Chapter 5. Models of IRD (part 2)

<Continued from previous post>

Poles” of Interreligious Dialogue

Harvie Cox has noted that interreligious dialogue must address two elements that exist between two different religions or faiths. These are the universalistic elements and the particularistic elements. Religions address universal human concerns and questions. Not only do they address common concerns, often they come up with many common answers. That being said, there are considerable differences between various religions. Ignoring these differences does a disservice to both religions.5

This author recalls having a long discussion with a member of the Baha’i faith. It was interesting in many ways, but was also rather frustrating. The individual would like to say that all religions in essence agree with each other– that all religions give the same answers. He would say that, and I would point out distinct differences between what his religion taught and my religion… to say nothing of the differences between other faiths. He would acknowledge the differences and then say that “No,” all religions agree. This conversation occurred over several weeks over 25 years ago. Perhaps today I would be able to follow the dance of words and concepts better. But it felt like he was embracing universalism to the point of self-contradiction. It all felt rather disrespecting. He honored one pole (universalistic pole) while dishonoring the other (particularistic pole). While I suppose he was seeking to give me comfort that “we all really agree,” I felt like my faith and beliefs were being disrespected.

Our differences were ignored, and feelings matter.

Meaningful and respectful dialogue must address and honor both the particularistic and universalistic elements of the two religions. When comparing this to the three models before:

Focusing on the particularistic elements or “pole” emphasizes the differences, and leads to a dialogue of argument. It disrespects the commonality of humanity that leads to common themes of religious inquiry and answers.

Focusing on the universalistic elements or “pole” emphasizes the commonalities and leads to a dialogue of relativization. It disrespects the unique foci and answers of different faiths.

Centering on either pole is disrespectful of the faiths and participants in one manner or another. However, one can embrace “creative tension” where the commonalities provide context to the particularities, and the particularities provide nuances to the commonalities. A clarification form of dialogue seeks understanding by not deemphasizing either pole. It respects the participants and the religions without underplaying or overplaying differences.

But Why Do Dialogue Anyway?

Perhaps it is a bit late to bring this up, but perhaps now that the major perspectives of dialogue have been presented, it is a good time to consider why one may choose to participate in IRD, particularly from a Clarification Approach perspective. This is not a complete list. But here is a start.

First, some familiarity of other faiths helps to identify the nature of that faith. Distant observation and second-hand information does not inform, it tends to misinform and confuse. Many religions utilize similar terms but with very different meanings. Some religions utilize very different terms but with very similar meanings. Both of these are difficult to recognize without practice and conversation.

Second, knowing other religions helps one to understand one’s own faith better. We learn to a great extent through comparison and contrast. For example, when Jesus shared, in the Sermon on the Mount, how the Kingdom of God “operates,” He did it by providing a series of contrasts to how the world tends to operate. Perhaps Jesus could have explained it without contrasts. He could have said that the Kingdom of God is loving, kind, forgiving, content, worshipful, and so forth. It would be quite easy to read all of that and feel pretty good about being part of the Kingdom of God. But by utilizing contrast, we discover how far we truly are from God’s ideal.

Third, knowing other religions helps one gain a sense of what are key differences and what are not. Key differences between Christianity and other religions are commonly in areas of Christology (the nature and work of Christ) and Soteriology (what is the nature and process of salvation). But some things that we might think are key characteristics of Christianity are also shared by most other faiths. Consider the Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self-control). While these may be qualities that can be identified in a growing Christian, most of these qualities are also promoted by other religions. They may evidence a growing Christian, but they may not identify Christian dogma versus non-Christian dogma. This, in fact, should hardly be surprising since Paul notes that against these, there is no law— in other words most everyone thinks these are good, or at least not bad.

Fourth, through contrast with other religions we can gain a clearer understanding of the broadness of our faith. Often when our understanding of religion is limited to our own faith, we end up majoring on minor issues. By learning about other faiths, one may understand that variety within valid expressions of Christianity.

Recently there was Twitter post circulating that stated to the effect that after 100 years of mission work only 12% of the Philippines is Christian. There are some obvious problems with these stats:

  • Christianity and Christian missions arrived in the Philippines nearly 500 years ago, not 100 years ago.

  • Over 90% of Filipinos describe themselves as Christians.

So how could he come up with the statistics shared? There are several assumptions made to arrive at these statistics:

  • Roman Catholic Christianity is absolutely classed as non-Christian,

  • Real Christian missions only started with the arrival of Protestant missionaries to the Philippines close to 1900 AD.

