MoreheadsMusings: Amos, can you tell us a little about your background? I only discovered recently that you and I grew up in the same town and attended the same high school in northern California. Can you tell us more about where you grew up, and what influences, personal and theological, shaped your current perspectives and work in theology?
MM: The work you have done in pneumatology of religions first attracted my attention. At the risk of oversimplifying your thinking, can you summarize your ideas in this area?
Amos Yong: My work in this area can be seen as emerging out of a) the intuition that pneumatology is a neglected theological perspective, and that if pursued and given an opportunity, it might illuminate our theological reflections – thus it could be said that pneumatology is the frontier of theological reflection in the 21st century; b) the conviction that as a pentecostal Christian, pneumatology is a central experience, even a set of practices, which hence gives shape to a robust hermeneutical and methodological key that can be in principle applied to all theological questions, so why not this one – thus it could be said that a pneumatological theology may be one of pentecostal Christianity’s gifts to the wider church and academic conversation; and c) the sense that the question of the religions was one of the most important theological matters that we need to attend to in our time – thus it could be said, for me, that the intra-Christian ecumenical question opened up unavoidably to the inter-religious ecumenical question: if folk such as Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, etc., who I had been raised to think were non-Christians were now understood as possibly being saved, then where does one draw the line between who is and is not a Christian?
MM: Some of us in the Lausanne issue group addressing postmodern and alternative spiritualities have suggested that Western Protestantism's overemphasis on God's transcendance and a de-valuing of the work of the Spirit in creation may contribute to the growth and popularity of Neo-Pagan and nature-based spiritualities. Why do you think a fresh consideration of the Spirit in relation to creation is significant, particularly for our place historically and culturally in the West?
Amos Yong: As I have pursued this pneumatological research initiative, I have come to be convinced that there is nothing beyond the reach of the Holy Spirit – indeed, all creation is nurtured by the holy breath of God. At some level, I think that Neo-Pagan and nature-based spiritualities reflect both the hungering after an encounter with God that is both immanent and yet transcendental, and a sense that God is to be found in some significant way in such practices and within such arenas. However, since this has not been a distinct area of research of mine, I’m not sure what kinds of theological conclusions to draw yet about these matters. In these areas, I’m actually very much learning as I listen in on the discussions such as those you are having on this blog site and elsewhere. But I do think that pneumatological perspectives open up for us the tension between understanding the Spirit as in some ways intimately tied in with the work of the church of Jesus Christ on the one hand, and yet also being the Spirit of the wider created world on the other hand. I don’t think we can resolve this tension, although to collapse this tension to either side would be to deny the truth of the other side. Hence for me it is so important that Christians wrestle together among themselves, while remaining in engaging dialogue with others who are “outside” the (visible) church, on these things.
MM: You are involved in interreligious dialogue, particularly Buddhist-Christian dialogue. How did you get involved in this, and what you have learned as a result?
Amos Yong: I have been a member of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies for a number of years. I was first introduced to Buddhism during a graduate course at PSU on process philosophy, during which time my theological research curiosity led me to the work of Hartshorne, Cobb, Griffin, and others at the Claremont Center for East-West Studies, which involved a fair bit of Christian-Buddhist dialogue. When I first learned about Buddhism and Chinese religious traditions, there were a few “aha” moments when I recognized how simply being raised in a Chinese home imbibed Buddhist notions like the “moderation of the middle way” without calling such “maxims of the Buddha.” As I have continued to study the various Buddhist traditions, I’ve been challenged: of all the world religious traditions, arguably Buddhism is the most foreign to Christianity in terms of its agnosticism about God’s existence. But perhaps also for the same reason, its very radical differences from Christian faith make it an important dialogue partner to stretch, test, and open up other perspectives on my Christian self-understanding. I think the biggest challenge remains, as I’ve come recently to acknowledge, that of the interrelationship between beliefs and practices: if Christian beliefs are as interconnected with and even emergent from Christian practices, are not Buddhist beliefs similarly dependent on certain kinds of practices, and if so, what are the implications for my own ongoing engagement with the Christian-Buddhist dialogue? I’m not sure how to respond to this question – so I can only say, for those interested, “stay tuned…”
MM: Your forthcoming book deals with the issue of hospitality in a religiously plural world. Can you tell us a little more about this book and what it will discuss?
MM: Why do you think hospitality is important in our world of many faiths, and how can this compliment dialogue and other forms of religious engagement?
MM: Some aspects of evangelicalism, particularly those associated with a counter-cult or heresy-rationalist approach to new religions as well as boundary definition and maintenance approaches to Christian theology have expressed concern about your theological views in regards to pluralism and inclusivism, even going so far as to label them "dangerous." What would you say in response, and how might we move our theological and missiological reflection further in positive ways in evangelicalism?
Amos Yong: Well I do hope that my new book will dispel any lingering doubts about my commitments as a follower of Jesus Christ the Messiah, about my convictions regarding the essential aspect of bearing witness to Jesus in the power of the Spirit, and about my views regarding the Great Commission as the church’s raison d’etre. But I am also convinced that any new theological ideas are in some sense “dangerous” since they are new and hence will always be resisted – so I expect disagreements with new ideas will continue to the end of time. I do learn from my detractors, to the point that this book itself has been written with some of these previous criticisms in mind. Without critics, the weaknesses of one’s position can be realized only with much greater difficulty – so in a sense, I am grateful for them. Yet I do feel strongly that not all of us are called to do similar things. And given that pentecostalism has in some ways always been relegated to the Christian margins, perhaps that may also be where my views remain for the time being, being effective, if at all, from that location. I’m OK with that, so long as my most immediate circle of dialogue partners – those of my colleagues in the Society of Pentecostal Studies – both encourage me on as well as engage with me in the common task of bearing witness to Christ in the power of the Spirit in the complex world we call “our time.”