Christians come in contact with people of other religious traditions, should we
evangelize them or should we dialogue with them? The editors of Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue journal asked me to prepare a short essay on “dialogue and
mission,” and my experience is that evangelicals often phrase the question in
that way. So I would like to frame my short essay around two reasons why I
think that the question as I have stated it—“Should we evangelize or dialogue
with people of other religions?”—is an inadequate way to state the question.
have two reasons for this opinion. First, the question assumes that
evangelization and dialogue are mutually exclusive. Rather than making it an
either/or question, we can see it as a both/and question—or as a first/second
question. Second, the question seems to ignore the complexity of interreligious
interactions. Evangelism and dialogue are two of the possible ways Christians
and Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, Christians and Muslims, for example,
interact, but there are many other forms as well. For example, what about
debate, argumentation, cooperation, collaboration, or just plain
may be a commonplace observation to say that not all theological issues can be
boiled down to a statement of “this is true and that is not true”—in short, an
either/or proposition. But even if that is not the case, let me remind readers
that the Bible uses other ways of resolving theological issues.
of these ways is both/and thinking: perhaps the prime example of both/and
thinking is the Incarnation. Two truths that could easily be seen as an
either/or choice—Jesus is human; Jesus is divine—are instead seen as both true.
Not only is the Incarnation an example of both/and thinking, but to try to reduce
it to either/or thinking is heresy of the highest order. Another form of
biblical thinking is what we might call first/second thinking. In first/second
thinking, the order of what we believe, feel, or do is essential. We cannot be
reconciled to all peoples until we are first reconciled to God. Loving our
neighbor as ourselves follows from loving God first.
might these observations apply to the relationship between evangelism and
dialogue? Instead of assuming that we must choose one or the other as the way
the Bible teaches us to relate to people of other religious traditions, perhaps
we should think about both of them being part of the biblical requirements of
Christian mission. Or perhaps they should be seen in a first/second
relationship, with one preceding the other in order to be faithful to
fifty years of involvement in both interfaith dialogue and evangelism prompts
me to suggest which pattern of thinking we should use in trying to relate the
two. I have found all three to be valid ways of relating dialogue and
experience has taught me that it is the context of the encounter that
determines how one views that relationship at any point in time. Some
situations clearly call for evangelism, while others call for dialogue. In some
cases both are appropriate, and it is almost as if we vacillate back and forth
between the two modes of relating.
is possible, of course, to reduce interfaith interactions to two simple
choices: evangelism and dialogue. But limiting interfaith interactions to just
those two does not seem to accurately reflect what many of us experience in
relationships with people of other religious traditions. And because it does
not “square” with lived experience, framing the question in this way seems to
be a rather sterile academic exercise.
35 years I have participated in interfaith dialogue specifically between
Christians and Buddhists. The Society for Buddhist Christian Studies was formed
in the late 1980s, and has met annually as an additional meeting of the
American Academy of Religion (AAR) conference held in late November. I have
been to all of the meetings of the Society, and I suppose I could talk about
instances of dialogue (conversations in search of understanding one another)
and instances of evangelism (faith statements of intention as to the truth of
our respective religious traditions)—carried out by both Christians and
Buddhist members of the Society. And I would be lying if I said that those contacts
I could also reflect on all of the debates we have had, including an ongoing
discussion regarding whether it is possible to be both a Buddhist and a
Christian at the same time. Another option is to tell you about one another’s
truth claims that occasionally emerge during discussions (e.g., Is Jesus really
the only way to salvation? Is Gautama’s teaching really the only way to
enlightenment?). Having said that, I am also eager to tell you of the positive
personal relationships that have formed for me as a result of the Society. I am
not overstating the case when I say that the closest friendships I have
developed as a result of contacts made at the AAR meetings have come from
engagement with Buddhists at the Society meetings.
of the most essential findings I discovered when I wrote the book Those Other Religions in Your Neighborhood1 was that neighborliness
only occasionally has anything to do with either evangelism or dialogue. It
most often has to do with the practicalities of cooperation in living together
peacefully and fruitfully. For example, creating positive crime-free and
drug-free neighborhoods is something people of all religious traditions can
work on together.
relationships are much more common in the world in which we all live these
days. One does not have to belong to a formal interreligious dialogue group
such as the Society for Buddhist Christian Studies in order to have frequent
contact with people of other religious groups. It happens every day in most of
the neighborhoods in the United States. But interreligious relationships are
not just more common—they are also more complex. As a result, one of the
twenty-first century’s challenges for Christians is learning how to navigate
relational complexity effectively and faithfully.
Cooperation and Commitment
challenge of being a faithful public Christian in a twenty-first century Western
context is to be able to balance cooperation with people of other religious
traditions with a commitment to the truth—the exclusive truth of the gospel of
Jesus Christ. I do not use the word challenge
lightly. Balancing cooperation and commitment
is not a particularly easy task. But it is what we are called to do and be. To
be cooperating and committed public Christians means to continue to navigate
further along two spectrums of relational behavior.
first is the love-spectrum, one that moves from suspicion to tolerance and then
to a love of people of other religious traditions. To be sure, there is plenty
to be suspicious about in the forms of religious extremism and even terrorism
that sometimes seem to surround us. Yet in the face of these aberrations of the
human religious urge, we must move beyond mere toleration of those with whom we
disagree to a place where we can love our neighbors—all our neighbors—as
ourselves. We must move from fundamentalist suspicion, beyond liberal
tolerance, to evangelical love.
second is the belief-spectrum, one that moves from isolation to apologetics and
then ultimately to respect. The temptation to throw up our hands in despair and
retreat behind our walls of belief has never been greater. Burying our talents
in the sand has real appeal in a world full of confrontation and risk. We have
learned that apologetic confrontation usually leads to more confrontation, not
less. And the confrontational stakes keep getting higher.
instead of retreating to isolation, we are called to engage the world in
increasingly loving ways. A willingness to respectfully learn from people of
other religious traditions lays the foundations that enable us to gracefully
witness to our own religious traditions. It may seem counterintuitive, but the
gospel has never conformed itself to human logic. The challenges of
interreligious relationships do indeed mean we must learn how to evangelize
gracefully and dialogue respectfully. But it also means many other things, and
for faithful Christians, one can think of few issues of greater importance in
an increasingly religiously complex world.
1See Terry C.
Muck, Those Other Religions in Your
Neighborhood: Loving Your Neighbor When You Don’t Know How (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
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Terry C. Muck is executive director of the Louisville Institute. He received his PhD in the History of Religions from Northwestern University.