Mouw on Interfaith Dialogue & Evangelism
The third issue of Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue (Summer 2010) contains an important article by Richard J. Mouw titled “Convicted Civility and Interfaith Dialogue.” Drawing upon Martin Marty’s concept of “convicted civility” Mouw beings to make the case for learning about the religious tradition of others.
I remember some of my first attempts years ago in discussing the need to learn about other faiths. It wasn’t easy to make the case for learning about other faiths. One Christian youth responded to me by saying: “What is the point of learning about the beliefs of others if they are false?” It isn’t always clear the best way to respond to this inquiry.
Mouw begins by saying that “meaningful exposure” to other religions can deepen our religious convictions. I believe Mouw frames the issue by employing the concept of “hospitality” that is, we make room for people to occupy our hearts and minds. As with any form of hospitality, there is a risk and vulnerability involved. Yet, Mouw makes the case for Christian hospitality by pointing out that Jesus often showed hospitality to those “whose lifestyle and ideas he strongly opposed.”
We are not alone however, for we should invite God into our hearts and minds, into our “inner places.” He explains:
No spirituality of civility is adequate without self-critique—taking an honest look at our own motives and purposes. And this can only happen when we acknowledge that we desperately need God to reveal to us what is really going on in our inner being.
In this way, Mouw characterizes interreligious dialogue as a form of spiritual hospitality.
Beyond the Debate Between Dialogue and Evangelism
I was most particularly interested in Mouw’s thoughts on the polarization that happens among Evangelicals as to whether dialogue or evangelism is the proper Christian response.
We Christians seem to be fond of polarizations. This propensity shows up in discussions about our approach to other religions. Some Christians emphasize evangelizing strategies that are heavily weighted toward explicit convictedness: present the message of the gospel and invite people to become Christians. Other Christians rely heavily on civility: engage in polite dialogue with people from other religious communities in the hope of promoting mutual understanding and cooperation. The defenders of each of these approaches often don’t get along very well. The evangelizers accuse the dialoguers of sacrificing the gospel for religious relativism; they fear that the unique claims of Christianity will be bartered away in interreligious dialogue. The dialoguers respond by accusing the evangelizers of a religious imperialism that runs roughshod over the genuine insights that can be found in other religious traditions; they want to avoid a dogmatic spirit.
Do these two approaches need to be treated as an either/or choice? Is it possible to see evangelism and dialogue as complementary activities?
This paragraph greatly resonated with me, because I’ve had the same experience in my own discussions within the Mormon community. Many Latter-day Saints have expressed to me a concern and fear that by dialoguing with Evangelicals, Mormonism may become watered down, and distinctive Mormon teachings would be compromised. As an advocate for dialogue, I’ve found it challenging, even frustrating, to respond to this attitude. I believe all too often Latter-day Saints fail to live up to their own article of faith to seek after “anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.” Indeed, as I have dialogued with my Catholic and Evangelical friends, and as I have read their writings, I have found much that is virtuous, lovely, of good report and praiseworthy.
Yet, I sympathize with the concern of my fellow colleagues. I believe we are all trying to be true our own religious tradition. We may disagree as to the particular articulation or emphases of our tradition, but I believe most of us are honestly trying to be true and faithful to our religious inheritance.
Dialogue and Evangelism Complementarity?
It is important, I think, to value both evangelism and dialogue without reducing the one to the other. The two activities have a complementary relationship.
Indeed, dialogue can be an important strategy for evangelism—a fact that’s been recognized by evangelicals who call for “relational evangelism.” In many situations, the best way to evangelize people is to establish strong bonding relationships with them: listening to them, identifying with their hopes and fears, gaining their trust. Then, when we do have the chance to talk with them about the gospel, they can accept our words as an expression of love for them. The empathic give-and-take of this approach is essentially dialogic in nature.
That is good and noble. But it’s important that all dialogue with persons of other religious groups not be merely a strategy for evangelism. We mustn’t set these relationships up in such a way that our efforts will be a failure if the relationships don’t develop into evangelistic opportunities.
I heartily agree. From my perspective, I would rather have Evangelicals engaging in dialogue with Latter-day Saints even if it is a strategy for evangelism, because I believe in the course of such dialogue that people cannot help but learn more about each other and break down stereotypes. I do appreciate Mouw adding that dialogue should not be considered merely a strategy. Indeed, this has been one of my concerns with trying to make an argument for dialogue by saying dialogue is merely the handmaiden of evangelism (or missionary work), for I believe it is much more than this.
We are much better off recognizing and acknowledging that the Great Commission is an important part of both Evangelical and Mormon faith traditions.
Let them worship how, where, or what they may
While it may be easier to dialogue with those who are dialoguers rather than evangelizers, I believe Latter-day Saints should welcome and encourage a more dialogic engagement by Evangelicals and other Christians, even if motivated by desires for evangelism.
I believe we need to allow those not of our faith to be able to express their evangelical desires as they dialogue with us. I believe that Latter-day Saints who demand that Evangelicals cease and desist all forms of evangelism towards them, essentially are denying others their right towards religious self-definition.
The 11th article of faith states:
We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.
If the desire to engage in evangelism is how Evangelicals worship God, then Latter-day Saints should allow them that privilege.
The challenge of course is that some Mormons interpret evangelism by Evangelicals towards Mormons as something negative, as a reminder that Evangelicals consider Mormonism to be utterly defective as a religious system, not a legitimate expression of true and historic Christianity, and void of any salvific value. I do not deny that many Evangelicals hold these views, and in many instances, the Mormon hesitancy is not unreasonable. Indeed, many Evangelicals share this same hesitancy when approached by Latter-day Saints.
While spiritual hospitality entails risk and vulnerability, as Mouw points out, I believe we need a deeper humility as to what we can learn from others, and a confidence that as we allow God and others into our “inner space” that our faith commitments can be enhanced rather than weakened.