Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Concerns Over Evangelical-LDS Dialogue: Biblically Forbidden or Symptomatic of Evangelical Unpreparedness?

For a few years now a handful of evangelicals have shared their concerns about public dialogues between Greg Johnson, an evangelical pastor of Standing Together, and Robert Millet, a professor at Brigham Young University. Last April I engaged a few colleagues on this topic through a Yahoo discussion group. I recently pulled the copies of our exchanges from my files and reviewed them in light of a renewed chorus of concerns shared by a few individuals a couple of weeks ago.

The responsive thoughts below are the result of my recent reflections and interactions with the helpful comments of my colleagues, Harold Taylor and Amos Yong. Harold served as a missionary for sixteen years in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, is emeritus vice-principal of the Bible College of Victoria, Australia, and serves on the board of directors for Global Apologetics and Mission. Amos previously served as associate professor of theology at Bethel College, and presently is associate research professor of systematic theology at Regent College. He is the author of a number of scholarly articles and books, including Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions (Baker Academic, 2003).

The reasoning behind evangelical criticism of public evangelical-LDS dialogue might be distilled to the following concerns:

1. False Prophet Motif. In a recent exchange with counter-cult individuals in Utah, they felt strongly that public dialogue is an inappropriate form of interaction with “false prophets.” With this concern certain theological assumptions are made about a biblical concept which is then applied to representatives of Mormonism in leadership roles.

2. Proclamation and Denunciation Over Dialogue. Related to the concern above, evangelicals seem far more comfortable with monological proclamation, confrontation, and denunciation, but have difficulties with two-way dialogue with Mormon representatives. “What is the point since we have the truth and they are cultists?,” seems to be the conscious or unconscious feeling underlying this concern.

3. Fear of Syncretism. Evangelicals frequently share concerns about syncretism in the increasingly pluralistic West. Those who advocate relationships and dialogue with religious others are of particular concern due to the possibility of their creating situations where spiritual confusion and contamination may occur.

4. Compromised Fellowship. Various websites express concern about evangelicals in ongoing relationships with Mormons that do not result in the short-term conversion of either participant. “How long does one maintain such a relationship if no change of heart or thinking takes place?” asks such evangelicals. It seems as if a small time frame is in mind, otherwise the endeavor cannot be justified in their thinking.

I would like to provide some additional considerations that may provide a broader framework for reassessing these concerns. My own thinking on interreligious dialogue has been shaped by theological and missiological reflection, and interaction with colleagues such as Taylor and Yong mentioned above, as well as by Terry Muck of Asbury Theological Seminary, who has also engaged in a lot of theological reflection on the topic, and has exemplified this in his Buddhist-Christian dialogues. While this has been done for world religions we have a lot of work ahead of us in applying this to Mormonism, other New Religious Movements, Paganism, and various alternative spiritualities in the West.

Harold Taylor suggests that the best way to relate in interreligious dialogue is not as “religious other,” which immediately focuses on the differences between “us and them,” which are defined in doctrinal terms, and then become the basis for any ongoing relationship. Starting out with the differences easily leads to confrontation, and in this type of situation, dialogue is both misunderstood and suspect. From this perspective the term “religious other,” let alone the term and concept of “false prophet,” is demeaning as a defining category. Taylor asks whether it is not better to start on common ground, that these “others” are in fact one with “us;” they are made in the image of God, share in the complexities and joys, hopes and fears of life, and are known to our heavenly Father who has the whole world and all peoples in his hands. If the starting point is a fellow person, made in God’s image, sharing in life and known to God – rather than the “other,” the possible “enemy,” whether Mormon, Hindu, Muslim, Wiccan, etc. – then we have an opportunity to develop a dialogue, which acknowledges both the differences and commonalties involved. This is not downplaying the differences in faith and understanding of God, but it is suggesting that the starting oint of our relationship needs to be much more open and affirming than it is for many.

