What follows is Part 2 of my series “Thinking Theologically about Interfaith Work”, which looks at interfaith engagement from an evangelical Christian perspective. In this installment I wanted to tackle some of the barriers and opportunities that I see to evangelicals getting involved in interfaith work. As I was trying to write this section I realize that I can’t simply separate out the barriers and opportunities, because so many of them are intertwined. So, I thought I would just tackle a couple of the issues head-on and discuss how some of these things could be barriers, if handled poorly, and yet serve as ways forward if handled with care and respect.
While my last post was a little bit more thought out, this one is going to be pretty rough. So, I hope you all will read it as an attempt at dialogue as opposed to a well-developed explanation of these issues. So, without further ado, here are a couple of the key issues that could either block or encourage evangelical participation in interfaith work.
Treating the Allergy of Exclusivity
In my experience, there are two groups of people who find themselves quarantined in any interfaith gathering: atheists and evangelicals. Though it sounds like the beginning of a bad bar joke, the reality is that both atheists and evangelicals find themselves on the receiving end of suspicious questions and nervous glances at interfaith gatherings. I think the assumption is that, because of our particular beliefs, we are not very open to meeting with, befriending, or learning from people of other backgrounds. Atheists because they don’t have any religious beliefs. Evangelicals because we only accept one religious belief as valid: namely, ours.
While both of these statements are true, that does not mean that we are not interested in interfaith work. Furthermore, it does not mean that we are openly hostile to interreligious dialogue. Just because I might not agree with or accept another person’s religious belief does not mean that I hate the person or that I’m out to destroy positive interfaith work. I admit that there have been evangelicals who have operated this way, and for those people I apologize and say that I am sorry for the ways in which members of my own community have hurt those of other communities. But just because someone may hold an exclusive truth claim about their religious tradition does not mean that they cannot or would not want to be involved in interfaith dialogue.
In fact, my suspicion is that there are a lot more exclusivists in interfaith circles than we might immediately think. The reality is that none of us would hold the religious or philosophical position that we hold if we did not think that what we believed was more right than what someone else believes. This goes for even the most open-minded universalist. In fact, it has often been the open-minded universalists who are the most persistant in trying to get me to stop believing what I believe and adopt their own religious or philosophical position. I dunno….that sounds an awful lot like evangelism to me:p
You see my point. We all come into interfaith spheres holding beliefs and positions that are incompatible with those held by others. Yet, when it comes to evangelicals, there seems to be a double standard when it comes to voicing our particular positions. As long as this double standard exists, evangelicals will shy away from interfaith discussions and common action, not because they don’t believe it is valuable, but because they have been led to believe that they will not be valued. I would hope that when we enter these kinds of discussions with one another we would find commonalities, but we should not be afraid of encountering differences as well.
And this brings me to my second point…
Similarities AND Differences
If interfaith work is going to be truly substantive, it needs to address both similarities and differences. Oftentimes the starting point for interfaith dialogue and service is the similarities that span across various faith traditions. In fact, when I first started working with the Interfaith Youth Core, this was their modus operandi. At every IFYC event we would talk about what, from our faith traditions, inspired us to serve others. The underlying assumption: we would find that we had service in common and should start there. This was very effective for motivating us toward cooperative action and, honestly, there is nothing wrong with that.
However, too often interfaith work stops there. We circle around similarities, but do very little to talk about or address our differences. The result is that our interactions with one another remain superficial and do not move into deeper territory, where we are learning to form relationships in which we understand each other in ways that value the who we are in all of our commonalities and distinctives. The evangelical community takes its theological distinctives very seriously and, when we find ourselves in an environment where we are not allowed to talk about them or learn about others, we get turned off and don’t feel like we can be truly authentic to our faith commitments. This is why interfaith workers need to build spaces where we can talk about both our similarities and differences in constructive ways.
If interfaith work is to truly become a force for positive change and interaction between religious communities it needs to equip and train people to learn to talk with one another in a way that build bridges even as we talk about our differences. In fact, I think that demonstrating that we can disagree and still work together for the common good will be the greatest apologetic for interfaith work’s effectiveness.
This is why I am happy that, as the IFYC has matured, it has adopted a more robust understanding of interfaith engagement that both addresses commonalities and differences. In fact, one of the best interfaith discussions that I ever saw took place at one of their conferences on interfaith youth work. One of their panel discussions featured a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim activist, an Evangelical Christian writer, and a Humanist chaplain each talk about why they believe what they believe and what they feel makes their faith tradition/worldview unique. They then went on to talk about why, even in the face of these differences, they believe interfaith work and engagement is valuable. It was one of the most robust and exciting discussions I have ever seen, because it meaningfully engaged both similarities and differences in a way that was constructive and enlightening. I would hope that more and more interfaith events and programs would do likewise.
The Worship Question
Another area that can be a barrier for evangelicals in interfaith work is the idea of “worshipping” together. While I’ve seen this come up less and less over the years, every once in a while a well meaning interfaith organizer will suggest an interfaith worship service as a way of bringing people of different religious backgrounds together. As an evangelical, this is just not something that I subscribe to. When we, as Christians, gather together to worship, we believe that it is incumbent upon us to worship the triune God in Spirit and truth (John 4:23). As such we believe that worship is a sacred space in which we honor God for who He has revealed Himself to be: as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with His ultimate self-revelation coming to us in the person of Jesus Christ. To water that down by openly saying or even appearing to imply that the God we worship is the same as that of any other faith tradition would be to betray this relationship in our eyes. As such, we cannot join in this kind of “worship” experience with other communities.
Furthermore, I suspect that evangelicals are not the only ones who feel uncomfortable in such instances. I’ve had many conversations over the years with devout Muslims and Jews who have also felt some trepidation at participating in these kinds of events because they believe that doing so would be disrespectful to God. As such, interfaith organizers would do well to be aware of those who would be uncomfortable with such an event and reconsider how best to move forward.
That being said, I think there are other helpful alternatives that can be used in interfaith interactions. The first is being willing to visit each others’ places of worship in order to learn and understand one another’s faith traditions more fully. In fact, one of my favorite experiences in college was going to the local mosque every Ramadan with some of my Muslim friends to learn about this important Islamic holiday. Inevitably, during the fast-breaking meal at the end of the day, we would get into theological discussions and debates about our faith traditions, God, and Jesus. Yet, these we done so in a spirit of generosity, around a shared meal, and with trusted friends. And every year I was honored to be invited back. Again, I had a chance to learn about the significance of prayer and worship in the Muslim community, in a place and time that allowed them to be fully who they were as religious people. Likewise, I have, on many occasions, invited friends of mine who are not Christians to come to church with me and learn about what it is we believe as Christians and see how we worship God. In both of these examples, these encounters have prompted great discussions and exchanges about both similarities and differences, and can serve as a model for other interfaith interactions.
Another alternative would be hosting an event in which various faith communities were invited to artistically express what they believe. This could be done through visual arts, dance, song, poetry, and so forth. Oftentimes many of these artistic forms are used in worship within our own communities and it is often as an act of worship that some of the world’s most beautiful religious art is produced. By doing so we would get a glimpse into what it means to worship God, the divine, etc within each other’s faith communities in an way that allows for learning and engagement, but also does not put us in a position in which we are compromising our deeply held religious beliefs.