New Religious Movements and Interreligious Dialogue
By Jason Barker
Formal interreligious dialogue,
as the process is defined in these articles, has occurred between the world
religions for over a century. Beginning with the World's Parliament of
Religions in 1893, major episodes in dialogue have occurred almost every
decade. The founding of the World Council of Churches in 1942 increased
the pace of interreligious and interfaith dialogue.
The remaining relatively unexplored
frontier for interreligious dialogue is with new religious movements (NRMs).
A major reason for this lack of dialogue is that, according to a study
by Diana Eck, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians pay far more attention
to NRMs than do mainline denominations.1
As is evidenced by most counter-cult publications, the attitude of evangelicals
and fundamentalists toward NRMs is understandably more polemic than dialectic.
Evangelicals tend to frame their relationships with new religious movements
by examining how the beliefs and practices of the NRMs conflict with orthodox
Surprisingly, the polemic response
has also frequently been the official reaction of those mainline denominations
that have responded to the growth of NRMs. For example, the Lutheran World
Fellowship president, Gottfried Brakemeier, said regarding NRMs in Latin
America that he harbors "suspicion concerning the aims of many of these
religious movements, which frequently are determined by economic and materialistic
interests. They preach a God who offers neither ethical orientation nor
help in times of crisis and have only one goal, namely to gain a 'place
in the sun' in the struggle for survival."2
The Roman Catholic Church
Responds to NRMs
The Vatican published a major document
regarding the Christian approach to NRMs in 1986. "Sects or New Religious
Movements: A Pastoral Challenge," defines cults and sects as groups that
"are authoritarian in structure, that.exercise forms of brainwashing and
mind control, that.cultivate group pressure and instill feelings of guilt
and fear, etc."3
The report also examines the emotional needs met by NRMs that enable them
to flourish, and concludes with positive ways in which the Church can counteract
the attraction of many to NRMs by involving people more closely in parish
The Vatican report downplays the
possibility of dialogue with NRMs. "We may know too from experience that
there is generally little or no possibility of dialogue with the sects,"
the report claims, "And that not only are they themselves closed to dialogue,
but they can also be a serious obstacle to ecumenical education and effort
wherever they are active."5
A possible change in the Vatican's
position on dialogue with NRMs is indicated in a presentation by Cardinal
Arinze, the Prefect of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogues,
to the Cardinals' Fourth Extraordinary Consistory of April, 1991. Instead
of disqualifying the possibility of dialogue with NRMs, Arinze speculated
that the issue is "how to conduct dialogue with NRMs with due prudence
Why Engage in Dialogue with
The impetus toward evangelism is
a primary reason for dialogue with NRMs. By learning more about the beliefs
and practices of new religions, sects, and cults, Christians can learn
how to effectively present the gospel in a way that will be understood
by members of alternative religions. This impetus can also be translated
into relational evangelism. By gaining a clearer understanding of the beliefs
and practices of new religious movements, Christians will be more comfortable
relating with members in daily life, providing greater opportunities for
sharing the gospel.
A less obvious reason for dialogue
with NRMs is that it will inform Christians about possible problems in
the church. A study several years ago determined that 87 percent of respondents
had some religious affiliation before joining a cult.7
The 1986 Vatican report found that people joined NRMs to fulfill such basic
human needs as a sense of belonging, a quest for transcendence, and the
need for activity.8
Understanding the needs of individuals that are not being met by the church,
but are being met by the NRMs, will enable the church to address these
needs and thus increase the retention of church members.
Potential Problems in Dialogue
There are numerous potential obstacles
to successful interreligious dialogue with NRMs. Several of these are explained
Refusal to Dialogue
Many NRMs refuse to interact with
other religious communities in anything other than a polemical, evangelistic
confrontation. For example, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society refuses
to engage in dialogue, stating, "The whole concept of interfaith is not
approved by God."9
Jehovah's Witnesses "refuse to ally themselves through interfaith movements
with religious organizations that promote unchristian [i.e., non-Watchtower
controlled] conduct and beliefs."10
An NRM that claims to be the one true religion is typically unlikely to
participate in interreligious dialogue.
