Christians and Interreligious Dialogue
By Jason Barker
The melting pot of American society is becoming
religiously as well as ethnically diverse. J. Gordon Melton's
of American Religions states that there are more than 1,500 religious
groups in America, and over 600 of these are non-Christian.1
Most of these 600 non-Christian groups are new religions and cults.2
A 1991 Gallup poll claims that nearly 10 percent of the population, or
over 17.5 million Americans, claim membership in a new religion or cult.3
New religious movements and cults are frequently
out-pacing mainstream Christian groups in their rate of expansion. For
example, the Southern Baptist Convention, a Protestant denomination, recorded
a growth of .2 percent, making it one of the fastest growing denominations
in the country.4 In contrast, the Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now considered the sixth-largest "denomination"
in the country.5 The LDS Church grew by over
324,000 members in the U.S. alone in 1997, an increase of 1.9 percent.7
Over 45,000 people were baptized as Jehovah's Witnesses in the U.S. last
year, an increase of over four percent.8
New religions are having an increasingly profound
impact on American culture. Eastern studies programs in many universities
have seemingly legitimized the alternative religious groups based on eastern
religions. Popular music, literature, and movies frequently present a pantheistic
religious worldview in commercially acceptable formats. The New Age Movement
is now an approximately $1 billion industry.
Many people who profess to be Christians are responding
to these dilemmas by "circling the wagons." They have little or no interaction
with non-Christians, viewing members of other religions as threats to the
faith who must be converted or avoided. These individuals take 2 Corinthians
6:14-18 very seriously - they are not only not yoked with unbelievers,
they are frequently not even within earshot of such people.
In contrast, other self-professed Christians accept
non-Christians as spiritual equals with little or no examination of religious
differences. Advice columnist Abigail Van Buren once stated, "In my view,
the height of arrogance is to attempt to show people the 'errors' in the
religion of their choice."9
Other individuals, both Christians and non, are
taking another tack. These people, recognizing that religions in America
must of necessity function within a pluralistic context, are engaging in
a growing endeavor called interreligious dialogue.
What is Interreligious Dialogue?
Simply stated, interreligious dialogue involves
"meet[ing] people themselves and get[ting] to know their religious traditions."10
More formally, it consists of "discussions for mutual understanding held
among differing religious bodies."11 Paul
F. Knitter describes his experience with interreligious dialogue as "the
interaction of mutual presence.speaking and listening.witnessing the commitments,
the values, the rituals of others."12 The
guidelines for interreligious dialogue established by the Presbyterian
Church (USA) agree with Knitter's statement: dialogue is "witnessing to
our deepest convictions and listening to those of our neighbors."13
The most common form of interreligious discussion
is when two individuals, be they friends, neighbors, or acquaintances,
discuss their religious beliefs in a casual setting (Calvin Shenk calls
this "living dialogue"14). For example, a
Christian youth may be invited to the birthday party of a Mormon child,
or a Baha'i neighbor may speak with a Christian over the backyard fence.
These discussions can be very valuable in promoting better understanding
of the different religions that make up our pluralistic society. While
valuable, however, such discussions do not constitute formal interreligious
Perhaps the best definition of interreligious
dialogue comes from John Taylor, a former missionary and Anglican Bishop
of Winchester. Taylor states: "Interreligious dialogue is a sustained
conversation between parties who are not saying the same thing and who
recognize and respect contradictions and mutual exclusions between their
various ways of thinking" (emphasis added).15
John Stott gives a similar definition: "Dialogue is a conversation in which
each party is serious in his approach both to the subject and the other
person, and desires to listen and learn as well as to speak and instruct."16
In other words, interreligious dialogue is a formal process in which authoritative
members of at least two religious communities come together for an extended
and serious discussion of the beliefs and practices that separate the communities.
