The Key to Effective Religious Dialogue
By Jason Barker
As stated in the previous article, interreligious dialogue consists
of "discussions for mutual understanding held among differing religious
bodies."1 This vague definition does not, however,
provide the guidelines within which formal interreligious dialogue should
be held. How can Christians dialogue with members of other religions without
compromising their beliefs and lapsing into syncretism, while at the same
time being respectful toward non-Christians?
One of the foundational documents in interreligious dialogue is Leonard
Swidler's "The Dialogue Decalogue."2 Swidler
provides ten "commandments" for engaging in constructive interreligious
dialogue. These commandments are (to paraphrase):
1. The purpose of dialogue is to increase understanding.
2. Participants should engage in both interfaith and interreligious
3. Participants should be honest and sincere.
4. Participants should assume that other participants are equally honest
5. Each participant should be allowed self-definition.
6. There should be no preconceptions as to areas of disagreement.
7. Dialogue can only occur between equals.
8. Dialogue can only occur where there is mutual trust.
9. Participants must be self-critical of their religious traditions.
10. Participants must attempt to experience how the traditions of others
affect them holistically.
Swidler's decalogue has three general categories: 1) who should participate,
2) what participants should expect from the dialogue, and 3) how the dialogue
should be conducted. Evangelical Christians may profitably examine these
categories to see how they can participate in interreligious dialogue.
Who Should Participate?
Swidler is explicit: dialogue should only occur between equals (or,
as the document on ecumenical dialogue from Vatican II says,
pari3).On the surface, this means simply
that the participants should be equal in authority or position within their
religious communities (and, when possible, equals in education). A dialogue
between a leader of one religious group, and a recent convert to another,
would not be a true dialogue; the recent convert would likely be unable
to facilitate a nuanced discussion.
Paul Griffiths states that the participants should be the "representative
intellectuals" of a religious community who "typically engage, among other
things, in the formulation and defense of sentences expressing doctrines
of the community."4 These intellectuals must
have, to quote Vatican II, "Equality in sacred and secular learning and
equality in the level of responsibilities held."5
One area in which the participants should have an equal education is
in regards to the religion(s) with whom they are dialoging. Each participant
should be knowledgeable about the beliefs and practices of the other religious
community. For example, each participant may hold a doctorate in an area
of religious studies; however, the dialogue will be unequal if only one
participant is knowledgeable about the other's religion.
Swidler's belief that there should be mutual trust between participants
indicates the necessity for the participants to be known by the others.
This does not mean that the participants must be close friends. Rather,
it emphasizes the importance of participation by representative intellectuals.
The scholarship of intellectuals will be known and available for review
by other intellectuals, allowing all participants to develop respect and
trust for each other before beginning the dialogue. The ability to review
the scholarship of participants will also ensure that all motives for dialogue
are honest and sincere. A participant with ulterior motives, or whose truthfulness
is suspect, will typically be identifiable from the quality of his or her
In addition to being solid scholars and religious leaders, participants
must be self-critical of both themselves and their religious traditions.
To engage in analytical criticism of another religious tradition while
refusing to objectively consider any objections to one's own tradition
is hypocritical, and will fail not only in dialogue, but also in evangelism.
Only by honestly considering the criticism levied against one's own religious
tradition can one effectively respond to the criticism.
What Should Participants Expect From the Dialogue?
As stated in the previous article, the primary goal of dialogue should
be increased understanding of the similarities and differences between
Calvin Shenk notes that participants should first see the other participants
as people created in the image of God, and secondarily as members of a
foreign religious community.6 One goal should
thus be to find a way in which people can peaceably coexist in a pluralistic
society. Terry Muck states, "This growing political and social reality
[i.e., pluralism] means that in order to be civically, socially, politically
and theologically responsible, Christians need to be able to talk with
those of other religious traditions."7 Sincere
understanding of different traditions can lessen the risk of the sectarian
strife that occurred during religious conflict, such as during the Inquisition
and the Thirty Years' War, and continues in Ireland and other areas.