  • 0% of Roman Catholics in the Philippines are Real Christians

  • 100% of Protestants in the Philippines are Real Christians

Every one of those assumptions is highly suspect, but this is not the forum to discuss this. What is important is that these assumptions are the assumptions made through non-interaction. Christianity is understood only in terms of Protestantism. Thus Protestants are Christians and other traditions of Christianity are non-Christian. But is this true?

By knowing other religions better, we can also understand that we as Christians often share far more in common than we hold different. This is not to say that differences don’t matter, but at least be open to what Brian McLaren describes as a “Generous Orthodoxy.”6

From Book:  “Dialogue in Diversity: Christians in Conversation with a Multi-faith World


Chapter 5. Models of IRD (part 1)

Chapter 5 from “Dialogue in Diversity: Christians in Conversation with a Multi-faith World.”

Views of Salvation

There are many views regarding Interreligious dialogue. Not only are there many views, there are many labels and many classifications for IRD. In this book, we will use a spectrum based on the people’s understanding with regards the the prime function of dialogue. Figure 5 shows the range that is loosely divided into three general approaches. However, before we get to that, we can start with a different, but very much related, spectrum— perspectives on salvation. This is based generally on Alan Race’s three basic groups: Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism.1 These three groups are pretty well agreed upon. Two more groups are added in Figure 4– Particularism and Universalism. Some people use the terms Particularist and Exclusivist interchangeably. Here, they will each have a different emphasis.

figure 4

Figure 4. Salvation Spectrum

An Exclusivist for a Christian means that only those who are Christian, embracing Jesus as their Savior will be saved. The term Particularist is often used to describe a narrower version of Exclusivist. Such a person may believe that salvation is mediated through their own faith group or denomination. As such, one is saved by Jesus, but it is only available to those within their own specific sect, or those who embrace a certain unique doctrine, or have participated in a special denominational ritual.

At the other extreme, on the far right are the Universalists. Universalists believe that God immediately or ultimately saves everyone. Jesus’ salvation is available to all, and effective for all.

In between the Exclusivists and the Universalists are two groups that overlap somewhat. These are the Inclusivists and the Pluralists. An Inclusivist would typically say something like, “Jesus is the means to salvation, but there may be some people who are saved by Jesus who do not necessarily know Jesus.” Some may believe that Jews can be saved through the faithfulness to the Mosaic Law even if they reject Jesus. Others may say that Muslims can be saved by Christ even though they reject His role as Savior and Lord because they worship the same God (God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Even those who would normally describe themselves as Exclusivist, may have some Inclusivist views. For example they may believe that infants who die are saved by Jesus even though they don’t know Him. Or they may see the same with those who are too mentally disabled to understand the Gospel message and respond to it. Others may go further and say that those who have never heard the message of Christ may still be saved by Christ based on their response to the truth that they know.

Pluralists take this progression further. Some may say that Jesus is still Savior, but that pretty much anyone can be saved if they express Christlike love in their hearts regardless of their religion. Some continue further and take Jesus out of the picture and simply say that ‘There are many roads to Heaven.” For these Pluralists, along with Universalists, may consider themselves to be Christian, but would reject the uniqueness of Christianity.

Evangelicals traditionally are considered to be Exclusivists, although most would have believe at least a limited form of Inclusivism. However, the truth is that one can come across self-described Evangelicals (to say nothing of other Christians) who fit into all of the above categories.

Knowing where one fits into the above categories can be useful because the views regarding IRD correlate often with these categories. Looking at Figure 5, the spectrum is divided into three general approaches. Again, the key is not so much the fact that there are categories, but that it is on a spectrum. There is a wide range of views on dialogue that fit on to different places of this spectrum.

Apologetic Approach/Strategy. In this view, the purpose of IRD is to convert those of other faiths to one’s own faith. Therefore, argument is the most valid form of conversation. Typically, people who like this approach emphasize the differences and deemphasize similarities. This is because the goal is to correct the wrong beliefs of the other. Christians who are more Particularist or Exclusivist in terms of salvation often gravitate to this approach. This may also be described as the “confessional approach.” On the positive side, it could be said this method “gets to the point,” and “calls it like it sees it.” It is unapologetic in its faith commitment. On the other had, perhaps it can be a blurred view. To emphasize differences may also mean ignoring valuable similarities so one is actually seeing a distorted version of the other religion. Such a distorted view of the religion may hamper attempts influence the other person. Additionally, the method of argument, can lead to pushback or backfire as discussed in an earlier chapter.

figure 5

Figure 5. Dialogue Approaches/Strategies

Relativistic Approach/Strategy. Another name for this is the “Common-Ground Approach.” This view, at one extreme of the spectrum, seeks to be truth-seeking, as described by John Hick, rather than confessional when one approaches IRD. That is, one brackets one’s own beliefs or even tosses them aside so that one is better prepared to learn from those of other faiths. This approach tends to emphasize the similarities with other faiths. Those who are more Pluralistic or Universalistic Christians tend to find this approach to make more sense.2

Martin Buber has questioned that Hick’s view that this is actually “truth seeking.” He noted that if dialogue is seen as a quest for truth-seeking, why should it be presumed that a person who relativizes truth is more committed to truth than one who does not. Buber argues that what is needed in good inter-religious dialogue is not relativization of truth, but mutual respect.3

Karkkainaen quotes Moltmann in expressing a similar idea to Buber, that truth-seeking does not imply relativization of beliefs.

Dialogue has to be about the question of truth, even if no agreement about the truth can be reached. For consensus is not the goal of the dialogue. …If two people say the same thing, one of them is superfluous. In the interfaith dialogue which has to do with what is of vital and absolute concern to men and women—with the things in which they place the whole trust of their hearts—the way is already part of the goal.” Moltmann rightly says that only those people are capable of dialogue—“merit dialogue,” as he puts it—who “have arrived at a firm standpoint in their own religion, and who enter into dialogue with the resulting self-confidence.” Thus, Moltmann continues, “it is only if we are at home in our own religion that we shall be able to encounter the religion of someone else. The person who falls victim to the relativism of the multicultural society may be capable of dialogue, but that person does not merit dialogue.”4

Clarification Approach/Strategy. With this approach, one does not embrace confession/argument, but also does not relativize one’s beliefs either. In this approach, the focus is on mutual understanding. One may anticipate that if one extreme (Exclusivists and Particularists) gravitate toward Apologetic Approaches, and the other extreme (Pluralists and Universalists) gravitate toward Relativistic Approaches, then Clarification Approaches should be most attractive to Inclusivists. To some extent this is true. However, other groups can tend toward some form of Clarification Approach as well. Exclusivists, for example, often like the Clarification Approach.

Why is this? Exclusivists are often Evangelistic, meaning that they seek to share their faith with others with hopes that the others will convert to their own faith. However, not all agree as to how best this is done. Most would presumably agree that relativizing one’s beliefs would not be conducive to conversion. However, there is not so much unanimity as to whether argument (or straight up proclamation) or seeking understanding is more effective. Seeking understanding does tend to reduce misunderstanding and such a reduction is likely to reduce barriers to conversion.

<Continued in the next blogpost>

Book Finally Complete– “Dialogue in Diversity”

It is finished. The battle is over. Yesterday, January 12, 2019 I put my book “Dialogue in Diversity— Christians in Conversation with a Multi-faith World” out into the world. It has been a slow process, and am thoroughly glad it is over.

That being said, I now feel trepidation at putting it out for all to see. I suppose that is strange since many parts of the book I have put on my blog. I suppose it is because I take a topic that is quite divisive, “interreligious dialogue,” and take a moderate view. While in many cases, taking a position that is inclusive is a good idea, in religion, that is often quite risky.

One side often sees interreligious dialogue (IRD) as problematic. What they may see as IRD, is really proclamation and argument. For these people I argue strenuousl that not only are the goals of proclamation and argument not supposed to be goals of IRD, but the goals that these people do have are commonly not achieved well with the methods of proclamation and argument.

On the other side, there is a tendence to relativize truth in interreligious dialogue, looking for “common ground.” For these people I argue strenuously that those who practice their faith as true can and should desire people to share a similar commitment. Therefore, even if they hold dialogue for mutual understanding, this mutual understanding is foundational to breaking down barriers that prevent conversion.

In other words, the book is pretty much written to make no one all that happy. But I am not so sure that books are supposed to make people happy— at least generally. Generally, books should make people think. Hopefully, my book achieves that.

As of 13 January 2011 only the Kindle version is available online HERE. Hopefully, in a few hours the paperback version will be available.

St. Francis and the Sultan

St. Francis of Assisi and his trip to Cairo to meet with Sultan al Kamil is a very interesting chapter in a very ugly story (the Crusades). Part of what I like about it is that it involves dialogue between two people who were passionate about what they believed, while still being able to respect each other, speaking and listening.

A nice article on this is located at   The article is:

St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Kamil: A Bold Christian-Muslim Encounter

Listening at the Mosque

Each year in my Dialogue with Asian Relgions class, I have my students visit a local mosque. I also have them visit the Sikh temple and the Budhist temple. And sometimes other places are visited. The Sikh temple has been the favorite so far. But I especially want them to visit the mosque and the Buddhist temple since those are the places of worship of the two groups that my students are most likely to interact with with regards to other world religions.

