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.