Recently Greg Damhorst asked me if I’d be interested in submitting an essay to the relaunch of Faith Line Protestants, and I was all too happy to do so. The topic I wanted to interact with is my theology of interfaith cooperation, and where I find my motivation to engage in this process the way that I do.
I am in a very different place in regards to interreligious encounters than I was years ago. Previously I worked for one of the larger ministries addressing “cults,” those new religions considered heresies, and toward which an apologetic refutation was presented, often in the name of evangelism. This seemed like the best and most biblical way to engage members of such groups, and I spent countless hours with Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others, exploring and refuting their doctrine from my Evangelical perspective. I also taught many Christians to do the same as a guest speaker in churches across the country.
But I have always been fairly self-critical, and widely read, and this eventually led to discomfort with this confrontational way of engagement. The more I set aside popular apologetic volumes and read the history of Christian missions, missiology, sociology of religion, and religious studies, the more I felt like I was creating a caricature of various religious groups, and being needlessly confrontational in interaction with their adherents. I eventually experienced a paradigm shift, moving from “cults” to cultures, and came to see people in new religions, and world religions too, not so much as members of deviant religious systems, but as people involved in dynamic religious cultures.
But perhaps the most significant motivation for me in my current way of engaging those of other religions is Jesus. I recognize that no matter how a Christian interacts with Muslims, Mormons or whoever, they believe they are doing so in a way that reflects Christ. But many times our assumptions here don’t line up with the reality of the Gospels. Yes, there are times when Jesus uses rebuke, such as with the Jewish religious leaders, but we’ve been applying such texts out of context. A fresh reading of the Gospels shows that Jesus’ harsh rhetoric is reserved for those leaders inside his own religious community (Mt. 23:27). To the marginalized and the outsider he offers compassion.
This is most striking with a consideration of Jesus and his encounters with Gentiles and Samaritans. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42) is especially illustrative. He breaks with his own religious community’s taboos concerning a frowned upon religion, he informed about his conversation partner’s religion and culture, he demonstrates respect rather than denunciation (while retaining disagreement), and his exchange involves listening as well as presentation.
Through a careful reassessment of the example of Jesus I came to embrace a different way of interreligious engagement. My concern for orthodoxy has not diminished, but my confrontational orthopathy (theology of emotion and attitude) has transformed into a benevolent one. In my shift from polemics to peacemaker (Mt. 5:9) and ambassador (2 Cor. 5:20) I now try to pursue more faithfully the imitation of Christ in our multi-faith world.