Another goal is that interreligious dialogue will increase the efficacy
of evangelism. By clearly understanding the beliefs and practices of other
religious communities, evangelists can more effectively identify the ways
in which the gospel can be presented. Apologetics will also improve as
Christians understand more clearly the objections that other religions
have to Christianity.
Finally, encounters with other religions will increase the appreciation
that Christians have for their faith. This can inspire Christians to address
concerns and weaknesses in their local churches, resulting in increased
retention of members who might otherwise have been attracted by the vibrancy
of other religious communities.
How Should Interreligious Dialogue Be Conducted?
The potential for successful interreligious dialogue hinges upon the
guidelines that are followed during engagement. Violation of the common
principles of dialogue, so clearly outlined by Swidler, invariably results
in failure. These common principles include:
Dialogue Is Not Debate
Interreligious dialogue is not a forum for debate and hostile argumentation.
The purpose of dialogue, as LDS scholar Stephen Robinson stated in his
dialogue with evangelical Craig Blomberg, "Is neither to attack nor to
defend - there will be no winner at the end of it."8
Instead, because the purpose of dialogue is to increase understanding,
formal debate should occur outside of dialogue.
This does not mean that there will not, or should not, be open disagreement
during dialogue. Because differences that are at the core of peoples' belief
systems are at issue, there will be frequent disagreement. However, dialogue
is not the forum for attempting to prove the superiority of one belief
system over another. Open disagreement should primarily occur only when
a participant believes that another participant has made or promoted a
misconception of the first's beliefs or practices. For example, in the
hypothetical case of dialogue between an evangelical Christian and a Mormon,
it would be inappropriate for the evangelical to tell the Mormon that the
LDS concept of God is erroneous, even though the teaching is not in line
with orthodox Christianity. It would be appropriate for the evangelical
to present the evangelical view of God and note the differences between
that exist evangelicalism and Mormonism; the evangelical would only be
restricted from openly criticizing the LDS view. However, if the evangelical
were to claim that the LDS Church continues to officially promote polygamy
on earth, it would be proper for the Mormon to correct this misconception.
It is important to remember that dialogue is not a monologue. It is
a forum for speaking with participants from other religions, not
for speaking at them.
Participants Must Be Allowed Self-Definition
This principle, clearly related to the above principle, is one of the
most crucial rules in interreligious dialogue. Participants must be allowed
to define their beliefs, and their understanding of their religion's teachings,
without contradiction from other participants.
Shenk clarifies this point:
It is important to understand the difference between the meaning we
project onto religions, and what other religions understand as their own
meaning. Even if we know well the religious system, we must listen to the
person's perspectives of faith and truth, and be open to the faith as the
faithful hold it. It is misleading to interpret what others are saying
in terms of our concepts and worldview.9
In other words, participants must not claim that another participant is
not accurately presenting his or her beliefs. Instead, participants must
assume, unless evidence proves otherwise, that the stated beliefs accurately
reflect the faith as held by that participant.
This does not mean that all self-definitions must be naively accepted.
It is perfectly appropriate to question a participant about the orthodoxy
of his or her beliefs when those beliefs seem to differ from the historic
faith of the religion in question. If an evangelical participant in a dialogue
with the Unification Church were to claim that evangelicals believe that
the crucifixion was insufficient for the forgiveness of sins, it would
be appropriate for the Unification participant to question whether the
statement is considered orthodox in light of its deviation from historic
Also related to this point is that participants must be able to recognize
themselves when their faith is defined by other participants. Swidler states,
"For the sake of understanding, each dialogue participant will naturally
attempt to express for herself what she thinks is the meaning of the partner's
statement; the partner must be able to recognize herself in that expression."10
If a participant believes a definition to be inaccurate, then open disagreement
would be appropriate.
Rhetoric Must Be Moderate
Just as interreligious dialogue is not a forum for debate, it is also
not a battleground in which polemical rhetoric is appropriate. The highly
charged, inflammatory rhetoric used in many counter-cult endeavors has
no place in interreligious dialogue.
An example of this rhetoric can be found in an article written by Ed
Decker about his interaction with members of the LDS Church:
I have noticed something very similar in so many of the letters [from
There is a thread tying it all together. I hate to use the word, brainwashing,
but that is the closest word to fit.Minds seem to go blank. Often, eyes
dilate and a testimony is chanted out almost by rote.Any person familiar
with hypnosis knows the signs. We called it brainwashing during the Korean
War. They call it bearing their testimony.11
It is regrettable that such writing is common among some in the field of
counter-cult apologetics; even this author must confess to having fallen
into the trap of using aggressive polemics. While it is virtuous to defend
the truth, it is ignoble to use pejoratives in the process. Such virulent
rhetoric has absolutely no place in interreligious dialogue.
The rule for participants in interreligious dialogue, as it should be
for Christians in all areas of life, is to speak the truth in love.12
Participants Must Be Self-Critical
Participants must be as willing to critically examine their own religion
as they are to examine other religions. This does not mean that participants
will not be dedicated to their own faith traditions; such people invariably
fall into the error of syncretism. Instead, it means that participants
must take seriously the objections that others have to their religion.
Such objectivity is not only essential to successful interreligious
dialogue; it is also biblical. Paul praised the Bereans for checking his
teachings against Scripture.13 Being self-critical
enables Christians to separate the true gospel from the cultural trappings
that too often color the understanding of Christian teaching. Self-criticism
also enables Christians to effectively answer objections that others may
have to Christianity.
Participants Must Objectively Utilize Other Perspectives
Participants must be willing to honestly consider how people in other
religions understand and live their faith. In other words, participants
must be willing to walk in the shoes of others.
Such a position is not syncretistic; it is simply sympathetic. It allows
participants to realize that "a religion is not merely something of the
head, but also of the spirit, heart, and 'whole being,' individual and
communal."14 Christians who are passionate
about their faith should be sensitive to the experiences of others, even
if those experiences conflict with what Christians know to be true. Such
sensitivity allows Christians to understand the temporal benefits people
receive from their faiths. It also allows Christians to understand what
motivates people in other religions to reject Christianity, or convinces
Christians to convert to other religions, and thus sharpens the Christians'
apologetics and increases awareness of weaknesses that may exist in the
Vocabulary Must Be Clearly Defined
One of the central areas in which interreligious dialogue can be useful
is in clarifying religious terminology. John V. Taylor states,
Communication between one [religion] and another is fraught with difficulty
which must not be underestimated. As dialogue begins, therefore, we shall
frequently find that the same word carries an entirely different cluster
of meanings in the different traditions; we may also discover with surprise
that quite different words are used to mean the same thing.15
Miscommunication can easily arise in interreligious conversations; formal
dialogue is a method for clarifying the vocabulary.
A Forseen Objection to the Objectives of Enhanced Evangelism and
It would be unrealistic to assume that many current participants in
interreligious dialogue will approve of the stated goal of using interreligious
dialogue as a means to clarified understanding of other religious communities,
and then using that understanding to increase the efficacy of evangelism
of the communities and apologetics against their criticism of Christianity.
John Saliba, an expert in dialogue with new religious movements, clearly
states the objection to these objectives:
Those theologians involved in dialogue between the various Christian
churches and world religions do not stress the kind of conversion that
involves a change of church membership but, rather, inner conversion within
one's religious tradition. They argue that the conversion of non-Christians
is not to be identified with the church's mission of evangelization. The
Christian witness to others, though a necessary part of Christian life,
is not to be directed to lead, much less to force, non-Christians to abandon
their religious traditions and commitments.16
He adds, "Anybody who proposes one belief system as the ideal faith to
which everybody should conform in a society that implements that religion's
moral and theological objectives is liable to put obstacles in the path
of dialogue between people of different faith and ideologies."17
Saliba's position is not insignificant; the majority of participants
in dialogue are opposed to active evangelism and apologetics. While many
participants would agree with the guidelines listed above, they would object
to the evangelical motive for engaging in the process.
The latter statement by Saliba is also important. The evangelical emphasis
on evangelism and the defense of orthodox Christianity will alienate many
potential participants in dialogue whose motive is acceptance as equals
in spiritual endeavors. His statement that "in dialogue no one is a second-class
citizen; no one belongs to an elite religious group possessing secret knowledge;
no one monopolizes divine revelation; and no one claims total and absolute
superiority."18 means more than simply refraining
from criticism during dialogue: it means that, according to scholars such
as himself, all religions should be accepted as equal in terms of their
relation to Truth.
An Evangelical Response to this Objection
It is important that evangelical Christians who intend to participate
in dialogue realize that conservative theology will serve as an obstacle
in the path of dialogue. Many individuals and communities will refuse to
dialogue with a Christian who is committed to the essentials of historic
Christianity, even if that Christian is engaging in dialogue in order to
gain an accurate understanding of other traditions and will not evangelize
or criticize during the dialogue.
In such cases, evangelicals must, of course, simply acknowledge that
the missiological differences between evangelicalism and the religion in
question make dialogue impossible. As Saliba states, "The response to these
groups must be guided by the Christian principles of charity and justice
and by the dictates of common sense."19
Christians are commanded in the Bible to both evangelize and engage
in apologetics.20 These commandments cannot
be compromised through syncretistic religious agreement. Douglas Groothuis
admirably states the Christian position vis-a-vis other religions:
"Given their contradictory claims and the nature of truth, [other religions]
cannot all be one with the truth. They offer vastly different views of
spiritual reality and salvation. Yet in Christ, we are offered spiritual
reality in the flesh, a reality that welcomes all to partake of
Nonetheless, even though the exclusivistic nature of orthodox Christianity
is a barrier to dialogue as understood by many non-evangelical scholars,
conservative Christians must endeavor to engage non-Christians in dialogue.
The definition of dialogue, as even Saliba admits, is not limited to the
consensus of non-evangelical scholars.22 Evangelicals
must attempt to engage in dialogue not only because the clarified understanding
of other religious communities will increase the efficacy of evangelism
and apologetics, but also because that understanding will improve the ability
of Christians and non-Christians to peaceably co-exist in a pluralistic
1 Donald K. McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological
Terms (Philadelphia: WJK, 1996), 147.
2 Leonard Swidler, "The Dialogue Decalogue: Ground Rules
for Interreligious Dialogue," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 20.1
(1983): 1 - 4.
3 Secretariat for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians,
"Reflections and Suggestions Concerning Ecumenical Dialogue," in Vatican
Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Vol. 1, ed.
Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, NY: Costello, 1992), 542.
4 Paul J. Griffiths, An Apology for Apologetics
(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 17.
5 Secretariat for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians,
"Reflections and Suggestions Concerning Ecumenical Dialogue," 543.
6 Calvin E. Shenk, Who Do You Say That I Am?
(Scottdale, Pa: Herald, 1997), 213.
7 Terry Muck, "Evangelicals and Interreligious Dialogue:
A History of Ambiguity" (paper read at the annual meeting of the Evangelical
Theological Society, San Francisco, Calif, November 1992.
8 Stephen E. Robinson, introduction to
How Wide the
Divide? (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1997), 21.
9 Shenk. Who Do You Say That I Am? 215.
10 Swidler, "The Dialogue Decalogue," 2.
11 Edward Decker, "A Note from Ed," March April
Newsletter 1996 [Online]. URL http://www.Saintsalive.com/newsltrs/newsmarch_april.htm.
12 Ephesians 4:15.
13 Acts 17:11.
14 Swidler, "The Dialogue Decalogue," 3.
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), 98.
16 John A. Saliba, S.J., "Dialogue with the New Religious
Movements: Issues and Prospects," Journal of Ecumenical Studies
30.1 (1993): 71.
17 Ibid. 72-73.
18 Ibid. 65.
19 Ibid. 79.
20 Matthew 28:19-20; Jude 3.
21 Douglas Groothuis, Are All Religions One?
(Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1996), 28.
22 Saliba, "Dialogue with the New Religious Movements,"