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.
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.
It is extremely problematic for adherents of the world’s religions to ignore differences and focus only on commonalities. Many of the world’s religions do not have the same ontological goals at stake—for example, reconciliation with a creator God (Christians) versus breaking free from samsara, the cycle of life and death (Buddhists). If all members of an interfaith dialogue must agree in order to discuss successfully, then even the most basic of religious beliefs of particular traditions must be put aside, which undermines the goals of dialogue.
As a consequence of these approaches, interfaith dialogue has been over-represented by liberal representations of Christianity.4 Liberal Christians—who typically thrive in such pluralistic environments—have often whole-heartedly embraced interfaith dialogue as a means of adding to their own theology and have not welcomed exclusivist voices at the dialogue table. From an evangelical perspective, non-Christian partners in dialogue under the old paradigm have been presented with only a partial Christian message, one that does not adequately reflect the entirety of biblical truth.
The New Paradigm of Dialogue
The new, or “emerging,” paradigm of dialogue takes a very different approach than the current one. No longer do partners seek the lowest common denominator between traditions, but rather embrace and encourage differences. This move against the relativistic tendencies of the old paradigm encourages a more robust dialogue in which each party brings to the discussion what they believe to be binding truth, whether or not those truths are universal among traditions. In this kind of model, exclusivist views are valued, not discouraged.
A major theme of the new paradigm is that participants are not required to agree with each other. Since dialogue is about learning about others and exposing stereotypes, it is natural and acceptable that partners in dialogue have differing viewpoints on the nature and practice of religion. This opens the door to participants who were frowned upon in the old paradigm, including exclusivists, conservatives, evangelical Christians, and other proselytizing traditions.
Additionally, dialogue requires commitment. In the old paradigm, individuals are asked to leave their religious convictions behind upon approaching discussion. How can people reciprocally understand and appreciate another faith tradition without seeing authentic commitment to that faith? The new paradigm seeks religious adherents who embody the true nature of their faith; there is therefore a great need for more evangelical Christians to take up the task.
In embracing the new paradigm of dialogue there arises an opportunity for evangelical Christians to refine their views toward other religious traditions while still retaining traditional, exclusivist beliefs. The majority of evangelical Christians have historically been tentative to the notion of God working through other religions out of fear of reducing the revelation and authority of Jesus Christ.
This is not just a logical, but also a biblical and spiritual concern. At the dialogue table, however, it is not evangelical theology that has received the most criticism, but evangelical attitudes.5
Harold Netland argues that if evangelicals “have a view of the relation among religions that is epistemologically sound and accurately portrays the values and beliefs of the respective religions, something like traditional Christian exclusivism is unavoidable.”6
The new paradigm of dialogue does not advocate leaving exclusivist claims behind, but rather shifts dialogue into a much more exclusivist-friendly environment.
Having more respect for other religions opens up venues for interfaith dialogue to occur and for relationships to be formed based upon trust, love, and compassion. To appropriately and correctly engage in dialogue, it is helpful for evangelicals to have a deep understanding of their own religious identity and theological stances on a variety of issues.
The Importance of Interfaith Dialogue
While interfaith dialogue in this survey has largely referred to formal, appointed settings, there is much to be said for evangelical engagement in the informal, “continual dialogue with their neighbors of other faiths,”7 which surely, in such a diverse American society, is opportunistic for many evangelical Christians.
Many evangelicals see dialogue as merely the first step in the evangelization process; in any other setting “dialogue” is something of a “dirty word.”8 Perhaps rightly so. Criticism abounds that “the broad evangelical community is gradually losing its conviction about the ‘lostness’ of humanity and…this was one reason for mainline denominations losing their motivation for world mission.”9
When used effectively, interfaith dialogue can serve as a “specific missionary activity”10—although notably the Body of Christ is diverse in its gifts. Not all will be equipped nor called to learn about the world’s religions and engage in formal interfaith dialogue. Nevertheless, more evangelicals could prayerfully reflect upon their attitudes toward other religions and seriously consider seeking whether or not God is calling them to serve as evangelical voices in a field where there are so few to be found.
1. Tennent, Timothy C. 2007. Theology in the Context of World Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 135–161.
2. Lochhead, David. 1988. The Dialogical Imperative: A Christian Reflection on Interfaith Encounter, Faith Meets Faith Series. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 52.
3. Panikkar, Raimon. 1999. The Intrareligious Dialogue. New York: Paulist Press, 23.
4. See scholars such as Paul F. Knitter. 2002. Introducing Theologies of Religions. Maryknoll, N.Y..: Orbis Books; Clark H. Pinnock. 1992. A Wideness in God's Mercy: The Finality Of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan; and John Hick. 1982. God Has Many Names. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
5. Covell, Ralph. 1991. “The Christian Gospel and World Religions.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 15(1); 12-17. Some phrases Covell uses to describe evangelical attitudes include triumphalism, cocksure attitude, aggressiveness, cold, analytic logic, no sensitivity to people, and a continued colonial mentality. However, Covell does claim, “during the last two decades, we have turned the corner on some of these attitudes.” He states that it is only some of these attitudes that have been set aside, not all.
6. Ibid., 16. Also see Harold Netland. 1988. “Towards Contextualized Apologetics.” Missiology 16(3): 289–304.
7. Lamb, Christopher. 1984. “Nineveh Revisited: Theory and Practice of Interfaith Relations.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 8(4):156-158.
8. Covell, 13.
10. Zago, Marcello. 1998. “Mission and Interreligious Dialogue.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 22(3):98-101.