians have also tried this. They leave tracts and things in public places hoping that someone will read them and respond to them. Of course, people in most places have been pretty innoculated to tracts. So many of them are horrible anyway. So many focus on a god that most people would not desire to worship or follow. Because of the failure of littering tracts, some have switched to littering CDs or DVDs. For awhile, at least, there was a window of time where such littering would draw interest enough to look and listen. Not sure… this time may have passed.

Language has its limits. Although people like to talk about the power of the message of God, that power can often demonstrate itself in the hardening of peoples hearts and tearing apart relations. That is not a justification for not sharing the word… but simply a recognition that the Word of God needs to be expressed and interpreted within the context of Christian Love (truth, power, and allegiance encounter fail without an initial and continual demonstration of love encounter).

Returning to littering… is there good littering? I believe good littering occurs when we litter… good, or goodness. Jesus talked considerably on good littering. He noted that in most cultures, doing good things is generally reserved for (properly receptacled in the context of) relatives, nice neighbors, friends, good people. Jesus suggested that goodness should be littered… not limited to these “proper” receptacles. They should be thrown around carelessless to strangers, aliens, and enemies. I would suggest that such littering can be at times planned and intentional… but the expression “random acts of kindness” certainly has its appropriate moments of application as well.

Since it is pretty obvious that Christians are in a war of ideas and ideologies and cultures that at times escalates into rage and violence… our best weapons are not bombs and drones and “riling up the troops”. Getting continuously “shocked” at the inhumanity of humans through social media doesn’t help much either. (Seriously… how can anyone who wasn’t raised in a cave on a different planet be shocked at atrocities that people do to other people.) Even proclamation of the word, has its limits without a proper context.

God’s message of hope should be proclaimed in a mission field that has been carelessly (and carefully) littered with God’s love. When the clutter becomes so thick that clean-up crews cannot keep up in hiding and dumping it… people are ready to listen.