Responses for a Panel Discussion at Northwestern College
1. What are the dos and don’ts of conversing with people of other faiths?
Respect the context: is the aim mutual understanding, arguing, evangelizing?
Avoid cheap and lazy relativism: accept that if you are a Christian, then you believe that many of the other guy’s most important beliefs are false. It’s condescending to act as though we all really agree beneath some superficial differences. Respect and toleration matter precisely where the differences are deep and important.
Assume persons who are not Christians grasp that the most interesting feature of Christianity is what it says about Jesus Christ. Try to talk about Jesus, not about some shared, generic belief in God.
Have the goal of being the best critic of your own beliefs, not those of the other guy. Don’t leave it to someone who does not share them to raise the questions you cannot answer.
If your goal is to help change the other guy’s mind and bring him to faith in Christ, then try to help him to see Christianity as something a rational, sane human being could hope is true. People rarely change their minds and start believing things they hope are false.
2. Many students don’t know a lot about other religions. How important is it to understand the basics of other religions for dialogue to happen?
More important than knowing about other religions is knowing your own faith: the particularities of the Christian faith, not a generic belief in God. Let the other person explain his beliefs. You don’t want him to tell you what you believe; don’t do that to him.
Many people define “faith” as unjustified belief, i.e., as what we believe despite lacking adequate reasons to believe it. They think that attaching the label “faith” to something we have no good reason to believe somehow makes it O.K., or even commendable, to believe it. (Why would it?) If this is what faith is, then there can be little meaningful dialogue between persons of different faiths. There can be dialogue between faiths only if there is a common ground where different beliefs can be rationally criticized and the evidence, or the absence of evidence, for them can be displayed. Otherwise, “I’m a Christian; she’s a Muslim” is not much different than, “I like coffee, but he hates it:” not much to dialogue about! I assume that meaningful dialogue isn’t mostly a matter of finding out what the other person believes, but why he believes it. If he has no reasons for believing it, then there’s not much to say.
It can be less challenging to discuss matter of faith with someone outside Christianity altogether than with fellow Christians who differ on relatively minor matters. If you’re Protestant and you find it hard to engage in dialogue with a Roman Catholic or RCA and find that you cannot have reasonable, friendly discourse with someone who is CRC, then you can’t seriously engage with a Hindu or a Muslim.
3. Explain the difference between exclusivism vs. inclusivism vs. universalism.
I don’t find these categories very helpful. If the issue is truth or falsity, then the truth is exclusivism: the essential claims of Christianity are true and those of other religions are false. The idea that religious truth is culturally relative is incoherent, as is the idea that all religions are objectively true. If the issue is salvation, then the truth is universalism, i.e., the salvation of the world by Jesus Christ, the unique revelation of the true God. Well, some diffidence is in order on this matter, but universal salvation is the rational hope in light of Scripture.
An implicit assumption I reject is that anyone is ultimately saved or damned in virtue of his religion. I believe that we are all saved not because of, but largely despite, our religions, and this includes those of us who adhere to the Christian religion. We go down the wrong road if we’re asking whether that other religion enough like Christianity for its adherents to be saved too. Religion, like morality, is a natural characteristic of the human species to which God condescends, using it for his purposes, but in a critical way: it’s always under divine judgment in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For human beings religion is inevitably where we manifest our rejection of the Gospel; it’s the principal context in which we seek to justify ourselves in God’s eyes, where we manifest our disbelief that we are made right with God by grace, through faith in the imputed righteousness of Jesus. All religions are good or bad in various other ways and it’s not obvious that the Christian religion is better in every way than all other religions. (As a technology for making people better, I suspect Buddhism does at least as good a job as the Reformed Church in America!) Various religions might well meliorate or exacerbate various bad human inclinations. Religions, including the true religion, bring out both the good and bad in people. As Christians we are often unsettled when we discover that adherents of some other religion are better human beings than we are, but we shouldn’t be. We should see what we might learn from them.
4. There seems to be a big jump between “we have a monopoly on truth” and “there is some truth and true values in other religions”…discuss the difference, and some specific things to learn from other faiths.
If you believe something, then you believe that it is true, and you believe that whatever isn’t logically consistent with it is false, unless we’re in the realm of relative truth, which we’re not, talking about religious beliefs; they are beliefs, true or false, about objective reality.
Christians have the great good fortune to have been entrusted with the truth about the God who became flesh in Jesus. This hardly implies that we know more than, or even as much as, other people do about lots of important matters. What they know might be of value to us as seek to work out our faith in Christ.
Picture: The Dancing Saints at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco.