INTRODUCTION TO THE SERIES
Since college, my path has regularly crossed those of interfaith workers. I’ve had a chance to work with leaders and pioneers like Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, as well as up-and-coming leaders like Gregory Damhorst, former president of Interfaith in Action and writer at “Faith Line Protestants”. I’ve also written on the subject at a couple of points, primarily to talk about what interfaith work is and the role it can play in our increasingly inter-related world.
Over the past few years I’ve been immersed in working with InterVarsity, an evangelical Christian movement among college students, so my primary focus has been there. However, in recent weeks the subject of interfaith work has come up again, specifically from evangelicals asking if they should be involved and, if so, at what level. In the past I’ve written as an evangelical outsider looking into interfaith circles as well as addressed the practical reasons why evangelicals should be involved in interfaith work. However, I’ve never really given interfaith work a theological treatment before.
What follows is a three-part series called, “Thinking Theologically About Interfaith Work”. The first part will deal with some of the biblical passages that I believe provide a Christian framework for interfaith engagement. The second part will address both the opportunities and the barriers to interfaith work from an evangelical perspective. Finally, the third part will address my personal hopes for evangelical Christian involvement in interfaith work.
But before I dive into the theological reasons for being involved in interfaith work, I want to briefly address some of my assumptions. First, I am writing as an evangelical Christian. That being said, I do not claim to speak for all evangelicals. Some of what I have to say will probably be uncomfortable for interfaith practitioners who are not evangelicals. Likewise, other points will probably be challenging for my fellow evangelicals. What I provide here are my own thoughts as a member of this faith tradition and my readers are free to disagree with me on these points.
Second, I am already assuming that evangelicals should be involved in interfaith work. For my reasons for this, I would direct you to my CrossCurrents article from 2005 (republished on this blog).
Third, I draw my definition of interfaith work and practice from the definition and model articulated by the Interfaith Youth Core and it’s founder, Eboo Patel. Along with Cassie Meyer, Dr. Patel says that interfaith work, “seeks to bring people of different faiths together in a way that respects different religious identities, builds mutually inspiring relationships, and engages in common action around issues of shared social concern” (Patel & Meyer, 2010). At points I will both affirm and critique this definition, but it is one of the best that I have seen for positive inter-religious engagement.
My hope for this series is to contribute to the conversation about interfaith engagement. It is not my desire to be the only word or the final word on the subject. So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the biblical reasons for evangelicals to be involved in interfaith work.
BIBLICAL REASONS FOR INTERFAITH ENGAGEMENT
What follows is a brief survey of several biblical passages which I believe provide a helpful framework for evangelical engagement in interfaith work. My reasons for doing this is because of the role the Bible plays in the life of the evangelical community. We believe that it is God’s authoritative word and that it is trustworthy in its entirety. As such, we look to it for guidance in every area of life and this includes how we relate to those of other faith traditions. While there is no explicit passage that I believe encourages interfaith work in the way defined above, there are several passages which lay out principles which point to the need for positive engagement with other faith communities. While this survey is not exhaustive, I hope it will be helpful for both my fellow evangelicals as well as for those from other faith communities who seek to understand the evangelical community. For the sake of space, I will point out three texts which I think are instructive, though there are several others that I could cite.
Jeremiah 29: Beyond Isolationism in Bablyon
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exiles, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7, see also vv.4-6).
This letter from the prophet Jeremiah was addressed to the nation of Israel during a time of great religious and cultural anxiety. They have been exiled to the enemy nation of Babylon. Surrounded by a foreign culture, facing incredible pressure to assimilate, and immersed in a religious environment that was very different from their own, the temptation for this community would have been to turn inward: choosing isolationism as a way of protecting themselves as best they could.
Into these dark circumstances Jeremiah sends the exiles a powerful message: engage. God calls his people to engage the surrounding culture and to seek the good and the well-being of their new neighbors, with all of their cultural, political, and religious differences.
In this passage I find a word of encouragment for the evangelical community. Historically the posture of the evangelical world has been to reject and retreat from the surrounding culture. While this trend has been changing in the past 20 years, evangelicals have still been reluctant to engage in dialogue and positive social engagement with other faith communities. However, what we see in Scripture is the call to be involved in the surrounding culture for its benefit, living with and among those we are called to serve. In fact, the religiously plural environment of ancient Babylon, as well as that of the Roman Empire during the years of the early church, was just as religiously diverse as our present-day American society, if not more so. And in both the Old and New Testaments, we find the people of God engaging and interacting with their surrounding culture.
