Monday, September 15, 2008

Amos Yong: Hospitality and Interreligious Dialogue

Amos Yong is Professor of Theology at Regent University School of Divinity. He is also a clergyman with the Pentecostal Assemblies of God Church, and he has done extensive work in developing a theology of religions, particularly in the contribution that pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit) can play. His scholarly life is dedicated to deepening biblical theology and promoting ecumenical and interfaith understanding. Yong's recent work is Hospitality & the Other: Pentecost, Christian Practices, and the Neighbor (Orbis Books, 2008). After trying to discover a mutually agreeable time to discuss this book, we were finally able to touch bases by phone last Friday. Following is a transcript of our discussion.

Morehead's Musings: Amos, thank you for discussing your new book. It brings together a number of topics of great interest to me including hospitality with the "religious other," interreligious dialogue, and a theology of religions. I found your book helpful in providing broader considerations for reflection and practice in these areas. At one point in your book you contrast what you call "conservative and progressive trajectories" among Christians as it relates to interreligious relations. Can you briefly summarize the general aspects and differences of approach in these two camps?

Amos Yong: I would draw the reader's attention to the specific context in the book where I discuss these different categories. But I would simply say that more conservative trajectories are more concerned about not compromising the integrity of the Christian identity or faith. More progressive trajectories are not. It's not that they aren't concerned about that, but they are less concerned about that and more concerned about building bridges, exploring opportunities for collaboration, for understanding, etc. It's not that conservatives aren't interested in building bridges or exploring opportunities for collaboration, they would subordinate those concerns to the other ones. And vice versa for the progressives. I don't want paint either camp in purely one-dimensional terms. By these concepts I want to draw attention to how people prioritize things.

Morehead's Musings: You also discuss the issue of performative theology, or theology as a dramatic performance. In this section of your book you are careful to point out the intimate relationships between theology and praxis. This would seem to be a basic and assumed aspect of the discussion, and yet you took time to develop this section of your argument. Have evangelicals made a wedge between their beliefs and practices, and is that is why you emphasized this in your book?

Amos Yong: I suppose that is one way of putting it. Coming from an evangelical background myself I was always considered with orthodoxy, meaning right thinking, right belief. That's an important emphasis, but I guess what I've grown to realize is, in global evangelicalism, often times it's not that right orthodoxy is not important, it is wherever evangelicals are to be found, but how that orthodoxy is lived out differs from situation to situation. Often times evangelicals will have the same confession but the practices and how they interact with people of other faiths are different depending upon the context. So that one confession is somehow able to sustain a plurality of practices. My intuition, however, is that there is a diversity of confessions within that one confession, and that's what actually sustains the diversity of practices. But again, when I say diversity of expressions I'm not necessarily saying included in those confessions are heterodoxies. If in fact confessions can take a plurality of articulations, then prioritization and emphases indicate that evangelicals around the world are much more diverse. I am trying to open up space in the book to understand how the diversity of practices are sustained by diverse orthodoxies.

Morehead's Musings: In light of that, how do you see the blending of theology and praxis brought together in performative theology as an essential aspect of encountering the religious other?

Amos Yong: Let's put it this way. If you ask evangelicals what they think about other religions propositionally they'll give you a pretty standard evangelical answer which may be exclusivistic in terms of the doctrinal aspects of that response. But their practices are much more open, much more interactive, dialogical and so forth. So what I'm trying to describe is a situation in which you have practices that are not just open and shut, not quite as exclusivistic as they are articulated theologically, so how can practices help us be more nuanced in our theological reflection and articulation? How can we engage in genuine open hospitality, but then only present the discourse or rhetoric of exclusivism? In other words, how might we need to rearticulate our theology that is then able to sustain those legitimately hospitable practices?

Morehead's Musings: As you discuss Christian mission in the context of dialogue and hospitality you note that we need to be about "engaging with our neighbors, including people of other faiths, not as objects (e.g., to be converted) but as neighbors who have important messages even for us Christians." How might Christians expand their concepts of neighborliness, hospitality, and dialogue so as to avoid this objectifying aspect?