The experience at the mosque is always different. I tell my students, however, that they are not to proselytize. They are to listen and to learn.

Each year there is some small attempt by those at the mosque to try to persuade my students that they really should join their religion. I am glad they do this because I want my students to learn the art of listening. If they learn the art of listening, they learn a skill that few if any have mastered.

A few years ago, the presentation the imam used to try to gently suggest that the students should become Muslim was pretty abysmal. The argument boiled down to something like “Islam is not a religion but an ideology. It has adherents in every country on earth and is the fastest growing.” If one was of a mind to argue one might respond with “#1. There is no clear line separating ideology and religion, and since Islam has chosen to embrace most of the trappings of a traditional religion, calling it an ideology does nothing to enlighten. #2.  Christianity has adherents in every country on earth as well. It would be pretty likely that this would be true of Hinduism and Buddhism as well. Hardly an interesting bit of trivia. #3. In sheer numbers Islam is growing faster than Christianity right now, but both religions have gone back and forth over the centuries in who is winning the adherent race. Not very persuasive, and even less so in that many religions have a growth rate (including Evangelical Christianity) that far outstrips Islam. And finally, the ideology of secularism right now is almost certainly growing in numbers faster than either Christianity of Islam.”  Sorry, did not mean to turn it into an argument. But you can see that the presentation was really poor.

Last year one of the young men at the tawhid school there tentatively tried to start a debate. My students told him that they were not there to argue but to listen and learn. (I love it when my students listen to my instructions. Some years they do not.)

This year, my students described the presentation my the mosque leadership as “persuasive.” That is quite different from what has come back to me in the past. Therefore, I asked them to talk about the presentation. A few key points came up:

First, The presenters first noted the many things in common between Christianity and Islam. We worship the same God (well… sort of). They (Muslims) see the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as written by God, and they also see Jesus as a prophet of God and a miracle worker.

Second, They noted differences after first noting the similarities. They see the Bible as having become distorted due to copy errors and translation, thus explaining why it disagrees with the Quran, Hadith, and Islamic theology. They also noted that they do not see Jesus as being one with God.

So why did my students find this presentation to be more persuasive than that from previous years? Clearly, there were problems with their presenation. The part where they say that Jesus is not part of the Godhead is hardly new. Most people are well aware that Muslims see God as having oneness without discernible divisions. They also balk at most anything that presents God in terms of immanence (with the exception of some Sufist groups). The part where they suggest that the Bible would agree with the Quran and Islamic beliefs if it weren’t copy and translation errors… well as seminary students they knew that this is highly dubious. We have the Bible available in the original languages so there is no errors from that. As far as copy errors, perhaps 300 years ago that argument may have sounded plausible. But in the last couple of centuries there have been great strides in textual criticism. It is pretty clear that there are substantive differences between the message of the original autographs of the Bible and the message of the founder of Islam (as it was compiled a few decades after his death at least).

Since the second part of the presentation wasn’t very compelling, presumably what made it compelling would be the first pat. This was the part where the presenter pointed out all the things that Muslims and Christians can agree with. Of course, these agreements were a bit deceptive. To say that Muslims agree that the Bible was from God, but since they teach that it is reliable only to the extent that it was correctly transmitted– and correct transmission is only recognized if it doesn’t disagree with the Quran— the Bible is given NO AUTHORITY by the followers of Islamic teaching. However, that is not whay my students heard. They did not hear the presenters say that Muslims give the Bible no authority. What they heard was that Muslims believe they Bible was given by God.

This is classic marketing, right out of Dale Carnegie. Carnegie noted that to influence another person, get them as soon as possible to say “Yes” to you or “I agree.” Additionally, to get them to agree with you, you agree with them as much as you possibly can. A lot of Christian evangelists and evangelistic presentations seem more focused on disagreeing with or discounting others beliefs.

Interestingly, Paul focused on agreement in his presentation to the Athenians. He agreed with the philosophers on many many things, before finally bringing up the divisive point of the resurrection of Christ.

What the presenters at the mosque did was actually what we as Christians should be doing. Start with finding common ground and agrement, before bringing up differences. Although their argument was, to be honest here, a bit weak, it sounded strogner because they started with building agreement from the beginning.


Mutuality and Dialogue

A section of my book “Dialogue in Diversity.” The first very rough draft is basically complete and will be reviewed by my students in “Interreligious Dialogue class.