During the Babylonian exile alone we encounter examples like that of the prophet Daniel, who actually worked for and served the dictatorship which carried his people off into captivity. While it is obvious that Daniel did not support every policy, belief, or directive that he was given, he nonetheless worked alongside the Babylonian government, serving it where he felt he could, as a faithful believer in God (you can read his story in the book of Daniel). His goal was to use his influence for the betterment of the society in which he lived.
We live in an increasingly diverse world and, more and more, our culture is defined by the interactions between various communities and subgroups, not least of which include those of faith. While there is much difference between these communities, there is also much we hold in common, especially as regards our calling to share and care for the common spaces which we share (communities, schools, political systems, businesses, parks, etc). Evangelicals should adopt an attitude of creative engagement with these spheres and learn ways to work with their neighbors of various backgrounds for the common good. For example, if Muslims, Jews, Christians and Hindus all send their children to the same schools, it would be in their interest to work together for the improvement and betterment of that common space. Creative engagement, not isolation, should characterize our approach when it comes to interacting with various religious communities and people groups.
Matthew 5: Living as Peacemakers
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
In a world that is characterized by the “clash of civilizations”, religious conflict seems to be a disturbingly common occurrence. Too often religion has been used as a weapon against those who are different.
Interfaith work provides a corrective to this. With its emphasis on growing in relationships with people of other faith traditions, sharing stories, and working together for the common good, interfaith work provides an alternative story to that put forth by religious extremists and builds relationships across faith lines that can serve as avenues of trust and dialogue when inter-religious conflict rears its head.
As people called to be peacemakers in a violent world, evangelical Christians should be on the front lines of this movement. Building relationships and working together for peace does not mean we have to sacrifice our religious convictions. As such, our posture in interfaith work should be one of building bridges and advocating for peace where there is religious conflict. In doing so, we are able to stay true to our own religious beliefs while also living out this beatitude in regard to our neighbors of other faith backgrounds.
Acts 17: Religious Literacy in Athens
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious…”
(Acts 17:22, see vv.16-34)
Another instructive text for evangelical engagement in interfaith work is found in Acts 17. In verses 16-34, the apostle Paul is spending time in the Greek city of Athens, a place with a wide variety of religious beliefs and worldviews present. During his stay there he is invited to share about his own faith with one of the leading intellectual bodies of the city: the Areopagus. What follows is an incredible exchange in which Paul demonstrates his own literacy in the religious traditions of the Athenians while also remaining true to his convictions as a Christian evangelist.
While this encounter is a brillant example of humble apologetics and evangelism, it also teaches us something about how we are to approach other religious traditions. During his defense of the Gospel, Paul quotes two Greek philosophers in his argument: Epimenides and Aratus. What is surprising is that he not only quotes them, but affirms the viewpoints that they espoused, using them as a way to build his own case for the Gospel. While Paul did not agree wholesale with the worldviews of either of these philosophers, he acknowledged that there was some truth to what they taught and he wanted to affirm that.
In Paul, we see that it is possible for evangelicals to affirm some of the truth claims of other faith traditions where those claims align with our own. This can be a building block toward mutual understanding and respect, as well as a platform from which to begin working together. Again, it is important not to compromise the Gospel message, but it is also possible to affirm areas of commonality.
As such, evangelicals should have a curiosity about and a desire to grow in their understanding of other world religions. Interfaith dialogue is a brillant place to start because it begins with a place of sharing and is born out of a desire to increase understanding across faith lines. As such, evangelicals should not fear entering into such spaces, but can do so with a desire to learn.
Again, these were only a few passages among several that I believe can given evangelicals a basis for positive interfaith engagement. What we see here is that it is possible to remain true to one’s religious convictions while also seeking understanding and building relationships with people from other faith backgrounds. Furthermore, it is a part of our calling to work together for the betterment of society around us. Again, doing so does not compromise our core obedience to the Gospel, but can actually serve as a springboard for living it out more faithfully (more on this in coming posts).
In my next entry, I will highlight some of the opportunities and barriers that I see, as an evangelical, to interfaith work. So stay tuned.