Editor’s Note: How should the North American church relate to culture? How should it respond to deep racial, cultural, and religious differences and tensions? Is there a way beyond the false choices of cultural retreat and control? Beyond petrified conservatism and an obsession with the current zeitgeist? The daily work of Comment owes much to the rich cultural and theological vision of Dutch politician, journalist, statesman, and theologian Abraham Kuyper. For the next three weeks, we will be publishing a series of articles (curated by Matthew Kaemingk) that explore how Kuyper’s vision and the neocalvinist movement he inspired can offer the church an alternative way of engaging with cultural issues as diverse as racial relations, youth ministry, personal piety, sports, work, and more. The series coincides with the release of Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans, 2011) by Fuller Theological Seminary president Dr. Richard Mouw.
Candid Conversations About Other Religions
People often ask me, “How did you first get involved in interfaith dialogue?” My response usually catches them off guard. I tell them that I am not quite sure—it sort of happened by accident. I never dated a Mormon or Muslim girl in college, though that is a common reason why people first start exploring interfaith questions. And while I enjoyed listening to apologists—among whom C.S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, and John Stackhouse were my favourites—I majored in business in college and never cared much for apologetics or comparative religion. So it is surprising that talking with people of other religions is something that takes up a considerable amount of my time today.
It is not uncommon for Christians to respond with a mixture of shock and confusion when they find out what I do. “What did you do this weekend?” someone will ask. “Oh,” I might say, “I spent the last few days with Latter-day Saint (LDS) scholars talking about Joseph Smith and LDS views of revelation.”
Usually the response is a mixture of “Um . . . I’m sorry” and “Why?” Some are more blunt: “Why are you dialoguing with Muslims? We know that Islam is inherently violent and dialogue will get nowhere.” In other words, we already know what Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists believe and why they are wrong. There’s no need for dialogue.
Given my own background, I understand a bit of what lies behinds these comments. I was brought up in a religious environment that encouraged a confrontational approach to other religions. This approach was summarized well by a friend who said that in seminary he learned to use John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”) to wrestle Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons to the ground.
American evangelicals have often struggled with knowing how to engage their neighbours from different religious backgrounds. What complicates the matter is that evangelicals are latecomers to interfaith dialogue and find that the accepted “rules of engagement” are already firmly established. Religious dialogue in the public square often operates with the assumption that all religions are permitted to enter into the conversation as long as no religion puts forward their claims as exclusive and universal. Faced with the choice between confrontation or the “I’m ok, you’re ok, we all really believe the same thing” approach, many evangelicals struggle to find another way of engaging in interfaith dialogue. Fortunately, there are helpful resources to be mined within the evangelical tradition that can equip Christians to engage our neighbours with what Richard J. Mouw calls “convicted civility” in his book Uncommon Decency (InterVarsity Press, 2010). Engaging with our neighbours does not require us to loosen our grip on our core Christian convictions, nor does it require us to sacrifice demonstrating love through honest and civil dialogue.
Biases and Inhibited Vision
While Christians in Africa and Southeast Asia have lived in cultures of religious pluralism for centuries, this is a recent phenomenon for Christians in Western Europe and North America. It is not surprising that Islamophobia (and the LDS equivalent, mormonophobia) are growing in these Western societies. Fear proliferates in contexts where first-hand experience and knowledge is lacking—and in election years, political rhetoric can tap into these fears, flooding the media with slander and rumours.
I have found that there are broadly two pitfalls of which Christians need to be mindful if they are to embody the practices of convicted civility towards their neighbours: nearsightedness and farsightedness. People with nearsighted vision (myopia) are able to see things close to them, but unable to see clearly those that are farther away. Farsighted people (hyperopia), in contrast, see things clearly from a distance, but struggle seeing those that are close by.
When it comes to other religions, nearsighted people extrapolate ideas and opinions from their limited experience with a Jewish or Buddhist neighbour, and then project onto all Jews and Buddhists a uniform expression of those religions. One size fits all in their monolithic understanding of that religion.
Those who have a farsighted vision view people of other religions from afar without ever coming close to meet them personally. Quite often, they read about their neighbour’s religion from books (usually written by Christians) and conclude that they already know what their neighbour believes (as well as why they are wrong!) without ever talking to them. Both optic conditions inhibit proper knowledge of our neighbours, and can even lead to bearing false witness if we attribute to them beliefs and practices to which they do not adhere.
Heal My Eyes: A Little Help from Kuyper
Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) lived during a time when European theologians were experiencing a challenge to their farsighted vision of non-Christian religions. Studies in the science of religion during the 19th century challenged commonly-held Christian views about other religions and forced theologians to give an account of the commonalities that exist between other religions and Christianity while maintaining the unique claims of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Kuyper’s response to this challenge contains resources that can help evangelicals overcome the problems that inhibit us from knowing our neighbours and make use of the opportunities for interfaith engagement today.
