Soteriology and moral harm in multi-faith encounters
About a week or so ago a colleague who works in religious studies posted something about Islam on his Facebook page, and another individual I know left a comment about his personal stance on Islam. In his words, he is "Islamo-cautious." I responded that I wondered what this looked like if we are trying to practice love of neighbor and not bearing false witness in our misrepresentation of others. I also commented that I wondered what the difference was between being "Islamo-cautious" and Islamophobia. My comments began an interesting, if frustrating, series of exchanges. I tried to use the experience as a learning opportunity, and I think the rational and emotional response of my conversation partner is representative of much of what takes place in evangelicalism where other religions are concerned.
As our conversation continued, my conversation partner quickly narrowed his perspective down to a soteriological one (and I paraphrase here): we know who Jesus is and what he did for humanity, and other religions deny this, so they are considered evil and must be viewed and responded to accordingly. I tried to offer other perspectives for consideration so as to broaden the frameworks for considering Islam, as well as other religions. I told my friend that I think it's possible to hold to the exclusive truth claims of Christianity, and to recognize that God has done something unique in the person and work of Christ, and yet we can also practice the love of neighbor in our interactions. My attempts were ignored, and I was accused of subterfuge. "Let's stick to the main issue," my conversation partner said. "Who is Jesus?" he repeatedly asked. As we talked past each other, near our final exchange my friend accused me of evading very important questions about salvation, and he thought he knew why, implying that perhaps I fudged on the identity of Christ, and may other central doctrines too. I must admit, after this exchange I felt like I had just been a part of one of those 1960s British horror films about witch hunters. I had been put to the test for heresy, and was apparently found wanting.
Despite my frustration I found some important takeaways from it that relates to my understanding of evangelical approaches to multi-faith engagement. First, soteriology is perhaps the primary lens through which evangelicals assess other religions. Salvation is all-important, and while there may be other aspects to consider, there are priorities, and we must think and act accordingly. This leads me to the second insight, and that is that because other religions reject Christian teachings related to soteriology, this rejection is moralized. Muslims, for example, aren't just people that we have strong disagreements with over important religious matters. Our understanding of the truth is sacred, and those who reject it also cast aside our sacred values, and we view this in a moral context. It's simple to move from this perspective to the idea that Muslims are evil. (Recall my past discussion on moralized truth and sacred values violators.)
The third thing I've discovered is that moral foundations are important in this mix, but another element also needs to be considered. In the past I've also noted how conservatives tend to emphasize fidelity to authority and purity as moral foundations. What is in view here is a concern that adherents of other religions reject the authority of the Bible, and their doctrines threaten the purity of our worldview. When our purity is threatened we often have a disgust reaction which keeps the threatening elements at bay. While I still think that moral foundations theory is important in understanding the psychological dynamics related to our theologies and practices of religious defensiveness, particularly the concept of disgust, I think another element must be considered.
A colleague of mine who has been providing feedback as a part of advisory group for the grant research suggested I take a look at the work of Kurt Gray. One of the things he has been exploring is the concept of dyadic morality related to harm. Gray and his fellow researchers have pushed back a bit on folks like Jonathan Haidt and their work in moral foundations theory.It is a challenge to summarize the research on dyadic morality, but a few quotes from a relevant source helps understand the basic elements. In the abstract to a journal article Gray and a co-author wrote about the Theory of Dyadic Morality, they state, "TDM suggests that acts are condemned proportional to three elements: norm violations, negative affect, and—importantly—perceived harm. This harm is dyadic, involving an intentional agent causing damage to a vulnerable patient." As they unpack their thesis they authors state that there is a mutually reinforcing link between harm and immorality. They write that “The link from harm to immorality means that perceived harm causes acts to be judged as immoral; when acts seem harmful, they seem morally wrong.” A little later they state, “The complementary link from immorality to harm means that judgments of immorality also cause perceptions of harm; when acts seem morally wrong, they seem harmful.” I believe that dyadic morality is important in our understanding of the ways evangelicals morally process their relationship with those in other religions. As the statement from the journal abstract states, for evangelicals, those in other religions are seen as norm violators, they have a negative effect (and affect) on evangelical concerns, and they are perceived as causing harm to us by threatening the purity of our worldview. As Grey discusses in another article, this perception of moral harm predicts and mediates feelings of disgust. So while moral foundational concerns of authority and purity, as well as the reaction of disgust are involved, they are related to the initial feelings of harm because of the feeling that the religious other is immoral.
With all of this in mind I understand why evangelicals like my Facebook conversation partner are so resistant to my approach at multi-faith engagement. Religious others are seen as dangerous who cause real harm. How then can fellow evangelicals call for alternative approaches that seemingly ignore the threats and compromise with evil? If this accurately represents the perspective of many conservative evangelicals, we need to acknowledge these concerns and work through them if we hope to see multi-faith engagement and religious diplomacy gain a foothold in large segments of evangelicalism.
I know I'm repetitive across posts, but I think some of these discussions in the psychological sciences are tremendously important for evangelicals to dialogue with who are involved in multi-faith engagement. Just as missiology is interdisciplinary and has benefited from conversations with cultural anthropology, linguistics, and theology, I believe that our development of a theology of multi-faith engagement must be interdisciplinary, and the psychological sciences should be important conversation partners. If we are wiling to have such conversation we can deepen our theological understanding when it comes to the reasons and feelings behind evangelical resistance to more positive forms of multi-faith encounters.
Those interested in reading about Gray’s dyadic morality see:
Chelsea Schein and Kurt Gray, “The Theory of Dyadic Morality: Reinventing Moral Judgment by Redefining Harm,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 22, No. 1 (2018): 32-70. Available at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/52eea0e9e4b06612bb723c25/t/59a6bfeac534a543d320d261/1504100332327/the-theory-of-dyadic-morality.pdf.
Chelsea Schein, Ryan Ritter & Kurt Gray, “Harm Mediates the Disgust-Immorality Link,” Emotion 6 (2016): 862-76. Available at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/52eea0e9e4b06612bb723c25/t/56be5a257c65e4130432945f/1455315497801/harm-mediates-the-disgust-immorality-link.pdf.