While not inherent in all NRMs,
many communities will refuse dialogue due to an isolationist worldview.
Such groups frequently promote conspiracy theories that tend to separate
members from outside religious influences. The Watchtower Society, for
example, teaches that all Christianity is a "a harlot," the "Babylon the
Great" of Revelation 18 and 19 that will be destroyed by God because of
its deceptive doctrines and political activity.11
The Church of Scientology allegedly claims that critics of the organization
"are declared enemies of mankind, the planet and all life. They are fair
many evangelicals and fundamentalists may reject dialogue due to similar
conspiracy theories regarding NRMs.
Unwillingness to dialogue may also
result because members of the NRM explicitly reject evangelical Christianity.
These members may be reacting against unpleasant experiences with evangelicals,
or an unfulfilling upbringing in an evangelical or fundamentalist church.13
Such individuals will likely find little compulsion to engage in dialogue.
Unclear Status and Rapid Development
Saliba believes the "Dialogue Decalogue"
may be inapplicable to some NRMs because dialogue presupposes an established
religious tradition for all participants.14
The label "New Religious Movement," however, explicitly states the problem:
NRMs developed relatively recently. Because NRMs usually do not have well-established
traditions and doctrines, they are often unable to match in depth and breadth
the theological scholarship of the established religions. Their representative
intellectuals may therefore be ill equipped for detailed discussion with
highly educated Christian scholars.
Also problematic is the unclear
status of NRMs. How long must a religious community exist, many scholars
ask, before they have progressed from being an NRM to being an established
sect? Is the LDS Church, which was founded in 1830, still to be considered
an NRM? Is the Church Universal and Triumphant, which was founded by Mark
Prophet in the 1950s, now to be considered a sect? Answers to these questions
can greatly influence the approach taken by Christians in dialogue.
The New Age Movement presents additional
problems. Because there is no central authority or comprehensive statement
of belief, the status of the New Age Movement is particularly unclear.
Who can adequately represent the majority of people in the New Age? How
can representative intellectuals be identified? Because the New Age Movement
is highly syncretistic, is the belief system represented by New Age participants
stable enough for discussion? These issues greatly complicate the potential
for meaningful dialogue with New Age devotees.
Obscure Scripture and Vocabulary
Many NRMs have scripture or revelation
that are unique to the community. These sources of doctrine are frequently
difficult for non-members to obtain and understand. For example, aduring
the recent doctrinal transformation within the Worldwide Church of God,
many of the new and emerging teachings of the faith were officially disseminated
only in the articles of their Worldwide News, a periodical not generally
available to non-members. To understand an NRM's teachings, a scholar must
understand the history of the communities, the socio-political climate
that may have influenced the communities, and many other keys to proper
contextualization and interpretation of the teachings.
Another difficulty is the vocabulary
that is unique to the community. Many NRMs use unique terms, frequently
incomprehensible to many non-members, to describe their beliefs, practices,
and experiences. The Church of Scientology, for example, uses a highly
complex vocabulary. The 1983 Dianetics and Scientology Technical Dictionary
contains 571 pages of definitions for such terms as "clear," "theta," "mest,"
The difficulty in mastering what can be an almost foreign language often
hinders communication with NRMs.
Even more difficult is when NRMs
use the same terminology as Christians, but assign a different meaning
to the words. This problem is particularly evident in relations between
evangelicals and Mormons. Stephen Robinson observes that both groups use
many of the same terms, noting, "This quite often makes communication more
difficult than if we spoke different religious languages entirely."16
Confusion, and sometimes false agreement, can result when both groups are
using identical terms to convey very different meanings.
