The fear that some Christians have of interfaith dialogue is their suspicion that the price of admission is just too high. They think that the only way that one can participate is by jettisoning your own cherished convictions as a Christian at the door in order to get a place at the table. And there is good evidence that this is in fact how some Christians have approached the whole enterprise. Gabriel Fackre described the “Christological heart-failure” that he has seen some Christians suffer when they engage people of other faiths in serious and sustained conversation. Suddenly Jesus Christ who is the Lord and Savior of their lives gets put away high on a shelf so that what He has done and what He has claimed won’t become an offense, a barrier to the budding relationship. That some Christians do this is not in question, but that this is the only way that a Christian can participate in an interfaith conversation is.
In a recent email exchange with another participant in our ongoing trialogue about what Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed mean respectively to us as Jews, Christians and Muslims, after one of my conversation partners voiced some real concern about what was coming next, explaining,”This event (about Jesus) will be difficult for me, and I will have to teach about historical facts and theological positions that will be unpleasant and uncomfortable to hear,” I responded to him –
I agree that this is the first real watershed in our conversations. Up until now the subjects under our examination have been “shared.” Moses belongs to all of us, as does Abraham. Jesus and Mohammed belong to history, but not to each of our faith traditions equally or identically. If there are not sharp but respectful differences in these next two conversations, my guess is that it will be because we are more concerned with “making nice” than being clear. I want to be nice, and clear. It is my convictions about Jesus Christ that make me a Christian, and your convictions about Him that make you a Jew and a Muslim. We agree that Abraham is the father of faith and that Moses is the great liberator/lawgiver. Each of our faith traditions, in their own ways, affirm this. We do not agree that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the World. What I will say about what Christians do with Jesus is going to be different with what you are going to be saying about what your wing of the Abrahamic family does with Him.
When the desire to be nice becomes more important than the need to be clear, interfaith dialogue becomes something less than an exercise in understanding. As Timothy Tennant, President of Asbury Seminary, explains, when Christians are neither clear about nor committed to the historic beliefs of Christianity, interfaith dialogue loses it way. He quotes Grace Buford, a practicing Buddhist who has been involved in lots of interfaithconversations with Christians – “If they are so taken by Buddhism, why they hang on to Christianity?”
In 1985, Ari Goldman, an observant Orthodox Jew who worked for the New York Times as a Religion Editor, went to Harvard Divinity School for a year in order to broaden his understanding, but also to match his religious passion with the religious passion of Christians. His book The Search for God at Harvard is a wonderful read and a devastating indictment. He found the intellectual stimulation and professional broadening that he went to Harvard seeking, but not the passion. If anything, he was surprised by the dispassion that the Christians he encountered at Harvard Divinity School had for their Christianity. In his experience, they were interested in talking about almost anything other than Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul opened his letter to the Romans by saying that he was not ashamed of the Gospel because he knew in his own experience how it was the power of God for salvation to everyone who believed (1:16-17). But the Christians that Ari Goldman met at Harvard lacked this confidence, and when these kinds of Christians find themselves in an interfaith conversation, well, they just don’t have very much to say.
So, what are the convictions that historic Christianity brings to the table of interfaith conversation? What are the beliefs that need to be staked out clearly, consistently and compellingly by a Christian who steps into the arena of interfaith relations? Well, the three that I bring with me are based on the three questions that I picked up somewhere along the way as the grid for talking with other Christians. Not every Christian shares the same presuppositions, and so it was suggested to me long ago that I get into the habit of asking three basic questions early in any relationship with another believer in order to get a quick sense of the kind of Christian they happen to be and to see whether or not we share the same foundational convictions. Those three questions are:
(1) Who is Jesus Christ to you?
(2) What is the authority for your faith (what you believe) and practice (what you do)?
(3) What does the word “salvation” mean to you, and how does someone “get saved”?
Obviously, there are different kinds of Christians with widely varying beliefs, but the ones with whom I find it most natural to make common cause are those who believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, their Lord and Savior; those who look to the Scriptures as their final authority to sort out questions of faith and practice; and those who understand salvation to mean being reconciled with God and becoming agents of reconciliation with others through faith in what Jesus Christ has done and is doing for us by His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Sending of the Holy Spirit and Coming Again. And just as these three questions stake out the ground on which I stand in my relationships with other Christians, so I find that they also serve me well as a Christian who is involved in interfaith conversations and relationships.
You see, as generous as I want to be and try to be in my dealings with people of other faith traditions, it is not at the expense of these three convictions which I believe are fundamental to historic Christianity –
(1) While our natural instinct for God is strong as human beings (How could it be otherwise for people made in God’s image?), there is a barrier that prevents us from having free and full access to God. To have a relationship with God the barrier that is created by the rebellion of our sin is going to have to be removed, and that makes the question of salvation (#3 above) a matter of primary and critical importance.
(2) Because our efforts at bridging the gap that exists between God and ourselves are always going to prove to be insufficient, if there is to be any chance at reconciliation it is going to have to be through what God Himself does to heal the rift. This is why it is so important for us to be sure and clear about who Jesus Christ is, and what He does (Question #1 above).
(3) And finally, to know anything certain about who God is and what God wants beyond our best hunches and guesses, then it is going to have to be because the God who is there is not silent. If God has acted and spoken in human history, and if we have a reliable record of what God has said and done, then that changes everything. And this is what we’re saying as Christians when we call the Bible “God’s Word” (Question #2 above). We’re saying that we’ve heard from God; that we’ve been given access to God’s mind and God’s heart through God’s very own self-discloser.
These are my core beliefs as a Christian, and they are therefore what I bring to the table of interfaith conversation. I believe that in Jesus Christ God became flesh and dwelt among us, showing us more clearly who He is and what He wants, and then reconciling us to Himself and one another by His saving work. And I believe that when I open the Bible, what I am reading there is an entirely reliable guide to what God has said and done in order to reveal Himself to us and to reconcile us to Himself. As a Christian involved in interfaith conversations, I am fully prepared to have these core convictions of mine challenged. But in order for this to happen, for them to be challenged, they must first be communicated. And this means that if I must somehow leave my convictions at the door before the interfaith conversation even begins then there is really no point in my being there at all is there? DBS+
The Place of Jesus in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
Wednesday, October 10, 2012, at 7:00 p.m.
Northway Christian Church – Dallas, Texas