Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Further Reflections on Dialogue: Rethinking the Connection to Evangelism

In my critical review of the Christian Research Journal article that took issue with Standing Together's form of dialogue between Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints I noted that one of the issues raised by those critical of this expression of dialogue is the claim that allegedly dialogue is only appropriate if it is in the service of evangelism. Evangelicals have tended toward this perspective in interreligious dialogue for many years, whereas those coming from ecumenical and pluralist perspectives have had differing views.

The issue of dialogue between Christianity and new religious movements has been a personal interest of mine and a source of continuing reflection. I have shared some of my thoughts, and the recent critique of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue with those in my network for their feedback and I recently received some interesting thoughts from Harold Taylor. Harold is a former missionary to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, is emeritus vice-principal of the Bible College of Victoria, Australia, is a contributor to Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004), and is on the board of directors for Global Apologetics and Mission. He also has a connection to the Lausanne issue group addressing postmodern and "alternative" spiritualities.

Harold passed along his thoughts that are worthy of careful review and reflection by those interested in dialogue with new religions, especially those critical of some forms of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. His comments specifically address the claim that dialogue is confined to the service of evangelism:

Some brief general comments on your questions re: dialogue, etc.

I think
Matthew Stone has offered some very pertinent points which merit further attention. His point 4, whether evangelism is the be all and end all of glorifying God, and his question... "May not God be glorified in other ways as well as evangelism?", touch on a continuing issue for many evangelicals.

In a recent book,
He Shines in All That's Fair ( Eerdmans, 2002) Richard Mouw, Fuller Seminary, raises a similar issue..."How does God view those not saved?.." "Are the specifically 'salvific' categories adequate to cover all God's disposition towards human beings, both redeemed and unredeemed"?... "Does God care about actions and achievements in non-elect persons in ways not directly limited to issues of individual salvation"? Mouw affirms that a true biblical perspective suggests that .. "as God unfolds his plan for creation, He is interested in more than one thing. Alongside God's clear concern about the eternal destiny of individuals, are his designs for the larger creation.... (an example being the eschatological ingathering of humankind cultural labours, as depicted Rev 21:24-26). This suggests that mutual understanding, cooperation, and other social or cultural values and activities are in themselves valuable and part of God's overall purpose, and not merely "appendages" or "aspects" in the service of evangelism. If this is so, then dialogue has a very important and integral role to play in this wider purpose.

The issue of dialogue has been around for many years, and some of the best material written in the l970's and l980's continues to point a wayforward, especially in opening up the different perspectives in evangelcal and ecumenical approaches. Many writers suggest these wider dimensions in dialogue. Two writers I have found helpful are Eric J. Sharpe,
Faith Meets Faith (SCM Press, 1977), and David Bosch, Transforming Mission (Orbis, 1991). In one paper "Faith at the Round table" ( Melbourne, 1993), Sharpe suggests the four mains ways "dialogue" has been used since the l960's ( especially in Ecumenical discussions):

Discursive dialogue in intellectual understanding and exchange of information;

Human dilalogue is the sharing of religious and spiritual values and experiences;

Secular dialogue which includes discussion where people of different faith traditions work together in the secular world without allowing religious differences to keep people apart; and

Spiritual dialogue to discuss and meditate, and share respective spiritualities weithout trying to prove any superiority, even though each person may be commited to a particular understanding and experience.

All these forms of dialogue were seen as valuable, even though they mat not have resulted in a "verdict" for or against Jesus Christ.

David Hesselgrave and other evangelicals also offered a wider understanding of dialogue, and encouraged evangelicals to participate in:

a) dialogue on the possibilities of inter-religious dialogue.
b) dialogue to promote religious freedom
c) dialogue to encourage action to meet human need
d) dialogue to break down mistrust between different social and religious groups
e) dialogue to understand conflicting truth claims.

These approaches suggest that confining dialogue to the "service of evangelism" is not a true biblical understanding, but [rather must be understood as] part of a much larger divine purpose. Therefore, a wider use of dialogue is not denying the sufficiency of scripture for faith and practice; rather it is drawing out the implications of God's wider concerns for people, rather than forcing the total biblical perspective, especially the New Testament, into a false "primacy of evangelism" focus. This was a big issue for Evangelicals in those earlier years, and it remains a lively issue for many today.