According to Martin Buber:

The presupposition of genuine dialogue is not that the partners agree beforehand to relativize their own convictions, but that they accept each other as persons.”
Mutuality is not as commonly promoted as a Biblical virtue as some others. Yet, it is a strongly supported virtue, especially in the New Testament. Mutuality describes equal support. It implies two different aspects: Equal as position, and equal in interdependence.
Consider the figure below. The figure shows two people– A and B. In the top part of the figure is A and B in unequal positions. If they are communicating, A is “talking down” to B, The middle part of the figure shows the two in equal position, but not equal in interdependence. If they are in conversation, A is “talking at” B, with little communication back from B to A. The bottom one shows equalness in role and in interdependence. They have mutuality in conversation. A and B are “talking with” each other.
Mutuality applies to many things beyond talking.Figure x
The church has often struggled with battle between seemingly competing virtues of submission and mutuality. Typically, the church has tended to focus more on submission— submission to authorities, to parents, to husbands. Yet built into each of these is a mutuality. Jesus modeled and taught a form of leadership built on serving, not being served. Wives may be told to submit to their husbands, but husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the church. And that form of love involves self-sacrifice and serving. It is hardly surprising then, that the most well-known passage in the Bible, Ephesians 5:21ff, opens with an overarching call to mutuality, “Submit one to another, out of reverence to Christ,” and then returns to the theme of mutuality with the body metaphor of Christ and the church.
The book of Philemon can be read as a book of Christian mutuality. Paul appeals to Philemon no to punish Onesimus, Philemon’s slave. Rather to accept him back, and even give him his freedom, and treat him as a full brother in Christ. Paul doesn’t actually order him to do that, for to do so would be to place himself as an authority. Rather Paul appeals to him as a fellow partner. The book sometimes is seen as a half-hearted rejection of slavery. However, it may better be seen as how Christian love and Jesus’ form of leadership is applied to a difficult situation, rather than law and hierarchy.
Many of the verses on mutuality are found as “one another passages.” There are dozens of these. A few of them include:

  • Be devoted to one another in brotherly love…” (Romans 12:10)
  • …Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10)
  • Live in harmony with one another…” (Romans 12:16)
  • …Love one another…” (Romans 13:8)
  • …Stop passing judgment on one another.” (Romans 14:13)
  • Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…” (Romans 15:7)
  • …Instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14)
  • Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (Romans 16:16)
  • …When you come together to eat, wait for each other.” (I Cor. 11:33)
  • …Have equal concern for each other. (I Cor. 12:25)
  • …Serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13)
  • Carry each other’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2)
  • …Be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2)
  • Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (Ephesians 4:32)
  • …Forgiving each other…” (Ephesians 4:32)

These principles apply to Christians within the church. Some other statements of the same order were given by Jesus to His disciples– most famously, John 15:12, “Love each other as I have loved you.” But to what extent does mutuality apply to dealing with non-Christians, those outside of the church?

Love each other as I have loved you.” But to what extent does mutuality apply to dealing with non-Christians, those outside of the church?

On a strict, rather legalistic, level one could say that since these statement are given to the church for behavior within the church, it doesn’t apply to a Christian’s relationship with those outside of the church.

HOWEVER, mutuality could be understood as a logical application of the Great Commandment. If I love my Christian neighbor as myself, as Jesus so instructed and modeled, and my Christian neighbor does the same, then we relate to each other in a state of mutual love for each other. And if we do that then the other characteristics of mutuality must then also apply (we bear each other’s burdens, we encourage each other, we forgive each other, etc.).

But… the Great Commandment was not given to believers only to relate to other believers (‘love your friends, hate your enemies’). Rather it is for all followers of Christ to all peoples. We may love our families different than we love members of our church, and we may love members of our church differently than we love members of other church, and all of these different than we love strangers or enemies. Regardless, if our behavior to any group is unloving, then clearly we have failed to follow Christ. In like manner, we serve, forgive, encourage, and show hospitality, in a manner that is Christlike even for those outside the faith.

It is interesting to note that over the years mutuality has grown outside of the church, commonly influenced by the church. Sometimes they caught on and even went ahead of the church. Human rights grew out of Judeo-Christian principles where each person has basic rights that are not based on race, gender, nationality, status or achievement. The movement against slavery began largely in the church, and grew beyond the church as some churches sought to defend the practice. Servant-Leadership has now become popularized in business and governance, even while some churches defend unilateral submission.

Dialogue works best from a position of mutuality. We treat each others with respect and with equality. We are there to teach and there to learn. We are there to encourage and be encouraged. We are there to help the other grow, and grow oneself. There is no guarantee that the other will accept those terms. The other may draw away, or may seek to assume a position of authority. We have no control over the other, we only have control over ourselves.