Syncretism: The Danger of Interreligious Dialogue
The roots of interreligious dialogue can be found
in the ecumenical (or interfaith) movement, comprised primarily of participants
from mainline Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church. The
goal of the ecumenical movement is to establish commonality within Christianity,
identifying areas of agreement in doctrine and practice. One of the leading
organizations in the ecumenical movement is the World Council of Churches,
which endeavors to establish a "common expression of the apostolic faith
This rapprochement in the ecumenical movement
has been carried over into interreligious dialogue. The desire for commonality
among Christian groups has been extended into a desire for establishing
common ground between religions. Dialogue has thus become, for many in
the interfaith and interreligious movements, simply another word for negotiation.18
The pursuit of common statements between adherents of different religions
has frequently resulted in negotiations over doctrines and practice, with
religious distinctives being compromised to attain unity. The name for
this compromise is syncretism.19
Syncretism, in ancient philosophy, refers to the
blending of different philosophical or religious perspectives.20
Today it is pejoratively used to refer to "a collection of views without
coherence or unity."21 The study book for
the 1938 International Missionary Council in Tambaram, South India, concisely
defines syncretism as "illegitimate mingling of different religious elements."22
In keeping with this definition, the 1989 Manila Manifesto (an elaboration
of the evangelical Lausanne Covenant of 1974) rejects "the syncretism which
tries to mix faith in Christ with other faiths."23
Examples of syncretism in interreligious dialogue
abound. Marian Bohen, a former Roman Catholic missionary in India, proclaims,
Because of one thing I am certain: the God of
Abraham and Sarah, the God of Jesus Christ, the God of Muhammad, the nameless
One of Hinduism, of Buddhism.of all faiths and of all unfaiths, is the
God who created adam as one humankind, to live in solidarity, in
a harmony which reflects the dynamic, living harmony of God who is Father,
Mother and Musician for us.24
Chung Hyun Kyung, whose presentation on the Holy
Spirit generated substantial controversy at the 1988 WCC assembly in Canberra,
claims that her hope for theology "is that it move away from the doctrinal
purity of Christian theology and risk the survival-liberation centered
syncretism."25 John Cobb advocates syncretism
when he exclaims, "It is the mission of Christianity to become a
universal faith in the sense of taking into itself the alien truths that
others have realized. This is no mere matter of addition. It is instead
a matter of creative transformation."26 Cobb
elaborates by explaining that Christians must accept the truthfulness of
the Buddhist concept of Nirvana, where the extinguishing of all human passions
will free us from reincarnation and enable us to realize our indivisible
unity with the personless Brahma.27
Nicholas Rescher aptly (and negatively) describes
syncretism as depicted above: "Confronted with contradictory beliefs or
doctrines, we need not - on syncretism's telling - see ourselves as constrained
to make a choice among them; we can and should conjoin them."28
Many participants in interreligious dialogue argue
that syncretism is an essential component of successful dialogue. Such
individuals believe "that to hold an exclusivist position [i.e., to believe
that one religion is superior to another] is necessarily unreflective,
obscurantist, and dogmatic; and that to try to persuade others to change
their views from one position to another because we think that they are
mistaken is always wrong."29 Ironically, syncretism
itself is often dogmatically presented and defended with little tolerance
for non-syncretistic faiths.
Does this mean that it is impossible to engage
in interreligious dialogue without also being syncretistic? David Lochhead
answers this question, "It is difficult to see syncretism as a danger to
dialogue unless the goal of dialogue is construed as achieving agreement."30
In other words, syncretism is a danger only if your motives are syncretistic.
What Should Be the Goal of Interreligious Dialogue?
Lochhead continues, "Rather than defining dialogue
as a search for agreement, it would be more helpful to define dialogue
as a search for understanding. To understand another tradition,
I do not have to agree with its precepts. I do not have to create 'common
ground' in order to proceed."31 The primary
function of interreligious dialogue should be to promote greater understanding
between Christians and people of other religions. A sustained, scholarly
discussion between representatives of religious groups will clarify the
areas of agreement and disagreement in belief and practice.
Focus upon, and acceptance of, honest disagreement
is essential to fruitful interreligious dialogue. Christians must not compromise
the gospel in the course of dialogue; it should likewise be expected that
members of other religions will be equally devoted to their beliefs. It
is for this reason that Leslie Newbigin states, "The integrity and fruitfulness
of the inter-faith dialogue depends in the first place upon the extent
to which the different participants take seriously the full reality of
their faiths as sources for the understanding of the totality of experience."32
An individual who is not fully committed to the distinctives of the religion
he or she is presenting will not adequately present that religion as it
is held and practiced by the majority of its adherents. The dialogue would
thus be compromised and unproductive.
