In the Christian church, the term “interfaith dialogue” often referred to evangelism programs created to reach out to other cultures with the gospel message. Today, however, the term is a bit more pluralistic in nature, and suggests embracing members of other religions for the purpose of finding common ground in the values and goals we share.
Interfaith dialogue isn’t actually new. In the 16th century A.D. Emperor Akbar the Great for example, encouraged tolerance in Mughal, India, a diverse nation with people of various faith backgrounds. In the early 20th century interfaith dialogue started to take place between the Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Bahai. And in 1965, the Roman Catholic Church issued the Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, instituting major policy changes in the Catholic Church's policy towards non-Christian religions. The InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington was created in 1978, bringing together 11 historic faith communities to promote dialogue, understanding and a sense of community among persons of diverse faiths. And most recently, a group called The Interfaith Youth Core, formed by Eboo Patel, a proclaimed Muslim, introduces relationships based on mutual respect and religious pluralism.
This form of interfaith dialogue is also finding its way into some Christian churches, as those congregations work side by side with other religions on community projects and relief programs for the poor. According to Pastor Ken Silva, vice-president of Evangelism Explosion North America, a ministry that trains people how to share their faith in Christ, this could be a great opportunity for sharing the gospel.
“We need to bless others and that includes all mankind who are created in God’s image, there is god-stuff in everyone. We all need common ground. In the context of interfaith dialogue, love people, show an interest and ask permission to share. Not from the standpoint of confrontation, but sharing ‘why I believe.’ More as personal disclosure and not debate.”
Of course a great deal of debate has risen in the church on the issue of interfaith dialogue, mostly due to those who, in their desire to create harmony among various religions, are willing to compromise the essentials of their own faith. One such document accused of doing just that was A Common Word Between Us and You, a letter signed by 138 religious leaders agreeing on the two things that Islam and Christianity have in common. One excerpt from the document reads:
“The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.”
But do we really share those foundational beliefs? One theologian taking offense to the letter was John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minn., and founder of Desiring God Ministries. Pastor Piper chastised several Protestant leaders for signing a document that, in his opinion, is disingenuous. In his reproof posted on Youtube.com he states, “When we speak of the love of God and even quote a verse from 1 John 4, and don’t take into account the very next verse where the love of God that sustains us Christians is the love of God that sent the Son, Jesus Christ, into the world as the propitiation for our sins, we are not being honest. They do not believe in the God we believe in. To talk in vague terms as though the love of God is a common standing place is to deceive, to be unclear at best. Jesus was clear; if you reject me you reject the one who sent me.”
Besides the Muslim faith, Christians may face similar challenges deciding how to find common ground with other religious groups joining the interfaith dialogue. Don Frew, who serves on the board of the directors of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio in San Francisco, and is the National Interfaith Representative from Covenant of the Goddess, one of the largest and oldest Wiccan religious organizations, writes in their online newsletter, The Witches Voice Inc. “Interfaith work is, in my opinion, the best hope for the future of the Earth. Neopagans, especially many from the Covenant of the Goddess, are active at the heart of the global interfaith movement. This is our opportunity to be part of the change we wish to see.”
Interfaith dialogue could also prove difficult when conversing with other groups that may claim devotion to the Christian faith like The Gay Christian Network, a nonprofit ministry which challenges biblical authority because it supports unrepentant Christians worldwide who have chose to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Yet, Pastor Silva believes that being a part of interfaith dialogue doesn’t mean Christians have to compromise their own beliefs or change the gospel message. “Jesus never did that. You can love people, even immoral people, and not compromise your commitment to the truth. It’s important to maintain our moral integrity in the world in which we interact.”
Acts of Service
Service projects are often the driving force behind interfaith dialogue as both religious and non-religious groups work together to solve some of the world’s most challenging problems. Perhaps one of the most famous is the One Campaign (now merged with DATA) founded by 11 organizations, which included Bread for the World, International Medical Corps and World Vision. The organization, receiving a $3 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, unites Americans of all beliefs to help raise public awareness about the issues of global poverty, hunger and disease in the world's poorest countries.
Additionally, many states throughout the country have formed their own interfaith ministries in order to address the needs of local communities, none of them requiring adherence to any particular faith or doctrine.
At the local level, many churches are teaming with nonreligious relief programs that serve their community in the form of homeless shelters, children’s services and food programs. Jeremiah Fair, college pastor of Crossroads Church in Turlock, Calif., regularly leads members on community service projects alongside people from all religious walks of life. Pastor Fair believes there are many evangelistic opportunities working side by side with people of different religious backgrounds, and may in fact expose Christian believers, who haven’t taken outreach very seriously, to a lost and perishing part of our culture.
“The only way I can be an effective witness is to respect other people and their beliefs. I think this is going to make us more authentic; we don’t get to pretend anymore. If you’re going to follow Jesus you have to be serious, it’s not just something that’s part of our culture.”
Still, the challenge lies before us. How can the church join hands with those who may in fact despise our foundational beliefs? And how will those groups respond when we refuse to validate behavior the Scriptures overtly condemn?
Of course something that transcends all cultural differences is the love of God for a fallen mankind. People loved to be around Jesus. He attracted people of all backgrounds from Gentiles and Jews, to those involved in the occult. Some came for healing, others seeking answers to tough questions. Regardless, Jesus didn’t turn anyone away. He came that none should perish, promising eternal life to those who believed.
Pastor Silva believes that message needs to be part of the interfaith dialogue. “Let’s not forget what our call really is. If you don’t share the truth of salvation, have you really loved your neighbor?”
Do you see, do you see
All the people sinking down
Don't you care, don't you care
Are you gonna let them drown?
-Singer Keith Green from “Asleep in the Light”
Here are the latest terms to bring you up to speed on the latest in pew talk.
Postmodernism- states that much of what we know is shaped by each linguistic community in which we live. Truth is not objective and absolute. It has been described as extremely complex, contradictory, ambiguous and diverse without a clear central hierarchy or organizing principle.
Emerging Church- the transformational changes in the way Christians practice their faith as a tradition, usually originating from the grassroots of both laity and clergy in mainline Protestant denominations.
Emergent Church- Usually refers to the Emergent Village, a group formed in the 1990s bound together by disillusionment with ecclesial institutions of the late 20th century. Emergents downplay core Christian values and the primacy of Scripture while favoring relationships and experiences instead
Social Gospel- the misapplication of Christian principles to social problems especially as it relates to poverty, inequality, racial tensions, war and most recently the spread of AIDS. The core Christian doctrines focus on such principles as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, sin, Christ's atoning sacrifice on the cross, etc. in an individual context rather than a societal one.
Pluralism- a condition in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious or cultural groups are actively seeking understanding across lines of difference and believe that one's religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth, and that at least some truths and true values exist in other religions.
Interfaith Dialogue- embracing members of other religions for the purpose of finding common ground in the values and goals we share and the similarities between faiths.