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Evangelicals and Interfaith Dialogue: A New Paradigm

By Gina A. Bellofatto
January / February 2010

Interfaith dialogue is currently experiencing a significant methodological shift where participants represent not only the liberal side of the faith spectrum, but also include conservatives with commitment to their respective religious traditions. This gradual shift from “old” to “new” paradigms is a change that is only beginning to take root, but is providing evangelical Christians an opportunity to engage in a field where encountering adherents of other religions is the primary objective. There are significant implications for this shift not only in the area of interfaith dialogue, but for evangelical Christian witness and evangelism among adherents of the world’s religions.

The Old Paradigm of Dialogue
The language of “old paradigm” is not meant to imply that what is being described has been completely replaced. To the contrary, it is alive and thriving in dialogue circles. The old paradigm of interfaith dialogue seeks the lowest common denominator between partners—the theological point(s) that partners in dialogue agree upon, even if it means slightly altering one’s beliefs or leaving out other truths to reach a consensus.

An example of this is soteriology in Pure Land Buddhism and Christianity, both of which believe in salvation by grace through faith (either through Amida Buddha or Jesus Christ, respectively).1 The lowest common denominator between these two traditions is salvation by grace through faith, which could provide a starting point for dialogue since almost exactly the same language is used to describe their respective doctrines. Such an approach could be helpful because it gives participants a positive place to begin in their conversation.

The gradual shift from old to new paradigms in participating
in interfaith dialogue has significant implications.

It is misleading to leave the conversation at that, however, since “salvation” and “faith” have two completely different connotations to adherents of those religions. On the surface it seems like these two traditions have much in common, but it is an injustice to each of them to ignore the irreconcilable theological differences between them in dialogue. Thus, seeking the lowest common denominator frequently provides only a minimal understanding of a particular tradition.

In the old model, it is argued that in order to truly engage “the other” and obtain a genuine dialogue, particularistic criteria of truth and conviction must be given up in favor of relativistic, universalized faith.2

While it is true that modern society is often marked by religiously diverse cultures, this does not automatically suggest that the religiously faithful must be pluralists in conversation. Supporters of this view, however, are adamant on this point “because no single culture, model, ideology, religion, or whatnot can any longer raise a convincing claim to be the one, unique, or even best system in an absolute sense.”3

Exclusivist claims concerning religious faith and absolute truth are viewed with disfavor, believed to be too narrow, naïve, and self-centered. In addition, the old paradigm assumes that the most valuable conversation occurs when all parties are in agreement with one another, as opposed to representing alternative—and even contrasting—perspectives and beliefs.

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Gina A. Bellofatto graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with an MA in religion, where her studies focused on Christian mission and its intersections with the world’s religions, in particular evangelicals and interfaith dialogue. She worked at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity under the direction of Todd M. Johnson. She specialized in Jewish demography, contributing to the World Christian Database and the World Religion Database. Bellofatto also served as senior editorial assistant on the forthcoming Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburgh University Press).