Posted on January 11th, 2011 | Filed under Academic, Interfaith, Intra-Faith, Theology
Tagged with Christianity, Dialogue, Evangelical, Evangelism, Interfaith, Intrafaith, pluralism, Religion, salvation
It was an unassuming debate, the kind that takes place before everyone has arrived and you are still mixing sugar and cream into your coffee. A tantalizing mix of progressive social justice types and conservative evangelicals, this particular Bible study group lent itself to provocative conversation. The topic of contention: whether evangelical Christians can, in good conscience, work side by side with members of other religions for humanitarian purposes. We remained fairly evenly divided. Some claimed that this type of engagement would cause evangelicals to implicitly affirm erroneous theological motives and forsake their duty to evangelize through proclamation. Others cited a holistic vision of mission and the Biblical mandate for neighbor-love. I left thoroughly frustrated that the topic even lent itself to debate.
Yet this conversation reflected on a popular level the debate that has been raging between evangelical academics for years, a debate that has come to define evangelical dialogical efforts. American evangelicals have long been in the shadow of the Modernist/Fundamentalist Controversy. Old Princeton-style theologians such as Carl Henry planted the evangelical flag in Biblical inerrancy and refused the status of “Christian” to anyone who did not fully adhere to this doctrine. Thus when evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock went out on a limb and adopted, with some adaptation, Karl Rahner’s inclusivism, and when evangelical scholars such as Miroslav Volf, Alister McGrath and Rodney Clapp have dared reconsider the faith in light of postmodernity and the foundationalist assumption, more traditional evangelicals have cried heresy. One needs to look no farther than D.A. Carson’s 569-page tome, The Gagging of God, to find an example of this phenomenon.
What does all of this mean for ordinary church-going evangelical folk? It seems the non-endorsement of more progressive theologies of religions by the recognized “gatekeepers of orthodoxy” – those conservative evangelical heroes like Carson and John Piper – has precluded the fruit of this debate from informing any real, on-the-ground evangelical dialogical efforts. As Gary Dorrien notes, conservative Calvinist theologians still control most of the evangelical seminaries and publishing houses (Dorrien, Gary. The Remaking of Evangelical Theology [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998], 182). That means that the books promoted in evangelical churches and many of the pastors of those churches are on the whole going to side with Piper and Carson, not with Pinnock and Volf. As a result, almost every evangelical has heard of John Piper but for the most part only those who run in academic or progressive circles (circles that, one might imagine, overlap quite a bit) have heard of theologians on the “evangelical left.”
Yet all is not lost. Indeed, what is not trickling down from the echelons of the academy is emerging from the grassroots. There is a growing critical mass of evangelical pastors and lay leaders who are pioneering into the murky waters of interfaith dialogue. Take Bob Roberts, a megachurch pastor in Texas who spearheaded the Global Faith Forum, a conference for Muslims, Jews and Christians attended by figures such as Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core, Islamic scholar John Esposito and prominent Jewish peace activist Mark Braverman. Efforts such as these, however, remain a bit bumbling and awkward. A Christianity Today online article about Roberts’ dialogue, for instance, notes that the traditional evangelical sacred cow of evangelism through proclamation remained an elephant in the room throughout the event: “attenders kept wondering if merely participating in such an event—where mutual understanding was the key note—was to compromise.” The author of the article goes on to muse, “when you set up a conversation in which conversion is never a real possibility, and yet in which genuine and respectful love is clearly evident—well, is it an event worthy of an evangelical's time?” (Galli, Mark. “Putting Evangelism on Hold” in Christianity Today, November [web only] 2010). My Bible study debate came flooding back.
Evangelical grassroots praxis in interfaith dialogue is an encouraging trend. As Eboo Patel has commented, “Evangelicals are a hugely important community in advancing a global interfaith movement because of their size, their strong faith commitment, and their keen perception of culture.” (Patel, Eboo. “The Faith Divide: What Brings us Together and Drives Us Apart” in The Washington Post [online], January 4, 2011) But the truth is, as long as evangelicals are left groping in the dark for more progressive, yet indigenously evangelical, answers to theological questions about soteriology and evangelism, attempts at dialogue will remain awkward at best. Yet I will not conclude this, my first post, on such a gloomy note. There are, in fact, a few shining lights answering the need for more progressive evangelical public theologians and pastors. For instance, Fuller Theological Seminary has established the Journal of Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue, a publication with a mission “to create space for evangelical scholars and practitioners to dialogue about the dynamics, challenges, practices and theology surrounding interfaith work, while remaining faithful to the gospel of Jesus and His mission for His church." May such efforts be multiplied.
Sara is a student at Yale Divinity School, where she is working toward a Master of Religious Studies with a concentration in ethics. Her research interest lies broadly in the role of faith communities in religiously charged conflicts and more particularly in the conversation between American evangelical and postliberal theologies as it relates to the construction of an evangelical ethic for interreligious engagement.