Effective dialogue enables participants (and later
non-participants) to correctly identify areas of genuine religious disagreement,
as well as identify misconceptions regarding the beliefs and practices
of different religions. Craig Blomberg, the evangelical participant in
a dialogue with a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
(see "New Religious Movements and Interreligious Dialogue" and "Disguising
the Divide" in this issue), admirably states this purpose: "We recognize
that crucial issues divide us.But for our conversations to be fruitful
and honoring to God, we must stop misrepresenting or caricaturing each
other, always speaking the truth to each other in love."33
Another purpose for dialogue, frequently abandoned
by many participants, is to share the gospel message with others. Newbigin
proclaims, "The purpose of dialogue for the Christian is obedient witness
to Jesus Christ.and declares it to the Church as that which belongs to
Christ the Lord. In this encounter the Church is changed and the world
is changed and Christ is glorified."34 Dialogue
is an opportunity to give a reason for the hope that is within Christians.35
How Does Interreligious Dialogue Relate to
It is important to note that, while interreligious
dialogue provides a forum for proclamation of the gospel, it is not evangelism.
At the same time, neither does it preclude evangelism. Instead, dialogue
should be viewed as an activity that complements and enhances evangelism.
Interreligious dialogue is related to evangelism
in two ways: "Christians must practice dialogue with non-Christians (1)
to understand the situation of non-Christians and how the gospel answers
their needs; (2) answer questions raised by people.to involve them in a
personal encounter with the claims of God."36
This relation of dialogue and evangelism can be seen in the Bible.
A Biblical Basis for Interreligious Dialogue
The Bible does not directly address interreligious
dialogue as it is understood and practiced today. The Greek word dialegomai,
which appears in such verses as Acts 17:17 and Jude 9, means "to say thoroughly,
i.e. discuss (in argument or exhortation)."37
The New Testament writers were thus using dialegomai to describe
a period of questions and answers following the proclamation of the gospel.38
Nonetheless, the Bible gives several examples
of sustained interreligious conversation. Jesus spent several days in the
temple as a young man, discussing religious issues with the teachers.39
Jesus questioned the teachers on various points, amazing them in turn with
his responses to their questions. While an example of interfaith rather
than interreligious dialogue, this discussion almost certainly involved
insights from Jesus that would have been understood by the teachers as
transcending the common boundaries of contemporary Judaism. The method
of education through questioning was common among both Jews and Greeks:
the rabbinical method of teaching involved mutual questioning and discussion,40
and even earlier the Greek philosopher Socrates utilized this method in
what is now called Socratic dialogue. Such mutual discussion is
at the heart of interreligious dialogue. This also fulfills the second
purpose listed in the section above: the process of answering questions
can involve others in a personal encounter with God.
Paul's discourse on Mars Hill in Athens exhibits
a similar willingness to engage in interreligious dialogue.41
Rather than avoiding any contact with the idolatrous practices of the Athenians,
Paul closely observed them and then used these practices as the springboard
for presenting his beliefs. Note that Paul did not initially engage in
evangelism or debate: he debated with the Jews and the "devout" (i.e.,
God-fearing Gentiles),42 but he merely "beheld"
the practices of the people outside his religious community.43
Paul was fulfilling the first purpose listed in the section above: Paul
examined the religions of the Athenians to determine their spiritual state
and to present the gospel in a way that would be most comprehensible to
them. The knowledge used by Paul could only be obtained through direct
interaction with the practitioners of the Athenian philosophies and religions.
Paul also shows that Christians can acknowledge
truth in other religions without accepting the entirety of the religion
as true. His affirmative quotation from the Cretan poet Epimenides44
(whom he again quotes in Titus 1:12) is an example of approvingly noting
a truth in the beliefs of the Athenians. The fact that he was nonetheless
presenting the gospel, however, also shows that acknowledging the limited
truth to which the Athenians held does not mean one should compromise advocating
the supremacy of God's full revelation in Christ.
The episode on Mars Hill is an example of Paul
becoming all things to all people in order to win some.45
Through the clarified understanding of other religions that results from
interreligious dialogue, evangelists are able to express their beliefs
so that they will be correctly understood by people in other religions
and cultures. This can only result from, to use the old cliché,
walking in the shoes of others. Dialogue is a way for understanding how
non-Christians perceive Christianity.
Apologetics and Interreligious Dialogue
As will be shown in the following article, interreligious
dialogue is not debate. Does this mean that there is no place for addressing
conflicting or erroneous religious claims?
Paul Griffiths makes an excellent case for the
necessity of apologetics in interreligious dialogue:
I am claiming that there are empirically recognizable
religious communities; that they usually have representative intellectuals;
that these representative intellectuals typically engage, among other things,
in the formulation and defense of sentences expressing doctrines of the
community; that it is possible for the doctrine-expressing sentences of
one community to be incompatible with those of another; and that when the
representative intellectuals of a particular community judge this to be
the case, they should respond apologetically.46
Griffiths' statement requires close examination.
Most religious communities have leaders who are responsible for defining
what is considered orthodox doctrine. These doctrines frequently contradict
the doctrines held by other religious communities. Thus, for interreligious
dialogue to be effective, participants must be allowed to make doctrinal
claims, to temperately criticize the doctrinal claims of others, and to
defend their doctrinal claims when criticized. The caution is that such
criticism and defense must be done in a respectful, non-aggressive manner.
The position of the dialogical apologist defends
dialogue against the danger of syncretism. By allowing open and honest
disagreement among participants, real interreligious dialogue enhances
the clarification of beliefs and practices, and thus generates greater
understanding of the similarities and differences between religions.
The Benefits of Dialogue
Our discussion of interreligious dialogue has
been, to this point, somewhat distant from the life of the average churchgoer.
Because formal interreligious dialogue is held by scholars and other authoritative
religious representatives, most people have little involvement in the process.
Why, then, should the average person care about dialogue?
Interreligious dialogue increases the understanding
Christians and non-Christians have of the beliefs and practices of the
other. This enhanced understanding can lead to a more peaceable coexistence
in the pluralistic culture of 21st century America. As people of different
religious communities encounter each other in mutual service in schools,
in government, and in civic activities, the foundations established through
dialogue will enable these people to know the areas in which mutual activity
can enhance society (as well as to know in advance the areas in which religious
differences can make mutual undertakings difficult).
As stated above, dialogue enhances the efficacy
of evangelism. The clarified understanding of other religions will be published
in books and articles about the religions, many of which will be read by
pastors and evangelists, as well as transmitted to average churchgoers.
These people will then be able to present the gospel in a way that most
effectively addresses the needs and thinking of people in other religions.
Interreligious dialogue also helps Christians
to better understand their own faith. Because the focus of interreligious
dialogue is on the differences between religions, Christians are forced
to examine their own beliefs in order to support these positions. This
examination will increase the self-understanding of Christians, helping
them to differentiate between the pure gospel and the cultural lenses through
which people too frequently interpret the gospel.
Interreligious dialogue enhances apologetics and
discernment. By better understanding the beliefs and practices of other
religions, Christians are able to understand how true Christianity is different.
This enables Christians to both identify and contextualize the teachings
of other religions, and to present a reason for why Christians believe
Finally, interreligious dialogue increases the
ability of Christians to love their neighbors. Dialogue will enhance our
ability to see that each person is their moral equal - the only difference
is that they are sinners who have been saved through God's grace. The knowledge
that Christians had nothing to do with their salvation should inspire them
to reach out and share the undeserved love of God with their neighbors.
Relational evangelism will improve as clarified understanding of the faith
and lives of neighbors erases misconceptions about other religions.
Terry Muck succinctly states the function of interreligious
In situations where hostility is not present,
where the mutual exclusions of truth are assumed, where commitment is allowed,
and where agreement is not the minimal expectation (which I assume eliminates
a great deal of what passes for interreligious dialogue today), interreligious
dialogue is not just allowed, but I would suggest the world situation demands
1 Terry Muck, Those Other
Religions in Your Neighborhood (Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan, 1992),
2 Ibid., 17.
4 Religion News Service [Online].
(1998, August) URL http://www.religionnews.com/arc98/b_060198.html.
5 Religion News Service [Online].
(1997, February) URL http://www.religionnews.com/arc97/b_021697.html.
6 Global Media Guide [Online].
7 Religion News Service [Online].
8 1997 Report of Jehovah's
Witnesses Worldwide [Online]. URL http://www.watchtower.org/statistics/worldwide_report.htm.
9 Abigail Van Buren.
September 19, 1989.
10 Principles for Interfaith
Dialogue [Online]. URL www.ecusa.anglican.org/ecumenism/interfaith/princip.html.
11 Donald K. McKim.
Dictionary of Theological Terms (Louisville, Ky: WJP, 1996), 147.
12 Paul F. Knitter,
and the Other Names (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), 14.
13 Guidelines for Interfaith
Dialogue [Online]. URL http://www.pcusa.org/pcusa/wmd/eir/dialog.htm.
14 Calvin E. Shenk,
You Say That I Am? (Scottdale, Penn: Herald, 1997), 210.
15 John V. Taylor, "The Theological
Basis of Interfaith Dialogue," in Faith Meets Faith, ed. Gerald
Anderson and Thomas Stransky (Grand Rapids, Mi: Eerdmans, 1981), 94.
16 John R. Stott,
Mission in the Modern World, (London: Falcon, 1975), 81.
17 Nicholas Lossky, et al, ed.,
introduction to Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (Grand Rapids,
Mi: Eerdmans, 1991), xii.
18 David Lochhead,
Imperative (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), 60.
20 McKim,Westminster Dictionary
of Theological Terms, 274.
22 M.M. Thomas, "Syncretism,"
in Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, ed. Nicholas Lossky, et
al (Grand Rapids, Mi: Eerdmans, 1991), 964.
23 "3. The Uniqueness of Christ,"
in The Manila Manifesto [Online]. URL http://www.lausanne.org/manila.html.
24 Marian Bohen, "The Future
of Mission in a Pluralistic World," Theological Education (autumn
25 Quoted in Jeffrey Gros, F.S.C.
"Christian Confession in a Pluralistic World," The Christian Century
108.20 (1991): 645.
26 John J. Cobb, "Beyond Dialogue,"
in Readings in Christian Theology, ed. Peter C. Hodgson and Robert
H. King (Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress, 1985), 379.
28 Nicholas Rescher,
Against the Demand for Consensus (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 91.
29 Daniel B. Clendenin,
Gods, Many Lords (Grand Rapids, Mi: Baker, 1995) 113.
30 Lochhead, The Dialogical
32 Leslie Newbigin, "The Basis,
Purpose and Manner of Inter-Faith Dialogue," in Interreligious Dialogue:
Facing the Frontier, ed. Richard W. Rousseau, Jr. (n.p.:Ridge Row,
33 Craig L. Blomberg, introduction
to How Wide the Divide? (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1997),
34 Newbigin, "The Basis, Purpose
and Manner of Inter-Faith Dialogue," 26.
35 1 Peter 3:15-17.
36 I.H. Marshall, "Interfaith
Dialogue in the New Testament," Evangelical Review of Theology.
July (1989): 214-15.
37 Strong's Greek/Hebrew Dictionary,
38 Terry Muck, "A New Testament
Case for Interreligious Dialogue?" (paper presented at the annual meeting
of the Evangelical Theological Society, Washington, D.C., November 1993),
39 Luke 2:41-52.
40 James M. Freeman,
Manners and Customs of the Bible, ed. Harold J. Chadwick (North Brunswick,
NJ: Bridge-Logos, 1998), 503.
41 Acts 17:16-34.
42 Acts 17:17.
43 Acts 17:23.
44 Acts 17:28.
45 1 Corinthians 9:22.
46 Paul J. Griffiths,
for Apologetics (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 17-18.
47 Muck, "A New Testament Case
for Interreligious Dialogue?" 15.