The Growing Reality of Interfaith Activity

John ArmstrongReligion

A recent Hartford Institute study indicates an increase in connections across all faith traditions, especially among more civic-oriented communities. Since the 9/11 attacks, congregations have gotten more involved in interfaith work and are cooperating more for the social good of their communities. In the past decade, American congregations' involvement in interfaith worship doubled and their involvement in interfaith community service nearly tripled. Although interfaith work has increased in both evangelical and oldline churches, the most liberal congregations have the highest level of this activity. 

Older evangelicals have a very difficult time thinking about interfaith dialog and practice. Their categories are totally black and white. You are for Christ or for the devil. This is spiritual war and we must choose sides. We cannot serve God and Satan so we cannot have discussions with non-Christians unless they are evangelistic conversations. We must remind people, as soon as possible, that they are going to hell unless they convert to our faith in Jesus.  

I have clearly overstated the case here for a reason. Even if my words are not entirely accurate they are too close to reality for comfort. 

What is the problem here? 

1. We have failed to see that the term "brothers and sisters" has several different meanings in the Bible and tradition. Clearly, the New Testament speaks of "brothers and sisters" primarily in terms of those who are one with us in Christ. But there is more nuance to this issue than some will allow. We are plainly related to one another as members of the same human family, created by the same God and loved by the same Creator who sent his one and only Son into the world to save us. He did not send the Savior into the world "to condemn the world" (John 3:16-17) as the Fourth Gospel makes so plain. 

We are all created by God thus none of us exists independently from God. "We live and move and have our being in God." Ontologically we are all brothers and sisters who are coming forth from God here and now as a divine creative act. This is why St. Francis could speak of "brother sun and sister moon." Evangelicals have often lost this robust doctrine as it is expressed in the first article of the creed.

2. We have far too often assumed that if we talk to non-Christians about matters of God and faith then we must talk to them in an aggressive way about our faith or we have failed to take evangelism seriously. I find this premise entirely wrong. It seems to me that it is like saying, "The only way we can and should talk to people of non-Christian persuasion is if we can talk about their need to convert and join us." Surely we can have loving and wonderful conversation with people as real friends and neighbors without that conversation leading us to "present the plan of salvation" as our only purpose for a relationship. 

3. We need to read our Bibles much more carefully if we are to enter into the growing interfaith reality. I recently engaged several serious Christian thinkers about this subject because of a simple re-reading of the parables of Jesus. I am quite aware that judgment is a biblical theme. I take this quite seriously. But I am also aware that Jesus revealed the Father's love for the world. He did not reserve his love for the "right" crowd. In fact the one crowd that he most frequently warned of impending danger was the conservative religious crowd that was most sure they knew who belonged to the true people of God and who did not. 

So what needs to happen? We need to stop reacting against liberal conceptions of "the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God." These conceptions were false and remain dangerous if advanced without the clarity of the good news. But what we replaced this danger with was a theology of anger and judgment that left us with precious little to say to non-Christians but "repent" and "you are headed to hell without Jesus." If you think I make this up talk to non-Christian under age 40! I believe deeply in repentance but I do not believe that I can even begin to communicate why a God of love commands all people everywhere to repent unless people know I love them. People do not care what I love unless they know I love them. And they cannot know I love them if I will not converse with them out of deep human respect precisely because they are loved by the living and true God whose love I have found in Jesus Christ.