Evangelicals have begun to enter into an interfaith dialogue with people of other religious faiths than Christianity. Historically evangelicals have been very tentative about such conversations, with some reason to support those feelings. But this is changing. Evangelicals are rightly fearful of reducing revelation to sociological opinion. They are also fearful of losing their biblical fidelity to “one faith, one Lord,” which they properly embrace with all their being.
At the dialogue table the problem for evangelicals has not been that they wanted to deny Christ but that they very often had wrong attitudes in the dialogue. Missiologist Ralph Covell noted, (nearly twenty years ago) in the much esteemed International Bulletin of Missionary Research (1991), that evangelical attitudes could be expressed by descriptors like triumphalism, cocksure, attitude, aggressiveness, cold, analytic logic, no sensitivity to people and a continued colonial mentality (15:1, 12-17). This is the bad news.
But Ralph Covell claimed, and this was years ago, that “during the last two decades, we have turned the corner on some of these attitudes.” Note that he says we have turned the corner on “some” but not all of these attitudes. I believe this is what many young Christian leaders are reacting against. They are not always refashioning the claims of Christ but telling us that we should be faithful to Christian principles of life and speech in dialogue. Gina A. Bellofatto says, “The new paradigm is dialogue does not advocate leaving exclusivist claims behind, but rather shifts dialogue into a much more exclusivist-friendly environment” (Lausanne Pulse, January/February 2010).
To enter into the new dialogue we must understand the beliefs and nuances of our own faith. This is where many of those emerging into this new reality are going to be short on understanding. They will not necessarily deny Christian truth claims intentionally. They may not even know which truth claims are crucial to an orthodox Christian expression. This is where we can learn a great deal from our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters who have engaged in dialogue for a long time without surrendering their claims to faith and truth. Rome has an entire body of thought on this subject that many of us could profit from if we bothered to read it.
Finally, the dialogue often spoken about in these considerations is generally talked about as formal. For an evangelical the best dialogue is very often the informal. Dialogue is not a dirty word for an evangelical who is willing to encounter others in honest efforts to speak about their faith in love. Covell says that we need to be careful because “the broad evangelical community is gradually losing its conviction about the ‘lostness’ of humanity” (IBMR, 13). I think he might well be right but this doesn’t alter the fact that a new paradigm has emerged and Christians do well to notice and engage with it respectfully and courageously.
Not everyone can engage in such dialogue effectively, especially young and untrained Christians. But some can and should. One thing we can ALL do is ask what kind of attitude we have toward those of another faith? What is your attitude toward Muslims, for example? Does their presence in America bug you? Do you ever engage in conversation with a Muslim? Do you love them when you meet them or have relational contact with them? It should go without saying that the second great commandment is still clear: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”