Many NRMs are hesitant to engage
in dialogue with evangelical Christians due to resentment of the criticism
leveled by apologetics organizations, such as Watchman Fellowship. Saliba
correctly notes that NRMs are offended by
the practice of apologetics organizations of negatively contrasting how
the NRMs differ from orthodox Christianity.17
The NRMs frequently link the mission of apologetics organizations with
the entirety of evangelicalism, believing that they will be forced on the
defensive in any interaction with evangelicals (see "Disguising the Divide,"
in this issue, for an analysis of the way in which Stephen Robinson emphasizes
Evangelicals are often similarly
reluctant to dialogue with NRMs precisely because the new organizations
respond apologetically to Christianity. Many NRMs make exclusive claims
to truth, disparage other religions, and propose practices that are alleged
to be the only means of progressing spiritually. Such a position can, as
Saliba notes, make dialogue very difficult.18
Watchman staff recently experienced
this difficulty while engaging in dialogue with a local group who believe
salvation can be earned (in part) by speaking a pseudo-Elizabethan style
of English. The two sessions consisted almost exclusively of the group
haranguing the staff, proclaiming the superiority of their doctrines. Nonetheless,
the encounter reinforces the need for dialogue: Watchman staff were able
to learn directly from members about their doctrine. The clarified understanding
attained by Watchman staff could only be earned through dialogical engagement.
This section is not intended to
downplay the importance of engaging in apologetics; Jude 3 makes clear
that Christians are to defend the faith. Instead, this section simply identifies
a concern NRMs have in dialoging with evangelicals. Successful dialogue
depends upon an accurate understanding of how NRMs view evangelical Christians,
including objections to the apologetic component of evangelicalism.
The Current Status of Dialogue
Several NRMs are currently engaged
in interreligious dialogue with Christians. The International Society for
Krishna Consciousness (better known as the Hare Krishnas) are becoming
increasingly active in interreligious dialogue, viewing the process as
an opportunity to increase both the understanding of their movement and
the efficacy of their evangelism.19
Baha'i, a syncretistic NRM that hopes to meld governments and religions
into a single global entity, is also involved in dialogue.20
The Unification Church of Rev. Sun-myung
Moon is one of the most active NRMs in interreligious dialogue (like Baha'i,
Unification intends to bring the world religions into itself). The Unification
Church quotes Kenneth Cracknell, the Visiting Research Professor in Theology
and Mission at Brite Divinity School, "The Unification Church (which is
not an orthodox church) does more for the interfaith movement at an international
level than do either the World Council of Churches' Dialogue unit or the
Roman Catholic Vatican Secretariat for Non-Christians, or both of them
One of the main ways in which Moon promotes interreligious dialogue is
through his sponsorship of the quadrennial Assembly of the World's Religions.
The assemblies bring together spiritual teachers, scholars, lay leaders
and youth to engage in interreligious dialogue.
The Hare Krishnas, the Unification
Church, and the Church of Scientology are supporters of the American Conference
on Religious Movements, which facilitates dialogue between Christian communities
Also involved in facilitating dialogue are INFORM (led by British scholar
Eileen Barker), and the Association of World Academics for Religious Freedom.24
Religious scholar J. Gordon Melton is also active in dialogue with NRMs.
A difference between the dialogue
efforts listed above, and the recommendations for dialogue in this issue,
is that the above listings refer to dialogues in which all sides are pursuing
common ground in an effort to affirm the legitimacy and possible equality
of the disparate groups.25
Evangelical Christians, while working to increase understanding and achieve
a peaceful co-existence, would be unable to recognize the NRMs as being
spiritually equal to Christianity.
Case Study: The Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
An NRM that has recently begun to
dialogue with Christians is the LDS Church. Once like the Watchtower Society
in its avoidance of non-evangelistic interaction with Christians, members
of the LDS Church have actively pursued dialogue during the presidency
of former public relations official Gordon Hinckley.
