A Generous Model for Interfaith Engagement
By Nick Price
July 19, 2012
Nick is a teaching pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lisle, Ill., and a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield. He is the proud father of two kids and happily married to his wife of four years, Jenny. He writes regularly on his blog, Prodigal Preacher.
Several years ago, a conference on interfaith youth work was held at Northwestern University. One of the keynote sessions was a dialogue between Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, and Jim Wallis of Sojourners. During the discussion, Jim shared his passion for social justice, talking about a time when he went through the Bible and cut out all of the verses about justice, leaving a tattered and much slimmer volume than what he had started with. His point: Social justice is absolutely essential to the Christian message.
Eboo followed this up by asking him which texts in the Bible highlight the need for interfaith engagement. Jim responded by saying that he honestly couldn’t think of any. As I watched the footage of that interaction, I was dismayed that such a noted evangelical leader could not think of any Scriptural texts that could inform a Christian approach to interfaith engagement. And yet, I could not blame him. At the time, there was very little material available to help evangelical Christians think biblically about interfaith work, and what was available was not very accessible to a general audience.
I was dismayed that such a noted evangelical leader could not think of any Scriptural texts that could inform a Christian approach to interfaith engagement. And yet, I could not blame him.
This was particularly evident to me as an undergrad at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I was majoring in religious studies, with a focus in Islamic studies. I was also very active in my campus’ InterVarsity chapter. Needless to say, when some of my peers learned what my specific area of study was, they responded with caution and, on more than one occasion, felt the need to check in with me just to see if I was still sufficiently orthodox in my evangelicalism. At the same time, I was getting bombarded by my Muslim classmates about my faith, with many wondering what I was doing studying Islam. Understandably, many of them thought I was simply looking for theological ammo to lob their way in a debate.
Needless to say, this was very discouraging because I genuinely wanted to learn about a faith tradition other than my own while still remaining faithful to my own religious convictions. Yet there were few resources to help me navigate this well. Like Jim Wallis, I was stuck. I couldn’t think of any biblical reasons to stay involved in meaningful dialogue, yet I felt like there had to be some way to bridge the divide between hostile interaction and non-engagement.
I felt like there had to be some way to bridge the divide between hostile interaction and non-engagement.
In this passage, the apostle Paul is spending time in the Greek city of Athens, a place with a wide variety of religious beliefs and worldviews present. During his stay there, he is invited to share about his own faith with one of the leading intellectual bodies of the city: the Areopagus. What follows is an incredible exchange in which Paul demonstrates his own literacy in the religious traditions of the Athenians while also remaining true to his convictions as a Christian evangelist.
While this encounter is a brilliant example of humble apologetics and evangelism, it also teaches us something about how we are to approach other religious traditions. During his defense of the Gospel, Paul quotes two Greek philosophers in his argument: Epimenides and Aratus (v. 28). What is surprising is that he not only quotes them, but also affirms the viewpoints that they espoused, using them as a way to build his own case for the Gospel. While Paul did not agree wholesale with the worldviews of either of these writers, he acknowledged that there was some truth to what they taught and wanted to acknowledge that.
In Paul's example here, we see that it is possible for evangelicals to affirm some of the truth claims of other faith traditions where those claims align with our own. This can be a building block toward mutual understanding and respect, as well as a platform from which to begin working together. Again, it is important not to compromise the Gospel message, but we learn here that it is also possible to affirm areas of commonality.
It is possible for evangelicals to affirm some of the truth claims of other faith traditions where those claims align with our own.
As we learn to negotiate the tension between evangelism and interfaith engagement, I think it is helpful to examine this text and others that can provide us with a framework for how to live in our religiously plural world. My hope is that we would learn to have the same winsome attitude and humble posture Paul did as we learn to interact with our neighbors from other religious communities. In doing so, I think that we will find our own faith strengthened and our witness made more credible as we treat other faith traditions with respect, even as we share and discuss our differences with one another.