A Biblical Foundation for Multi-faith Engagement

I thought it might be helpful to reproduce some relevant writing that I've done in the past in other forums, so with this post I am copying an article I wrote as a guest piece at Patheos from 2012.

Evangelicals are a "people of the Book," and any approach to how we live our religion among those of other religious traditions must take this into account. But is it possible that our biblical foundation for interreligious engagement is off kilter? I suggest that it is, and as an alternative I present a more appropriate biblical foundation for interreligious encounters.

Years ago I was on staff with a major apologetics ministry that provided seminars for churches on various "cult" groups. They used an approach to Scripture that is commonly found among Evangelicals as they encounter both "cult" groups (or new religious movements) like Mormonism, as well as world religions such as Islam. This involves a confrontational method of citing various biblical passages on important Evangelical doctrines in contrast with the teachings of a competing religious group. There are a select number of Bible verses that are appealed to as a foundation for this approach, and these include Jesus and his stern rebuke of Jewish leaders, New Testament texts warning about false teaching in the church, as well as Old Testament passages warning about false prophets, and the example of Elijah confronting the prophets of Baal.

As I studied these passages and considered the broader framework of biblical teaching, I came to the conclusion that this understanding was flawed. Later, as part of the 2004 Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization's issue group that explored Evangelical responses to "cults," I became part of an international group of missions practitioners and scholars who had come to the same conclusions as I. It resulted in one of the more significant papers to come out of that Lausanne gathering.

My fellow Lausanne group members acknowledged that there is an important concern in the Bible for doctrine, sound teaching, and the need for discernment within the church. That must be acknowledged. However, we also recognized that, among other things, the commonly accepted biblical basis for interacting with other religions is inappropriate. It is based on the wrong texts and contexts, and it need not be primarily confrontational.

In terms of texts and contexts, Jesus' rebuke of the Pharisees and Sadducees is an "in-house" critique of the religious leaders within Judaism, not an example of engaging those outside of our religious tradition. Therefore the context of Jesus' rebuke is misunderstood and misapplied. While the New Testament does provide a reminder of the need for sound teaching within the church, the texts often cited in this regard refer to disputes within the boundaries of the church, not in evangelistic encounters or other ways of engaging those in other religions outside the church.

Given these shortcomings, an alternative is needed so that Evangelicals can have a solid biblical foundation in which to relate to those in other religions. This biblical alternative includes the following elements that need to be embraced by Evangelicals.

1) Rediscover a Christological hermeneutic. The Apostle Paul handled the Old Testament in a particular way when citing it and writing what would become our New Testament. This has tremendous ramifications for Evangelicals today. Perhaps the best illustration of this comes through a consideration of Paul in Romans 15:8-10 where Paul quotes Psalm 18:41-49 and Deuteronomy 32:43. But Paul does something amazing in Romans in that he changes the meaning, leaving out the texts that talk about the destruction of Israel's enemies. In so doing Paul puts forward what some have called "a consistent pattern of reinterpretation 'in Christ,'" so that the "meaning is artfully and deliberately reshaped according to the 'way of peace,' which is the way of Christ." If we apply this to our selection of texts that inform interreligious encounters the results are dramatic. Recall above that Elijah and the prophets of Baal are often cited as justification for a confrontational approach to interreligious engagement. But Brian McLaren reminds us that

"...we can't tell the story about Elijah (1 Kings 18) calling down fire on the prophets of Baal without hearing Jesus' rebuke of his disciples for recommending the same violent response to the 'religiously other' (Luke 9)....We can't tell the story of the slaughter of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7) without telling Matthew's masterful reversal of that story in Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15)." (Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, 194)

McLaren points out that "[t]he Bible itself, it seems, has built-in reconciling stories to counteract and disarm the hostile ones, but people who want to justify hostility pick up the hostile ones and choose to minimize the reconciling ones."

The Christological approach to Scripture should be the model through which we understand the biblical narrative, and as a result, it should also challenge our assumptions. As Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola wrote in their volume Jesus: A Theography, "Let the Bible tell its own story to you." When this happens, a Christological approach to interpreting Scripture transforms our confrontational ways of engaging other religions into the way of peace.

2) Retrieve the neglected example of Jesus. It is curious that with the popularity of the phrase "What would Jesus do?" in Evangelicalism of a previous decade, very little attention has been given to the example of Jesus in engaging those of other religions. In his wonderful book Jesus and the Religions, Bob Robinson discusses his own work as a Christian in the context of Hinduism, and he says "I found the example of Christ to be almost completely absent from the discussion" by Christians. He then quotes Harvey Cox who says, "'Christians who think of Jesus as a model in other areas of their lives do not look to his example or teaching when meeting people of other faiths." Robinson addresses this deficit in his study of Jesus and his encounters with Gentiles and Samaritans in the New Testament. Although these texts are few in number, they provide an important example for those who would imitate Christ, as Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman (Jn. 4:40-42), and his interactions with the Syrophoenician mother (Mk. 7:24-30) make clear.

3) Live the ethic of love for neighbor. When asked the greatest commandments in the Law, Jesus responded by pointing to the need to love God and neighbor with all our hearts, might, mind, and strength. When asked a related follow-up question, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus told the story of the good or compassionate Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). Jesus' teaching here is revolutionary and must have scandalized his audience. The Samaritans were considered religious heretics, and this story would have been received by his listeners much as an updated version would be by Evangelicals if it were retitled "the Parable of the Good Mormon, or the Good Muslim." Here a member of a despised religious group does what members of the Jewish community wouldn't do, as the Samaritan exhibits love and compassion for a religious outsider and enemy. Jesus concludes this story by calling his followers to practice this radical ethic of love toward others, even strangers and religious enemies to be embraced as neighbors. A comment by Eric Sharpe, the noted scholar of religion, missions, and dialogue, is applicable to Evangelicals in the context of this discussion and this text: "compassion must always have the upper hand of orthodoxy."

4) Practice the art of hospitality. In Hospitality & the Other, Amos Yong says that "[i]n a world of interreligious violence, war, and terrorism, Christians can and should respond with acts of interreligious hospitality." In his exploration of this idea he reminds us that Jesus was the "paradigm of hospitality because he represents and embodies the hospitality of God." In the Gospel of Luke this is especially evident as Jesus was dependent upon hospitality on many occasions from his birth, to his life as a "journeying prophet," as well as various meal scenes that are found throughout Luke where Jesus participates in the hospitality of others. These examples should be understood as living parables where Jesus embodies the hospitality of God. Yong also echoes other commentators who suggest that Jesus' teaching on hospitality is most especially evident in the parable of the Good Samaritan. By incorporating the Scriptures on hospitality, and practicing this art with those of other religions, Evangelicals have an opportunity to follow the example of Jesus, and engage in a performance of the sacred story of the gospel as they embody the virtues of humility, service, and benevolence.

In the 21st century, Evangelicals are faced with a global cultural context of religious pluralism, misunderstanding, and violence. We need to maintain our commitments to sound teaching within our religious community, but the biblical foundations for understanding that responsibility do not serve us well as a foundation for understanding and engaging our religious neighbors. A Christological approach to Scripture, the example of Jesus, love for our neighbors, and the practice of hospitality provide us with a better biblical model and way forward.

John Morehead