Apostle M. Russell Ballard asserts
that "Mormons and non-Mormons need to build bridges of understanding so
diverse religions can co-exist as Christians."26
In pursuit of this objective, Robert Millet (the Dean of Religious Education
at Church-owned Brigham Young University) and Stephen Robinson have met
several times in 1997 with Southern Baptist representatives.27
Jay Johnson, a member of the Quorum of the Seventy, was authorized by Hinckley
to engage in dialogue with United Methodists in February, 1998.28
The most significant dialogue between
an evangelical and a Mormon has been How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and
an Evangelical in Conversation (henceforth referred to as HWTD),
published in 1997 by the evangelical InterVarsity Press (interestingly,
HWTD was originally to be co-published by IVP and the LDS Church-owned
Richard Mouw's blurb on the back cover of HWTD aptly states the
significance of the book: "Some of us have argued, against the relativizers
of religious truth, that dialogue with other perspectives should never
preclude efforts at evangelism. But neither should a commitment to evangelism
rule out genuine engagement in dialogue.The dialogue between Evangelicals
and Mormons is long overdue."30
Reactions to HWTD have been
mixed. Many counter-cult organizations have reacted against some of the
difficulties in Robinson's presentation of Mormonism (see "Disguising
the Divide" in this issue). Critics assert that Robinson's opinions
are representative of neither historical Mormonism or current LDS leadership.
For example, Francis Beckwith notes:
The more interesting divide is
not between Robinson and Blomberg, but between Robinson and the founder
of Mormonism. Consequently, the agreements between Robinson and Blomberg
in their joint conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt, keeping
in mind that Robinson, by his own admission, does not speak for the LDS
Church, even though some church members agree with his views.32
Despite this criticism, Beckwith states
that the book "is a significant work in American religious history."33
In contrast to the opposition of
the critics of HWTD, many evangelical scholars have been encouraged
by the attempt at irenic dialogue. Ron Enroth speculates that one reason
for this academic approval is that "members of the academy are not as threatened
by the format and content of this particular book as some counter-cult
ministries seem to be."34
In response to charges that Robinson does not accurately represent Mormon
thought, Blomberg states that Robinson, even though a theological "progressive,"35
is accepted as representative of the LDS mainstream by not only a wide
spectrum of Mormons,36
but also by some evangelical critics of the LDS Church.37
Robinson, in his own defense, notes that he has received no criticism from
other Mormons for his presentation of LDS doctrine, pointing out that LDS
leadership would remove him from his position if his teachings were to
contradict Mormon orthodoxy.38
>Despite this controversy, many
critics and proponents of the book are equally troubled by the difficulties
inherent in the joint agreements in the conclusion. As Timothy Oliver points
out in the following article, it is possible that Robinson is disingenuous
in his agreement with Blomberg. It is also possible that the authors, although
intending to present joint agreements to which they assign identical ontological
nonetheless primarily agree to the terminology of statements for which
each has a different understanding. James White has even suggested that
the joint agreements should have been titled, "Dr. Blomberg and Dr. Robinson
believe.and that with numerous caveats and redefinitions"40
(it should be noted that Blomberg concurs with the first half of White's
As an example of the difficulties presented by the conclusion, both authors
agree that "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one eternal God,"42
but they also acknowledge that they cannot agree on whether "God [is] a
Trinity in essence or only in function";43
this disagreement on the nature of the Trinity greatly diminishes the supposed
agreement. The joint agreements are thus much more semantic agreements
than they are true ontological agreements. Robinson alludes to this understanding
of the conclusion when he states, "Concessions have been made on both sides
in matters as trivial as phrasing and terminology, and in matters as consequential
as accommodating (or tolerating) each other's odd perspective."44
The controversy over the value of
HWTD raises an important question, posed in a review by James White:
"The most troubling issue is this: Are we to be seeking this kind of dialogue.Where,
biblically, are we encouraged to lay out our areas of 'agreement' with
In other words, is it theologically appropriate to engage in formal interreligious
dialogue with Mormons? The answer to this question, in line with the biblical
examples of interreligious dialogue discussed in the first article, is
yes, Christians should engage in dialogue in which areas of agreement,
as well as disagreement, are identified. Paul's affirmative use of the
Cretan poet Epimenides in presenting the gospel to the Stoics and Epicureans
(and also in his letter to Titus47),
and his later statement that unbelieving Gentiles who do not have the law
may still have the law written on their hearts,48
shows that truth in other religions and philosophies can be acknowledged.
