A Generous Model for Interfaith Engagement

Several years ago, a conference on interfaith youth work was held at Northwestern University. One of the keynote sessions was a dialogue between Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, and Jim Wallis of Sojourners. During the discussion, Jim shared his passion for social justice, talking about a time when he went through the Bible and cut out all of the verses about justice, leaving a tattered and much slimmer volume than what he had started with. His point: Social justice is absolutely essential to the Christian message.

Eboo followed this up by asking him which texts in the Bible highlight the need for interfaith engagement. Jim responded by saying that he honestly couldn’t think of any. As I watched the footage of that interaction, I was dismayed that such a noted evangelical leader could not think of any Scriptural texts that could inform a Christian approach to interfaith engagement. And yet, I could not blame him. At the time, there was very little material available to help evangelical Christians think biblically about interfaith work, and what was available was not very accessible to a general audience.

I was dismayed that such a noted evangelical leader could not think of any Scriptural texts that could inform a Christian approach to interfaith engagement. And yet, I could not blame him.

I think the reason for this was because of the history of interfaith engagement in the evangelical world up to that point. The reality is that, when it comes to interactions with people of other faith traditions, evangelicals have been standoffish at best and, at worst, hostile. Too often those few interactions with communities from other faith backgrounds dissolve into theological slugging matches in which each side seeks to point out the flaws of the other, with evangelicals entering the fray in the name of evangelism. Any effort to build bridges has historically been viewed with suspicion as a potential barrier to true witness. As such, there have been very few models for the average layperson that paint a meaningful picture of what engagement with people of other faiths could look like.

This was particularly evident to me as an undergrad at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I was majoring in religious studies, with a focus in Islamic studies. I was also very active in my campus’ InterVarsity chapter. Needless to say, when some of my peers learned what my specific area of study was, they responded with caution and, on more than one occasion, felt the need to check in with me just to see if I was still sufficiently orthodox in my evangelicalism. At the same time, I was getting bombarded by my Muslim classmates about my faith, with many wondering what I was doing studying Islam. Understandably, many of them thought I was simply looking for theological ammo to lob their way in a debate.

Needless to say, this was very discouraging because I genuinely wanted to learn about a faith tradition other than my own while still remaining faithful to my own religious convictions. Yet there were few resources to help me navigate this well. Like Jim Wallis, I was stuck. I couldn’t think of any biblical reasons to stay involved in meaningful dialogue, yet I felt like there had to be some way to bridge the divide between hostile interaction and non-engagement.

I felt like there had to be some way to bridge the divide between hostile interaction and non-engagement.

I was fortunate to have several InterVarsity staff workers encourage me to keep going in my studies and challenge me to find a biblical basis for interfaith dialogue that still left room for faithful witness. As I search through the Scriptures, one passage kept coming up over and over again: Acts 17:16-34.

In this passage, the apostle Paul is spending time in the Greek city of Athens, a place with a wide variety of religious beliefs and worldviews present. During his stay there, he is invited to share about his own faith with one of the leading intellectual bodies of the city:  the Areopagus. What follows is an incredible exchange in which Paul demonstrates his own literacy in the religious traditions of the Athenians while also remaining true to his convictions as a Christian evangelist.

While this encounter is a brilliant example of humble apologetics and evangelism, it also teaches us something about how we are to approach other religious traditions. During his defense of the Gospel, Paul quotes two Greek philosophers in his argument: Epimenides and Aratus (v. 28). What is surprising is that he not only quotes them, but also affirms the viewpoints that they espoused, using them as a way to build his own case for the Gospel. While Paul did not agree wholesale with the worldviews of either of these writers, he acknowledged that there was some truth to what they taught and wanted to acknowledge that.

In Paul's example here, we see that it is possible for evangelicals to affirm some of the truth claims of other faith traditions where those claims align with our own. This can be a building block toward mutual understanding and respect, as well as a platform from which to begin working together. Again, it is important not to compromise the Gospel message, but we learn here that it is also possible to affirm areas of commonality.

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It is possible for evangelicals to affirm some of the truth claims of other faith traditions where those claims align with our own.

This text provided a wonderful model for me in terms of how to engage my studies. But it has also served as a model for faithful witness and respectful dialogue in my relationships with people from other faith traditions since then. Acts 17 shows us that evangelicals should have a curiosity about and a desire to grow in their understanding of other world religions. Interfaith dialogue is a brilliant place to start because it begins from a place of sharing and is born out of a desire to increase understanding across faith lines. As such, evangelicals should not fear entering into such spaces but can do so with a desire to learn. Furthermore, witness often grows naturally out of these conversations as trust and mutual respect are built.

As we learn to negotiate the tension between evangelism and interfaith engagement, I think it is helpful to examine this text and others that can provide us with a framework for how to live in our religiously plural world. My hope is that we would learn to have the same winsome attitude and humble posture Paul did as we learn to interact with our neighbors from other religious communities. In doing so, I think that we will find our own faith strengthened and our witness made more credible as we treat other faith traditions with respect, even as we share and discuss our differences with one another.

Talk About It

How can Paul's example of interfaith dialogue inform your interactions with those of other faith traditions around you?



Anonymous commented…

Thanks for this continuing series. I appreciate the approach, and Acts 17 is one of the great New Testament examples for interreligious engagement which demonstrates so many things, including the need to contextualize the gospel for differing audiences, and to do so without compromise and in civility.

But I think there are better verses, and ones which might serve as starting places which are then supported by texts like Acts 17. In a new book by Bob Robers titled Jesus and the Religions, he looks at various passages int he gospels where Jesus encounters Gentiles and Samaritans and what this tells us about interfaith engagement. Key to this analysis is John 4 with Jesus and the Samaritan woman, as well as the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10. These texts, and others in his analysis, while few in the gospel witness, tell us a lot about how to interact with "religious others" in Christian fashion. If we are to ask how to follow Jesus in the midst of pluralism and a post-9/11 context, the example of Jesus shows the way.

Thanks again for this installment.


BryanJensen commented…

As far as we Believers relate toward Muslims (and especially American Muslims) I submit for consideration we abandon post-9/11 contexts for our thinking. I don't say that to be deliberately antagonistic but to just throw out for thinking: How long may we have related as Believers toward Japanese before "post-Pearl Harbor context" wouldn't seem a needful point of reference? Since American foreign policy is still wishing to stage itself toward Islam by the context of 9/11, maybe for American-based evangelism the time for losing that as a framing reference has not yet come, but for me, I think it has. The barriers for dialogue with Christians and Muslims are culturally longer and deeper than that; it seems to me we miss an important point of starting our heart toward interfaith relation if we can't get to the point soon of considering that event sub-important or unimportant for how we frame our minds and efforts.


Anonymous commented…

Bryan, thanks for your thoughts. I wish we could relate to American Muslims without recourse to post-9/11 thinking, but I don't think this is possible, or wise. A large percentage of Americans are still wary of Muslims because of 9/11, and evangelicals even more so. In addition, the spectre of post-9/11 still haunts our international affairs give the ongoing nature of the so-called war on terror, and terrorism around the world. Surely we must recognize the difficulties and barriers as extending beyond this, but this unfortunately adds another dimension, and a dark one, to our relationships that must be addressed. I am all for evangelicals and Muslims working together to understand each other, to attempt to persuade each other, and to work together toward peace, but in my view the best argument is that this must be done while accounting for a post-9/11 context. I'd recommend a viewing of the fine Frontline documentary "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero" for a graphic reminder ten years after 911 how deep this has impacted the national psyche, and the national religious psyche, which reinforces the need to factor this context into our dialogue efforts.

On another note, I would like to see more direct discussion among evangelicals as to which texts and models best inform contemporary interreligious engagement. In my view many times more apologetic texts have been primary, as in Jesus rebuking the religious leaders or Paul heresies of his time, rather than what I view as the more correct and applicable texts such as those I mentioned in my comments above in regards to Jesus in the gospels, as well as Peter and Paul in different religio-cultural contexts in Acts. We might also consider the praxis of the church, such as hospitality, and how this might be brought to bear on an evangelical theology of interreligious dialogue.


Mark Grace commented…

Richard Schweder has a model for Thinking Through Cultures (book of same name) that I think fits very well here- both with your article's thrust and as a way of looking at the Mars Hill conversation--- briefly they are 1. Begin by viewing the other's point of view as gifting them in a particular area. I'd say even if you are directly opposed to their religious stance, ask yourself what that stance gifts them to do in dealing with the world. We evangelicals tend to start fights because we start with difference instead of empathy, respect and connections. I personally believe this can be a first step because I believe in Romans 1- everyone has been given the necessary revelation to understand God's purposes in the world- general vs. special revelation. 2. Get the story straight-- at the very least, get the facts right, preferably ask questions until your interlocutor begins to indicate that you have gotten their point of view correct. In dealing with inter-religious dialogue, this makes a lot of people nervous because they are afraid Christians will apostasize if they get accurate info on other religions. How weak a religion is that? We need to have the courage and faith to believe that God wants us to know the truth and to tell the truth, ESPECIALLY about others' religious experience. 3. Critique empathetically and respectfully- every religious point of view has its limitations, its mysteries and its difficult history. This is where too many evangelicals start but if we take time to get appreciate the other religious stance, to get our facts and interpretations right, then this stage is a natural part of the dialogue. Should be done with humility. 4. Step back and understand that you are part of the dialogue- learn to receive valid critique and to critique yourself or "see you see them see you." THAT is the only way we'll really be to have meaningful conversations that demonstrate the strength and maturity of our own faith.



David commented…

Thanks for this article!! I am leading an Interfaith group on my college campus that is primarily evangelical christians, your article does a very good job of stating the need for a campus like mine to be involved in this work.


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