Most of my Christian life I have heard Christians talk about interfaith dialogue. As a young Christian, and during the middle years of my life, I had no use for anything remotely like interfaith dialogue. The reason was simple. Liberal Christians thrived in such conversation precisely because they were more pluralistic and willing to entertain other faiths as equal to, or faithful to, the message of Christianity. Since I am not a pluralist, and because I believe John 14:6 means that Jesus “is the way, the truth and the life” then this dialogue has no real place in my understanding of mission or shared life.
First, a post-9/11 world compels us to engage in religious conversations in order to listen and to pursue peace, a goal which every Christian ought to embrace based upon the clear teaching of our Lord and the examples that he gave to us as disciples.
Jesus had conflicts with religious people but they were not generally with those people who rejected his teaching out of ignorance or unbelief, or had never even heard it clearly presented. His religious conflicts were with Pharisees, a very religious bunch of insiders who rejected him because of their ideological interpretation of the one, true faith. This distinction is one we should make.
Second, dialogue does not equal compromise. This is a bogey-man. You can hold to a position and be prepared to explain it, even defend it, and enter into a meaningful dialogue. I would argue that love compels such dialogue. Liberal Christians did not generally welcome non-liberal Christians to the table but this has also been changing in the past decade. I think a new paradigm is emerging and I welcome it.
Make no mistake, the old paradigm about dialogue with non-Christians still lives. There are Christians who believe that we should have such a dialogue because this is how we can find our lowest common denominator and then enter into our shared salvation more fully. In many cases words are exchanged so that we can agree and reach consensus with non-Christians. This will likely involve altering one’s beliefs if it helps the dialogue. In this paradigm it is not only the Christian who gives up their beliefs but the non-Christian who is also asked to do the same in a rather disingenuous way. I think this approach treats those I dialogue with as if their beliefs are not seriously held at all. I believe we show real respect in conversation when we take people and their faith seriously and then listen to them respectfully. In such a context we can truly learn without trying to find a place where we simply agree on all our major points of difference.