a missiologist, McConnell reminds us of the centrality of Jesus’ Great
Commission and His statement in John’s Gospel, “Peace be with you. As the
Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn 20:21). In some sense, all that we do is
“missional,” as the Church exists not for herself but for the good of a world
loved by God. McConnell ends his article with practical guidelines and
principles for interfaith dialogue as an aspect of our mission in a diverse
world. As a narrative ethicist, I want to focus on the story that warrants such
principles, the rich narrative implied by this text from John. It provides the
theological roots for McConnell’s approach to interfaith dialogue — a posture marked
by both humility and self-assurance, both radical openness and solid conviction.
we are sent into the world as Christ was sent, this begs the obvious question: how was Jesus sent? As John 1 notes, the One
who was there when the universe was spoken into existence deigns to dwell, to
make His tent among us. Emphasis on the incarnation has influenced missions and
church ministries greatly, but we too often miss – or avoid – the radical vulnerability
inherent in such a move from glory and greatness to human likeness and mere
flesh. The Christological Hymn describes Jesus’ “sent-ness” in this way,
He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be
exploited, but emptied [ekenosen] Himself, taking the form of a slave, being
born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and
became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:6-8)
Christ, our approach to those radically different from ourselves must echo this
same “kenotic” or self-emptying form. Otherwise, we refuse to be sent as Christ
was sent into the world but instead model our lives on some other god and trust
in some other good. In doing so, we make ourselves vulnerable in all the ways
McConnell mentions: vulnerable to learn from those who are not afraid to
exchange deeply held beliefs, to risk encounters outside our comfortable
context. Like Christ, we also bear others’ rage and sorrow as we acknowledge
the mixed legacy of our Christian past as well as the continued interracial, interethnic,
and interreligious violence that too often characterizes our present.
might interpret such humility or vulnerability as a mamsy-pansy, milk toast approach,
and indeed much of what passes for humility is insecurity or lack of conviction
wrapped in easy words like “tolerance” or popular concepts such as
“relativism.” As Christians who are sent as our Lord was sent, humility means
not only exposure to others’ insight and correction or to their pain and experience,
but it also entails knowing who – and whose – we are. Think again about that John
text. Before we are sent, we are given peace. Christian humility means that our openness to others is only
possible because of our faith and the deep-rootedness life in God affords.
Peace filled people need be neither defensive nor apologetic for who they are.
Like Jesus, we leave the comforts of the Christian fold to enter into the
“others’” world because we are tethered to God Herself. What greater peace could
McConnell and Mouw note, it is the Spirit’s task to convert the world; we are witnesses,
not arm-breakers or embarrassed ambassadors. As Christ knew, His Father’s
fidelity never allows our work to be fruitless or our sometimes-dangerous exposure
to others to remain mere foolishness. Such peaceful openness does not mean an
unbounded or uncentered identity for, as McConnell points out, we remain
children of truth. Lacking this center, we would not so much engage in interfaith dialogue but
rather brain massage or interfaith education. Although this can be valuable, it
is not what McConnell is describing here – an engagement fraught with the
dangerous possibility of mutual transformation through relationship.
Christians, we engage in interfaith dialogue out of a distinctive story, a
narrative that speaks of God’s deep love and engagement with Her world. We can
afford to be open to others while resting in such a God. We need not be self-protective
or flaccid. After all, the incarnation reminds us that God comes to us in
surprising ways – in a baby, in the needy, in the stranger, even in our
enemies. If we enter into interfaith dialogue sent as Christ was sent, marked
by humility and peaceful trust in God’s fidelity, then we will surely not only
be faithful witnesses to God and God’s Christ. We will almost surely experience
something new about the God whose Spirit continues to woo the world, who
beckons all – even us – to see and perceive the depth of God’s grace and truth anew.
Interfaith dialogue becomes an opportunity not only to be hospitable to others but
to welcome the Christ who continues to make His home among us – sometimes emerging
with delightful if disturbing surprise from the tent of our Muslim, Jewish,
Mormon, or pagan neighbor.
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Dr. Erin Dufault-Hunter is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary.