The Place and Value of Interreligious Dialogue in Christian Evangelization

I. INTRODUCTION

Religious pluralism is a fact. This reality is being more increasingly brought to our notice in the world of today. Gavin D’Acosta posits—

Christianity was born into a religiously pluralistic world and has remained in one ever since. The mandate to go preach the gospel to the corners of the earth, as well as its own socioeconomic political position in society, has resulted in a complex range of relations and responses to other religions. In the modern period, and especially in the West, it stands unsure of its own distinct nature and deeply aware of its implication in various imperialist exploits. Christians in the modern world cannot ignore the existence of other religions. Global communications, extensive travel, migration, colonialism, and international trade are all factors that have brought the religions closer to each other in both destructive and creative ways.

As our world virtually becomes smaller and smaller each day, more opportunities for interactions with people of other faiths arise.

So, how should we as Christians view other religions and approach their respective adherents? According to Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., dean of St. Vincent School of Theology in Quezon City, there are different ways of mapping these divergent Christian views of other religions. The most accepted classifications are those shared by several theologians like Alan Race, Jacques Dupuis and Aloysius Pieris. Alan Race is responsible for the systematic treatment of the now classic distinctions of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. Jacques Dupuis names the three paradigms – ecclesiocentrism, Christocentrism and theocentrism. Reminiscent of Niebuhr’s Christ and Cultures, Aloysius Pieris also talks in tripartite fashion: Christ against religions, Christ of the religions and Christ among religions.

II. DEFINITIONS AND PARADIGMS

Interreligious dialogue is defined as a meeting of people of differing religions, in an atmosphere of freedom and openness, in order to listen to the other, to try to understand that person’s religion, and hopefully to seek possibilities of collaboration. It is not the same as ecumenism which, refer to all initiatives, i.e. prayers, meetings, dialogues, common projects, etc., to promote the reunion of Christians in one Church according to the will of Christ, the Founder. Ecumenism is therefore only between and among Christian religious communities or churches. Interreligious dialogue, on the other hand, refers to relations between Christians and believers of other faiths such as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other traditional religions.

Evangelism, on the other hand, as defined by the Google Dictionary, pertains to “the spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness.” Another word that is usually interchanged with ‘evangelism’ is ‘evangelization’. Evangelization then “is that process in the Christian religion which seeks to spread the Gospel and the knowledge of the Gospel throughout the world”.

Ecclesiocentric Exclusivism is the most conservative position regarding the theology of religions. In this paradigm, both Jesus Christ and the Church are the ‘constitutive’ and ‘exclusive’ way to salvation. To be ‘constitutive’ and ‘exclusive’ means to be indispensable. It means that God’s saving grace only comes to us through Christ and Him alone. The Bible is thus read from the perspective of this paradigm and one can also find proofs for it. The foremost corollary in ecclesiology is the now famous dictum: “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (outside the Church, there is no salvation).

Christocentric Inclusivism is a paradigm which still affirms the role of Christ in salvation but the role of the Church fades in the background. Jesus remains constitutive or normative but not the Church. There are different shades of this paradigm. One position states that Christ is the ‘constitutive’ way to one’s salvation but not exclusive. “Salvation is here available extra Christum, but it is only possible propter Christum.” We can only be saved by the grace of Christ, but this grace is available even to those outside the Church through Christ.

Theocentric Pluralism considers Jesus Christ as just one mediator among many others; Christianity as one way among the many ways to God. This position seems to be the farthest from Christian tradition but its strength is its emphasis on the incomprehensibility of God.

I would like to propose another paradigm, which I think is adhered to by most Evangelical Christians knowingly or unknowingly, and that is Christocentric Exclusivism. While ecclesiocentric exclusivism views the Church as a literal visible entity, corporation or organization possessing legal personality, such as the Roman Catholic Church or the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), Christocentric exclusivism views the Church as what it truly is, that is, the ‘mystical’ or ‘invisible’ body of Christ. Hence, once a person accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior, he or she becomes ipso facto a part of the Church, the Body and Bride of Christ. Here, Christ is still the only ‘constitutive’ and ‘exclusive’ way to salvation.

III. PERSPECTIVES ON INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE

Nowadays, it seems that more and more Christians are resorting to dialogues instead of the usual evangelistic or apologetic approaches toward believers of other religions. In fact, there are religious groups who would go as far as and even advocate interreligious prayer. The move towards this new paradigm was especially made apparent in the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council, circa 1962-1965 A.D.

Nowadays, it seems that more and more Christians are resorting to dialogues instead of the usual evangelistic or apologetic approaches toward believers of other religions. In fact, there are religious groups who would go as far as and even advocate interreligious prayer. The move towards this new paradigm was especially made apparent in the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council, circa 1962-1965 A.D.

Jesus commissioned his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything He has commanded them. A perusal of the above-quoted Great Commission would give us the impression that simply engaging in interreligious dialogue as defined above is not enough as the same merely endeavors to discuss with people of other religions in order to understand their faith and work towards some sort of collaboration and not to persuade or convert them to the Christian Faith.

IV. PERSPECTIVES ON EVANGELISM

As regards evangelism, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, succinctly described the attitude of the post-modern world towards the fundamental concepts of the Christian faith, which have become unmentionable nowadays: conversion and mission. Thus—

The opinion has become nearly general these days that conversion should be understood to mean a turning point in one’s inner path but not a transition from one religion to another and, thus, not a transition to Christianity. The notion that all religions are ultimately equivalent appears as a commandment of tolerance and respect for others; if that is so, then one must respect the decision of another person who decides to change religions, but it is not permissible to call this conversion: that would assign a higher status to the Christian faith and thus contradict the idea of equality. Not as if he wanted to make himself superior—no one achieves being a Christian for himself, as we were saying; each is only Christian through “conversion”. But the Christian certainly does believe that in Christ the living God calls us in a unique way, which demands obedience and conversion. This presupposes that the question of truth plays a part in the relations between religions and that truth is a gift for everyone and alienates no one.

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And that says what is essential in the concept of ‘mission’ If all religions are in principle equal, then mission can only be a kind of religious imperialism, which must be resisted. But if in Christ a new gift, the essential gift—truth—is being granted us, then it is our duty to offer this to others—freely, of course, for truth cannot operate otherwise, nor can love exist.

This phenomena is not only limited to the Roman Catholics but also to Protestants and Evangelicals, as noted Baptist pastor and theologian John Piper notes:

If the evangelical church at large was ever too confrontational in its evangelism, those days are gone. The pendulum has swung, with a commercialized and psychologized temperament, in the other direction. The church today leans strongly toward offering Jesus as appealing or not offering him at all. And what’s new about this temperament is that we are more inclined than we used to be to let the customer, or the person who is offended, define what is appealing. The commercialized mindset moves away from personal conviction toward pragmatic effectiveness. It feels that if the consumer is unhappy with the presentation, there must be something wrong with it. When this feeling becomes overriding, it circles around and redefines the “truth” being presented so that the presentation can be made enjoyable. If the claim that Jesus is the only way of salvation offends people, the commercialized mindset will either not talk about it or stop believing it. The psychologized mindset defines love as whatever the other person feels is loving. The effect is the same as with the commercialized mindset. If a person or group finds your summons to believe on Jesus for salvation to be arrogant instead of humble and loving, then, if you have the psychologized mindset, you will feel guilty and apologetic. It must be your fault. If this mindset becomes overriding, it too will circle around and change not only the presentation, but, if necessary, the thing presented, so that the other person will not feel unloved. In this way, the unhappy consumer and the offended listener take on a power that once belonged only to the Bible. There is an epidemic fear of man behind these two mindsets. In the name of marketing savvy or sensitive communication, cowardice capitulates to the world, and we surrender the offensive truth of Christ’s uniqueness and supremacy.

For exclusivists, especially those of the Reformed camp such as myself, interreligious dialogue may only be seen either as a waste of time or, at best, a way to learn what believers of other religions profess in order to come up with better strategies in doing evangelism or engaging in apologetic discourses with them. Human nature is regarded as totally fallen and sinful. Hence, men and women are only capable of idolatry, for all their attempts to reach God are precisely that: human attempts to capture the living God. Given the predicament of mankind, the logic of this theology requires that salvation is an utterly gracious gift, entirely unmerited by us. Rather than be indignant at the particularity of God’s action, as are pluralists, the exclusivist is awed and grateful at God’s gratuity. God’s mercy and redemption are not something merited by us, and this gift’s particularity is nevertheless universal in importance and offer, so that the exclusivist can only humbly proclaim this truth rather than question it.

V. CONCLUSION

So the question remains: What is the value and place, if any, of interreligious dialogue in Christian evangelism? It would appear indeed that as Evangelical Christians who truly believe that Jesus is the only Way, Truth and Life, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through faith in Him is essential for salvation. However, this can only happen if we have a correct and accurate knowledge of who Jesus is through a serious and thorough study of the Holy Scriptures found in the Bible.

REFERENCES:

  • Anthony, Francis-Vincent. Attitudes and Aptitudes for Interreligious Dialogue and Integration in Lantayan, Vol. 9, S.Y. 2010 -2011, Makati: Don Bosco Press, 2010.
  • Arinze, Francis. Meeting Other Believers, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 1997.
  • D’Costa, Gavin. Theology of Religions in Modern Theologians, 2nd Ed., Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1997.
  • Pilario, Daniel Franklin. Interreligious Dialogue: Paradigms of Theological Interpretation, Viewed Online: [http://cccaprf.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/interreligious-dialogue-paradigms-of-theological-interpretation/], Accessed October 3, 2012.
  • Ratzinger, Joseph. Truth and Tolerance, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004.