Amos Yong: I guess I would look at it first and foremost as how this works out in the actual practice of neighborliness. So if someone moves in next door to me who is not a Christian and I approach that person foremost as an object to be converted, what happens if that person resists conversion? Does that mean that our relationship is over? Does that mean there is no longer an opportunity for neighborliness? If so then I've treated that neighbor as an it, there's no further use for them. Now if that's the way that I treat my neighbors then that's obviously not going to make for a very good community. It won't provide opportunity for us to work together on community issues that might need to be resolved. How do we treat our neighbors? I suggest that if our neighbor is someone of another faith we don't need to reduce that person, that community, to that one register. So we need to accept that person as created in the image of God, and all that they represent, as somebody God has put in our lives, not just for us to have a mission, but simply to appreciate that person as somebody in the creation of God. What might that do to open us up to an encounter with God through that person?

Morehead's Musings: I was intrigued by your mention of the need to involve mutuality and vulnerability in interreligious dialogue. You suggest that rather than using "polemical apologetics" we need to draw upon "relational and dialogical approaches" that look at the Christian and the dialogue partner as equals. You suggest that this then has the potential to make interreligious dialogue "a Christian practice in its own right, rather than being subservient to other ends." For evangelicals who might find this proposal hard going and who will also want such a proposal to be biblically informed, can you touch on a few biblical passages that you discuss in your book that support this view of interreligious dialogue?

Amos Yong: In one of the places in my book I discuss the prophet Jeremiah's invitation to the exiles to serve or to build homes, to plant gardens and to serve the city in which they find themselves (Jer. 29:7). Part of the problem is that evangelicals want to insist on having control of our situation, and if we're not in control of our situation we'd rather not be in it. But when I look at the experience of exile, refugee, immigrants or migrants we're looking at people who are not in control. Isn't the call of God is to be people not in control, to be a diaspora people, of exile, a wandering people in a certain sense. Then we have a call not to be in control. That's why I think I made such a big deal about being guests in my book. Hosts are always the one's who are in control. The guest is the one who is not in control, and we're not good at that. And of course there are lot of opportunities for us to be better hosts who are sensitive to our guests, but I want to go beyond that. I want to call us to be guests, to recognize that this world is not our home, and that we are actually guests of the others, of people of other faiths. My point is how we can learn to be better guests. And I think that's what real vulnerability is, it takes vulnerability to give up control, to be in a situation where we aren't the ones calling the shots.

Morehead's Musings: Related to the last questions, as you build your case you then move on to consideration of hospitality between Christians and those of other religions in our pluralistic world. You note the importance of hospitality and table fellowship in the ministry of Jesus and the early church. You then connect this to a theology of guests and hosts that arises out of a sense of exile, and you suggest that this "exilic posture is essential to a theology of hospitality in a postmodern and pluralistic world." Can you draw this out a little for readers?

Amos Yong: Again I think, to go back to the metaphor, often times when we talk about hospitality we think that the way it applies to us is that we need to be more hospitable. I agree. But my point is not so much that we continue to be the ones who are in charge, we're the hosts, we're inviting people to our table, we're the ones with the soup kitchen, we're the ones with the hospital. In a pluralistic, post-Western, post-Constantinian, post-Christendom world, that posture still smacks of imperialism, colonialism, and injustices we have perpetuated as people wanting to be good hosts. Again, I'm not saying abandon being hosts, but what does it look like to put ourselves in positions to be recipients of hospitality, like Abraham, the exilic experience, the diaspora. How did Jesus teach us to interact with our hosts? Putting on a guests mentality is something we haven't thought too much about because we've been in charge.

Morehead's Musings: How might church congregations and individual Christians develop a "stranger-centered" theology and practice of hospitality? What elements does this involve, and practically speaking, what does it "look like" as it is given expression in communities, neighborhoods and homes?

Amos Yong: When you're a guest it means that someone has invited you. Then you're in a situation that someone else is in charge and they have invited you to be in their midst. The challenge for us communities of people of faith is to develop relationships so that we become those who are invited to the meal, to the community project, to the committee to resolve a community problem, and so forth. Why aren't we getting those invitations? I think it's because we're not as relational or as friendly as we should be. So we should focus more on the relational aspect of building community, building friendships, those things require authenticity and vulnerability. The more authentic and vulnerable we are the more invitations we're going to get. We have a mono-dimensional model of interacting with others and we miss a lot of other things that are important in God's eyes like the cultural mandate or the missio Dei, the call to be neighbors, and so on. These things will help us get more invitations.

Morehead's Musings: Amos, thank you again for discussing your book and aspects related to its thesis. I hope we have raised enough curiosity that folks might pick up a copy and that its ideas might find their way into acts of dialogue and hospitality.

Amos Yong: John, thank you for your interest in my work, and thanks for your work too.

No comments: