Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part editorial on interfaith dialogue.
Too many conservative evangelicals are so uncomfortable with interfaith dialogue that they dismiss it as inconsequential.
Speaking at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) on July 4 in Washington, D.C., Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, Calif., a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) congregation, distanced himself from interfaith dialogue.
“I am not interested in interfaith dialogue. I am interested in interfaith projects. There is a big difference. Talk is very cheap…Love is something you do…Love is a verb,” said Warren.
Of course, Jesus did a lot of talking – the Nazareth Manifesto in Luke 4 where he gave his first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, and the Great Commandment about loving God and neighbor in Matthew 22. Jesus even talked with those of different faiths, as he did with the Samaritan woman.
Warren makes a good point about cheap talk. But that point need not dismiss the value of interfaith dialogue. Nor does one have to offer the false choice of either interfaith dialogue or interfaith action.
At the same ISNA conference, Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement, also devalued interfaith dialogue in an earlier workshop on interfaith dialogue.
“If you were to call me a moderate Christian, I would be insulted. I’m not a moderate Christian. I’m a theologically orthodox Christian, who believes Jesus Christ is coming back…Don’t call me moderate…What we need is neo-fundamentalism, right? Back to the basics and fundamentals of the faith,” said Seiple.
“I’m going to be very glib…Interfaith means hop, skip and go naked. Go hug a tree and kumbaya cocoon,” stated Seiple. “And let’s have a watered-down statement that means nothing to anybody except the people in the room and loses total effectiveness after you leave.”
Other conservative Christians also dismiss or avoid interfaith dialogue.
A year ago, Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, lamented that every member of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation declined an invitation from his Muslim friend to attend an Iftar dinner – the meal in which Muslims break their Ramadan fast.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, interfaith dialogue and worship services became widespread as many religious leaders sought better understanding and tolerance.
Southern Baptists were among those who expressed opposition to such events.
Dwayne Mercer, then the newly elected president of the Florida Baptist Convention, said he would not attend an interfaith meeting. Mercer, pastor of First Baptist Church of Oviedo, feared that his church members might think he believed “that all these faiths are legitimate.”
Mercer was following a pattern established after the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC, when the Home Mission Board (HMB), now the North American Mission Board, renamed its Interfaith Witness Department the Interfaith Evangelism Department. The SBC had assigned interfaith work to the HMB in 1965. But in 1994, interfaith dialogue was pretty much abandoned.
Dismissing or avoiding interfaith dialogue reflects a reactive approach to the realities of the 21st century. We are living in a multifaith world. We had better get used to it, stop pretending we live on an island of theological consensus and find ways to engage proactively our neighbors.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Tomorrow: Muslims Leaders Can Help Goodwill Baptists Think about Interfaith Dialogue