Kuyper believed in the uniqueness of the Christian gospel to offer a message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Yet along with this exclusivity, he did not shy away from pointing out areas of commonness and solidarity between Christians and their non-Christian neighbours. Using Romans 1 and John Calvin as key sources, Kuyper argued that all humans have a sense of the divine (sensus divinitatis) and the seed of religion (semen religionis) within them. That is, humans are innately religious. This impulse helps explain why so many religions exist. The cause of this religious impulse, as Paul wrote, is that God has made Himself known through creation and human conscience. This general revelation of God is by no means sufficient for salvation, yet it does not for that reason cease to be real or significant. We should not be surprised when we find truths and aspects of moral goodness in persons of other religions, since the seed of religion in each person is a response to a genuine revelation from God. Christians stand alongside their Hindu, Muslim, and Jehovah’s Witness neighbours and share this fundamental propensity towards religion.
Kuyper argued that Christian solidarity with our neighbours also extends to a common sinfulness and need of grace. The Christian knows from firsthand experience what it is to distort God’s revelation. Christians share an ongoing propensity towards sinfulness as well as the desperate need for the grace of God. Christians know what it is to feel the sense of the divine and what it is to give way to sinful corruptions of this impulse—we are well versed in making idols of the heart and exchanging truth for error. Often in dialogue this growing knowledge of ourselves goes hand in hand with the process of knowing our neighbour. Christians bear witness to the source of grace, while sharing an ongoing need for it.
Is there salvation in other religions? Kuyper gave a clear “no” in answer to this question. For all the commonness Christians share with non-Christians, the gospel message is antithetical to every other religion’s claims to salvation. Christianity alone conveys the good news of the salvation that God accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yet Kuyper’s theology shows us the need to draw near and learn from people of other faiths as part of our Christian witness.
Why Dialogue? Practicing Convicted Civility in Our Witness
J.H. Bavinck, a missionary theologian who lived a generation after Kuyper, used theological resources from Kuyper to engage with people from other religions. In The Church Between Temple and Mosque (Eerdmans, 1961), he wrote:
Every Christian knows that he is always apt to hide the truth by his own unrighteousness, and that only God’s grace has taught him to acknowledge and confess this as sin. With such humility the Church can give its testimony in the world of other religions. As I have said elsewhere, “As long as I laugh at what I regard as being foolish superstition in other religions, I look down upon the adherents of them.” Then “I have not yet found the key to his (another religion’s adherent’s) soul. As soon as I understand that what he does in a noticeably naÃ¯ve and childish manner, I also do and continue to do again and again in a different form; as soon as I actually stand next to him, I can in the name of Christ stand in opposition to him and convince him of sin, as Christ did with me and still does each day.”
With these basic acknowledgements we can start the conversation.
In this passage, Bavinck shows how through a shared experience of distorting our God-given sense of the divine, Christians are called to live alongside their neighbours with humility and conviction as they learn from them and witness to the grace that is offered in Jesus alone. Each person we encounter is a unique and precious image bearer of God, and we must allow him or her to educate us on his or her Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam. It is only as we do so that we will be able to accurately speak of our common need for God’s grace.
Interfaith dialogue does not have to be a lazy form of pluralism that leads us to soften our theological convictions. Following theologians like Kuyper and Bavinck, we can learn to shift our basic assumptions concerning our neighbours and the nature of our witness to them. In short, our Muslim or Mormon neighbours should not be assumed to be an “agent of the devil,” and Christians should not content themselves with vague second-hand caricatures of these religions. This will only feed our phobias, obscure our vision, and undermine our witness.
When I reflect on my journey into interfaith dialogue, I see that what originally drew me in and sustains me today is my interest in specific people and their stories. I don’t care too much about these religions in the abstract, but I care a lot about my LDS and Muslim friends. Bearing witness to Jesus involves taking a genuine interest in each of them as bearers of God’s image, and not simply as “objects of conversion.” Do we talk about Jesus and the gospel? Sure, but not in every conversation and not necessarily at first. As we have relationships with our neighbours, Jesus and the gospel will arise, and that message is unsettling. However, the message that we witness to is the same message that we speak to ourselves every day. We must first speak the message of repentance to ourselves and draw on God’s forgiving grace before offering that message to our neighbour (1 Tim. 1:15-6; Matt. 7:3-5). We do not stand above or apart but rather alongside our neighbours and under the cross in need of repentance and God’s grace.