At the same time, evangelical participants in dialogue must be aware that
such limited areas of agreement are subordinate to the divine truth in
biblical Christianity; the truth in other religions will ultimately serve
to condemn their members for failing to adhere to the full truth in Jesus
these two poles are held in proper balance, however, then a formal interreligious
dialogue that is both educational and biblically orthodox can indeed be
Despite the difficulties inherent
in HWTD, the book can be an effective foundation for future dialogue
that is both academically engaging and theologically accurate. The propositional
statements in the conclusion of HWTD can be used to structure the
format for future dialogical encounters; each participant can describe
in detail his or her interpretation of the way in which the statement describes
the central orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the community in question. In response
to the objections raised by critics of HWTD, future dialogue may
(and perhaps should) include a larger number, and wider variety, of participants.
While it is beneficial to include theological "progressives" (to use Blomberg's
description of Robinson and himself50)
to see the possible future religious orientation of the communities, it
would also be useful to include prominent "conservatives" to ensure that
traditional approaches to belief and practice are presented.
It might also be beneficial to readers
if the participants explicitly state the scope of their agreements and
disagreements. Because it is appropriate in honest dialogue for participants
to disagree on core doctrines and practices, it would be acceptable for
future participants in evangelical-Mormon dialogue to acknowledge when
they agree to the wording of theological propositions while disagreeing
over the meanings each group applies to the propositions. The confusion
created by the joint agreements in HWTD might have been minimized
if both participants had stated the qualifications and reservations that
they applied to the conclusion.
Dialogue between evangelicals and
the LDS Church can be advantageous to the coexistence of both groups in
contemporary American society. Mormons are becoming increasingly involved
in social and political activities commonly supported by evangelicals (such
as efforts against abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and the legalization
of homosexual marriage51).
Dialogue will allow both groups to understand the areas of society in which
they can work together while respecting the religious boundaries that necessarily
separate them. To be effective, however, this dialogue must adhere to guidelines,
such as those laid out in the previous article, that will allow an increase
in mutual understanding without compromising doctrinal integrity.
Prospects for Dialogue with
The growth in dialogue between evangelical
Christians and NRMs in the last two decades is reason for optimism. The
possibility to increase mutual understanding between religions should be
pursued so that the co-existence, scholarship, and evangelism will improve.
Several steps should be taken in
further attempts at interreligious dialogue:
1. Scholars at evangelical colleges
and seminaries should attempt to establish contact with the representative
intellectuals who have expressed interest in dialogue.
2. The framework for dialogue should
be clearly identified before dialogue begins. Issues that must be settled
in advance may include:
agenda toward which participants are working (especially if common statements
are to be issued by the participants).
format for dialogue (e.g., will the dialogue occur at a school, or via
correspondence? How many participants will there be?)
are the goals for further dialogue (e.g., will involvement be limited to
scholars, or do participants intend for the laity to continue at a local
3. Apologetics organizations should
also attempt to engage in dialogue. While many NRMs will not dialogue with
evangelical apologists, those who will can increase the clarity of evangelical
understanding, and thus reduce the instances of inaccurate and inappropriate
evangelical responses to NRMs.
1 Martin VanElderen,
"New Religious Movements: The Churches' Response," One World 120
(November 1986): 11.
2 "Brakemeier: Latin
America Needs the Message of Grace." Lutheran World Information
7 (21 April 1997) [Online]. URL http://www.lutheranworld.org/lwi/e97708.html.
3 Quoted in John
A. Saliba, S.J., "Vatican Response to the New Religious Movements," Theological
Studies 53 (1992): 13.
4 Ibid., 5-6.
5 Ibid., 15.
6 Ibid., 29.
7 Modern Maturity
Magazine (June 1994): 32.
8 Saliba, "Vatican
Response to the New Religious Movements," 5.
9 "The Parliament
of World Religions - Will It Succeed?" The Watchtower (February
1 1994): 30
and Human Society Today." The Watchtower 1 July 1993: 16.
11 "Why is it Time
to Decide?" The Watchtower 1 February 1995: 7.
Fiction: The Church's War Against It's Critics - and Truth." The Washington
Post 25 December 1994, section C, p. 1.
13 John A. Saliba,
S.J., "Dialogue with the New Religious Movements," Journal of Ecumenical
Studies 30.1 (1993): 67.
14 Ibid., 72.
15 L. Ron Hubbard,
Dianetics and Scientology Technical Dictionary (Copenhagen: New
16 Stephen E. Robinson,
introduction to How Wide the Divide? (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity,
17 Saliba, "Dialogue
with the New Religious Movements," 66.
19 Kenneth Cracknell,
"Theological Education and the Challenges of Interfaith Dialogue" [Online].
20 Robert Pardon,
"Baha'i Profile" The Watchman Expositor 14.5 (1997): np.
21 Global Outreach
23 Saliba, "Dialogue
with the New Religious Movements," 61.
24 "Integrity and
Suspicion" [Online]. URL http://www.gospelcom.net/apologia/mainpages/WhatsNews/Beit-Hallahmi/Beit2.html
26 Nicole Griffin,
"Theology Leader Reiterates LDS Christianity," Salt Lake Tribune,
21 February 1998, section C, p. 3.
27 Peggy Fletcher
Stack, "LDS Theologians Explain Faith's Beliefs," Salt Lake Tribune,
7 February 1998, section D, p. 1.
28 "United Methodists
Start Dialogue with Church of Latter-day Saints," United Methodist News
Service 27, February 1998 [Online]. URL http://www.umc.org/umns/98/mar/118t.htm.
29 Richard Poll,
"Apologia Report with Craig Blomberg: A Preliminary Interview,"
Apologia Report 27, May 1997 [Online]. URL http://www.gospelcom.net/apologia/mainpages/WhatsNews/HowWide/CBiview.html.
30 Richard J. Mouw,
jacket blurb for How Wide the Divide? (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity,
31 Craig L. Blomberg,
review of Mormonism Unmasked, by R. Philip Roberts, Denver Journal
[Online]. URL http://denver-journal.densem.edu/articles/0200(NT)/0212.html.
32 Francis J. Beckwith,
"With a Grain of Salt: Assessing a Mormon-evangelical Dialogue," Christianity
Today 41.13 (1997): 59.
33 Ibid., 57.
34 Ronald Enroth,
"Other Evangelical Views of How Wide the Divide?" TruthQuest
Journal 1.3 (1997): 7.
35 Blomberg, introduction
to How Wide the Divide? 25.
37 Blomberg. review
of Mormonism Unmasked [Online]. URL http://denver-journal.densem.edu/articles/0200(NT)/0212.html.
38 Carrie A. Moore,
"Award Turns Spotlight onto 'How Wide the Divide'," Deseret News
2 May 1998[Online]. URL http://www.desnews.com/cgi-bin/libstory_reg?dn98&9805030461.
39 Richard Poll,
"Apologia Report with Craig Blomberg: A Preliminary Interview" [Online].
40 James White,
"AR-Talk, White on How Wide" [Online]. URL http://www.gospelcom.net/apologia/mainpages/WhatsNews/HowWide/White_ART.html.
41 Richard Poll,
"Apologia Report with Craig Blomberg: A Preliminary Interview" [Online].
42 Craig L. Blomberg
and Stephen E. Robinson. How Wide the Divide? (Downers Grove, Ill:
InterVarsity, 1997), 195.
43 Ibid., 196.
44 Robinson, introduction
to How Wide the Divide? 21.
45 James R. White,
review of How Wide the Divide? Christian Research Journal 20.2 (1997):
46 Acts 17:28.
47 Titus 1:12.
48 Romans 2:14-15.
49 Romans 1:17-25.
50 Blomberg, introduction
to How Wide the Divide? 25.
51 Merlin B. Brinkerhoff,
Jeffrey C. Jacob and Marlene M. Mackie, "Religious Tolerance: Mormons in
the American Mainstream," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought
20.3 (1987): 90-95. See also David Briggs, "Mormons on the Move," Houston
Chronicle 18 September 1997 [Online]. URL http://www.chron.com/cgi-bin/auth/story/c.e/religion/97/09/20/9-20-mormons.0-2.html.