In a pluralistic world, Christians dialogue with people of other faiths. Such dialogue need not be the “official” kind that takes place between religious leaders in political or academic settings.
It may be: a conversation with a co-worker or neighbor; a cooperative venture for a common cause, such as social justice; a visit to a worship center of another faith for the purpose of understanding; or simply living and ministering alongside others in the community.
Dialogue is an intentional relationship. It requires a willingness to take the partner seriously. In the terms of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, dialogue is an “I-Thou” relationship. It is a person-to-person encounter. In New Testament terms, dialogue is a concrete expression of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
A variety of motivations will lead Christians to dialogue, and Christians will bring various theologies to the interfaith discussion. Following are several approaches, often combined, to dialogue.
Some see dialogue as a component of Christian witness or as preparation for proclamation of the gospel. The Acts 10 encounter of Peter and Cornelius is a model for this approach. Careful listening is followed by sensitive witness.
Many evangelicals engage in dialogue with this motivation. For example, missionary Gene Flanery, active in interfaith dialogue, writes in his newsletter: “Every month I get that opportunity to share Christ at our monthly breakfast group called Pathways. On the second Saturday of each month I meet with representatives from the Hindu and Sikh faiths and we read scripture together. Each of us have time to share the significance of the selected passage with the group. That gives me ten minutes each month to share Jesus in an atmosphere of open contemplation.”
Flanery notes, “I am evangelistic but along the way I have found true friends.”
Others see dialogue primarily as a way to create understanding and mutual awareness. For example, the Episcopal Church, USA (www.ecusa.anglican.org) offers principles for interfaith dialogue. They include: meeting people and getting to know their religious traditions; allowing others to speak for themselves; and being aware of one’s own theological commitments and cultural loyalties.
“Our understanding of our own faith should be clear, so that the Christian perspective can be fairly presented to dialogue partners,” according to the Web site statement. “Dialogue, however, should not be a subtle form of proselytizing, but an occasion for mutual sharing.”
Some see dialogue as an activity in which partners discover shared concerns and learn to work together for justice. In the anthology The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions,Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki writes: “One vision of justice can temper, criticize, and deepen another, and through dialogue each vision might grow richer in understanding and implementation. … In the process of dialogue, justice is not only affirmed, it is created.”
Others see dialogue as an end unto itself. In this view, dialogue is the defining paradigm for the relationship of the Christian faith to other faiths. Participants maintain their own identities, appreciate and respect the identities of others, and engage in authentic relationship.
Christians who approach dialogue in this manner are open to the possibility that God may be at work in the religious tradition and experience of the dialogue partner, and that Christians may learn new insights from the encounter. David Lochhead writes in The Dialogical Imperative: “Christian discipleship, then, involves a call to unconditional openness to the neighbor. … The call to dialogue, to open, trusting and loving relationships with the neighbor, is clear and unambiguous.”
Regardless of the approach, genuine dialogue requires participants to engage their partners’ faiths. Donald K. Swearer, in Dialogue: The Key to Understanding Other Religions, writes that dialogue is not monologue; it is mutual sharing about our deepest commitments and our ultimate concerns.
He writes: “Nothing significant emerges out of dialogue unless we have been seriously tested, challenged, and enticed by the faith stance of our partners in dialogue.”
James Browning is senior pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.