Taylor also agrees with a statement that I made where I recognized that mission and dialogue are both about activities and attitudes. Who we are and what we do cannot be separated, and this lesson is brought home in a very clear way in any study of missionary history. It is as we embody the values and attitudes of the Kingdom towards “others” that the possibility of dialogue actually becomes a reality. The great Dutch missiologist Hendrik Kraemer advocated interreligious dialogue, particularly in his book World Cultures and World Religions: The Coming Dialogue (James Clarke Company, 2002). He rightly identified “the disposition and attitude of the missionary” as the key point of contact with a culture, and this has been recognized time and again by missionaries such as Francis of Assisi and Samuel Zwemer. Both of these were robust in their faith and personal interaction with the “other,” but they refused to view the “other” as “the enemy.”

More recently, other leading evangelicals have spoken affirmatively of dialogue in mission, including David Hesselgrave. In his book Theology and Mission he outlines the possibility of several types of dialogue and urges evangelicals to participate in them. He was one of the strongest voices within evangelicalism to recognize the need for and validity of dialogue with “religious others.” He also suggested why many evangelicals are not ready for dialogue, including that the majority are not open to it because of a lack of understanding of what is involved, dialogue seen in a negative light due to some of the approaches in more liberal expressions of Christianity, and the lack of understanding and openness between evangelicals and the World Council of Churches camps.

Later, people like John Stott, Stephen Neill and Hesselgrave fought to keep dialogue as a valid missionary approach for evangelicals. The validity of dialogue as a true biblical approach was affirmed in the Lausanne Covenant in 1974, and in subsequent evangelical conferences. In fact, it represented a strenuous attempt to go beyond seeing those of other faiths as “the enemy.”

Finally, Taylor wonders whether the reasons for this evangelical rejection and fear of dialogue might arise from not only the excesses and compromises of some of the “liberal” approaches, but also results from a fairly limited understanding of missionary history in its wider dimensions, and especially of the theological hassles and debates from the 1960s to the 1980s.

In addition to these considerations, Amos Yong suggests two others that not only have a bearing on the “religious other,” but are directly related to the evangelical in dialogue. First, if others do bear the imago Dei, then our engagement and interaction with them should have as part of our goal our own transformation (which we can control in terms of our disposition, etc.) rather than their transformation (which we both can’t control, nor is it in capacity to “save” because only God saves). This is going beyond dialogue and evangelism as utilitarian and also beyond evangelism as relational to dialogue and evangelism as for our own transformation.

Yong wonders if we take this relational and transformational approach seriously, with this transformational possibility looming before us as evangelicals, is this why evangelicals shy away from a robust relational missiology, because there is an intuitive sense that such an approach will change us, perhaps even putting at risk our self-identity and Christian commitments?

Second, Yong states that if the interrreligious other is the stranger, then according to the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46), the interreligious dialogue partner is in some sense the brother or sister of the Lord through whom (“the least of these”) we serve our Lord; but more than that, insofar as the goats are cast out for not hosting the stranger in their midst, to that degree is our place in the Kingdom itself mediated by the strange religious others in our midst? If so, rather than we being the catalysts for the salvation of those in other faiths, how we respond to them is instead the catalyst for our living the Lordship of Christ and being invited to participate in his Kingdom. In this case, the point about a relational missiology is not so much the evangelism of those have never heard for the sake of their salvation, but the transformation of our own hearts and lives for the sake of our salvation. Hence, we may need the stranger (the religious other) much more so than s/he needs us.

Yong's thoughts in this last paragraph may raise concerns on the part of some evangelicals, and certainly those critical of interreligious dialogue, but they should be understood in their proper context. Yong would not deny that the evangelical dialogue partner brings something valuable to the dialogue process for both the "religious other" and her/his religious community. But he is moving beyond this to consider the possible transformative effects for the evangelicals, a perspective not often considered by evangelicals in general, or by those critical of dialogue in particular. We might wonder not only how the Spirit may work in the "religious other" through dialogue, but also how the Spirit will transform us.

I hope these broader considerations related to interreligious dialogue will be helpful as evangelicals reassess the appropriateness of public evangelical-LDS dialogues. Is it possible that our discomfort with it says more about our unpreparedness for this form of interaction and mission than it expresses a form of engagement that is allegedly unbiblical?

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