Saturday, May 26, 2007

Interview with Dr. Terry Muck

Terry Muck teaches in world religions at the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including A Pocket Guide to American Religion (Doubleday, forthcoming), Buddhists Talk About Jesus, Christians Talk About Jesus (Continuum, 2000), Ministry and Theology in Global Perspective: Contemporary Challenges for the Church (Eerdmans, 1996), and How to Study Religion (Wood Hill Books, 1993, 2005). He is also the author of a number of articles that have appeared in various periodicals, and he serves as the editor of Missiology: An International Review, the journal of the American Society of Missiology.

Terry has been actively involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogue for a number of years.Terry recently taught an intensive course in world religions at Salt Lake Theological Seminary last semester. The emphasis of the course was a look at folk religious aspects of world religions. Terry graciously made some time in his schedule to share some thoughts.

Moreheads Musings: Terry, it is a pleasure to engage you in this dialogue. Thanks for taking the time to share some insights. I enjoyed your course last semester. Can you briefly share some of your background in education, experience and theological reflection that helped your current perspectives and approaches to world religions?

Terry Muck: After my divinity degree at Bethel Theological Seminary, I did a Ph.D. at Northwestern University in the history of religion. My focus was on Buddhism, specifically Theravada Buddhism. I lived a couple of years in Sri Lanka doing field research for my dissertation, a study of Theravada Buddhist monasticism. Since then I have worked in publishing (as editor of Christianity Today Magazine) and in theological education, first at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and then at Asbury Theological Seminary. The study of religion and religions has never been more important for the Christian church. The theological and practical questions raised by the growth of the non-Christian religion may be the ecclesial challenge of the 21st century—to say nothing of the impact of religious pluralism on human cultures in general.

MM: You wrote an article in 1997 for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society exploring whether there is common ground among religions. Can you summarize your conclusions, and if you did find some kind of common ground, why is it important for Christians to emphasize this aspect as well as differences (which seems to be the preference among evangelicals)?

Terry Muck: Of course there is no end to the common ground one finds among the religions of the world. As a Christian I believe this common ground is a result of creation—all human beings were created in the image of God, with a strong desire to know God. Human beings have expressed that essential nature in literally hundreds of ways and thousands of different religions. Anyone who seriously studies the other religions of the world and does not see the commonalities is really not looking for them. On the other hand, anyone who seriously studies the non-Christian religions and does not see that they are different from Christianity is simply not paying attention. The other religions ask us to do different things for different reasons than does Christianity. A faithful study of the non-Christian religions should result in the discovery of both similarities and differences.

MM: In this article you summarize possible points of common ground, and I found one especially intriguing. You quote Hendrik Kraemer who said: "There really is only one point of contact...The attitude and disposition of the missionary." Why might this be especially important for Christians to consider in the post-Christendom, post-modern, post-9/11 Western world?

Terry Muck: Too often Christian mission has resulted in a strong disconnect between what Christianity teaches (the command to the best of our ability imitate the love and grace that God shows toward us to other people) with the manipulative and dishonest mission methods sometimes used. People of other religions have the same full range of emotions that we as Christians have, including love, hate, anger, joy. Whatever attitude we as Christian witnesses use when we tell the gospel story will connect with that same attitude in non-Christians. And they will associate that attitude with the story we are telling. It becomes a part of the Christian story. Of course, Kraemer was advocating that the attitude and disposition we have toward other people match the attitude and disposition of the gospel—love and grace and peace.

MM: In some of your other writing, such as a recent contribution you made to the journal Interpretation, you touch on the issue of a theology of religions in light of religious pluralism, specifically one that moves beyond the exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist paradigms. Can you summarize some of your thinking here, and why is this important for us to think about in terms of theology, methodology, and missiology, as well as daily living amidst religious pluralism?

Terry Muck: The exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist paradigm focuses on a question that only God has an answer to, the question of salvation. We are not called to judge the eternal destinies of other individuals—God does that. We are called to witness to the truth of the story of God acting through Jesus Christ to restore our relationship with God. Basing our theology of other religions on a question to which only God has an answer means the theology runs out of meaning pretty quickly. Better to base our theology of religions on things we have some control over—loving our neighbors in every way by making life better for them. And telling them what difference the truth of the gospel has made in our lives in the hopes that they will learn to see their stories as a part of this much larger story.

MM: You have been involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogue for some time. How did you get involved in this process, what kinds of things have you learned, and how has it helped you reflect on Christian theology and praxis?

Terry Muck: My studies of Theravada Buddhism created associations with scholars of Buddhism worldwide. Some of those scholars are not just students of Buddhism, but practitioners of Buddhism also. I found that scholars have a desire to go beyond their scholarship at a certain point and talk about faith, commitment, meaning, and destiny in a very personal way. These topics are not a part of academic discourse—for good reasons, by the way. But they are a part of every person’s total life, and as we discovered this about each other we realized we had a common desire to talk to one another about these extra-curricular activities. So some of us created the Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies. We have been meeting annually for almost 30 years now. For ten of those years I edited the journal of the society, Buddhist-Christian Studies. The friendships I formed there have been an important part of my life, both professional and personal.

MM: Given your involvement in interreligious dialogue, do you see this as an essential and valuable aspect of the Christian life in a religiously plural world? What about it's value to Christian ministry? And would you have any thoughts about the various forms of the evangelical-Mormon dialogues taking place?

Terry Muck: Yes, of course it is essential. Without dialogue, any kind of mission becomes a caricature of itself, a one-way conversation where we are simply shouting into the darkness with no hope of really connecting with 21st century non-Christians. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Mormons are too sophisticated religiously to seriously entertain the teachings of Christianity if they are presented without acknowledging the value of their religious traditions, and without any attempts to connect the grand Christian story with these other religious stories. It is not really a question of truth, although truth must play a part. It goes way beyond truth. It is a matter of effectiveness--and a matter of treating other people with the respect they deserve as children of God.

MM: The intensive course you taught for Salt Lake Theological Seminary last semester included a special emphasis on folk religion as it relates to world religions. Why is this aspect of understanding and study so important? Do you think we have a tendency to reify religions that may not always reflect our "textbook" understandings of them? And why might folk religious understandings of new religious movements be important for evangelicals?

Terry Muck: Every so-called world religion uses a “folk religion” as a cultural carrier. If we look for pure Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others, we never will find them. Knowledge of pure Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam is essential of course. But understanding Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims will not take place unless we learn how these world religions are expressed in local contexts, as they are associated with discrete cultures and their attendant folk religions. And of course knowing another person and what they believe is essential to making the most effective presentation of the gospel story.

MM: Terry, you have been a valuable contributor to the Lausanne issue group on postmodern and alternative spiritualities, and a helpful force in shaping my own thinking on religious pluralism, theology, missiology, and interreligious dialogue. Thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview.

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