Hesselgraves also suggested that "many Evangelicals are not yet ready for dialogue" because,

a) the majority are not open to it,
b) it is misunderstood in evangelical churches and missionary groups, showing the deep need for in-depth teaching, and,
c) the evangelical position and the ecumenical positions are often not understood by either camp, nd the "other" camp is seen as not interested in or ready to take dialogue seriously from a biblical perspective (evangelicals) or from a wider perspective (ecumenicals).

He also noted that this hesitation and timidness in approaching the subject applies particularly to Western Churches. One wonders whether there has been much advance since his comments were made, almost 30 years ago!!?? (See David J. Hesselgrave (ed), Theology and Mission [Baker, 1979] p., 227-72.)


Jarred said...

Very interesting thoughts. Personally, I've always found one problem with the suggestion that dialogue with other faith groups should be solely focused on evangelism: What possible reason would people of said faith groups have for wanting to join in such a dialogue? I'm quite happy with my current faith, so why would I welcome a conversation where the other person's only intent is to convince me to leave it in favor of their own?

I suppose one answer would be that such a conversation would give me a chance to "evangelize" to them in turn. However, I see two problems in that suggestion as well:

1. I'm not really interested in actively seeking converts in that manner.
2. An exchange where both parties are merely trying to convince the other party to change their faith doesn't strike me as entirely worthy of the title "dialogue" anyway.

So does that simply mean that some evangelicals will choose not to attempt dialogue with me and look for "greener pastures" instead?

John W. Morehead said...

You bring up some good food for thought, Jarred. The view of dialogue as merely a tool or form of evangelism seems reductionistic and utilitarian. As a result it turns other human beings into objects for evangelism and ignores other aspects of communication and relationships between human beings that must be considered equally worthwhile for Christians with broader theological constructs.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Todd Wood said...

I cut my missiological teeth on Hesselgrave in the early days. From Hesselgrave, I gathered a huge connection.

aquinas said...

I remember talking with an Evangelical and explaining to them that I engaged in interfaith dialogue. She was quite stumped as to why I would want to do such a thing. She remarked, "What's the point if the other side is wrong?" In other words, "Why do I want to try to understand another person who is wrong?" Or to put it another way, "What value is there in seeking to understand another person's heretical worldview?" I think her comments are in some ways quite representative.

My response is "How do you know they are wrong, without having engaged in dialogue with them?" The assumption is that you can know someone without engaging in dialogue with them. By virtue of someone else telling you about what they believe, or a former member of that faith telling you what everyone believes, or a book telling you what that person believes. Any other method seems to be just as good or better, they believe, when in fact, few methods can substitute direct dialogue with another human being as a way to understand the values and beliefs of that individual.

I often find that much communication between members of different faith groups comes down to:

"You don't understand my beliefs."

"Yes, I do, because it is written down in this book here, and it tells me what you believe."

"Well, I am telling you what I believe, listen to me."

"But that doesn't match my interpretation of what I already know you believe. So you either don't know what you believe, or you are lying. Either way, how can I talk to someone like that?"

There needs to be an better understanding between the relationship of a faith's history and written texts, and an individual believer's cognitive version of the faith, which may or may not be based on the texts, or based on a different interpretation of those texts. True communication cannot occur when the only options that exist are that my interlocutor is either ignorant or deceptive.

I believe the enterprise of apologetics can often get in the way of true communication. Apologetics training seeks to tell or inform its subjects of the beliefs of others, why they are wrong, and methods to counter them. People with this new training then seek to use it. They aren't interested in clarifying the beliefs of others because they have already received this information from a third party, or from original sources with a third-party interpretation. Rather, they seek to refute it as they have already rehearsed in their training. Again, the notion is that clarification of heretical views is of less value than refutation of them.

In order for true interfaith dialogue to take place, the role, purpose and methods of apologetics needs to be reassessed and revisited.

John W. Morehead said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments left on my blog in response to my post on interreligious dialogue with new religious movements. It prompted my review of your blog which I had not seen beforre. Thanks for your thoughtful comments and interactions with your readrs, and your helpful perspectve on much-needed dialogue.

aquinas said...

You're very welcome. I appreciate your post. It's great to find people who share similar perspectives on ways to approach these issues and who provide opportunity for reflection on how to improve dialogue.