A Biblical Foundation for Interreligious Engagement
McLaren points out that "[t]he Bible itself, it seems, has built-in reconciling stories to counteract and disarm the hostile ones, but people who want to justify hostility pick up the hostile ones and choose to minimize the reconciling ones."
The Christological approach to Scripture should be the model through which we understand the biblical narrative, and as a result, it should also challenge our assumptions. As Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola wrote in their new volume Jesus: A Theography, "Let the Bible tell its own story to you." When this happens, a Christological approach to interpreting Scripture transforms our confrontational ways of engaging other religions into the way of peace.
2) Retrieve the neglected example of Jesus. It is curious that with the popularity of the phrase "What would Jesus do?" in Evangelicalism of a previous decade, very little attention has been given to the example of Jesus in engaging those of other religions. In his wonderful book Jesus and the Religions, Bob Robinson discusses his own work as a Christian in the context of Hinduism, and he says "I found the example of Christ to be almost completely absent from the discussion" by Christians. He then quotes Harvey Cox who says, "'Christians who think of Jesus as a model in other areas of their lives do not look to his example or teaching when meeting people of other faiths." Robinson addresses this deficit in his study of Jesus and his encounters with Gentiles and Samaritans in the New Testament. Although these texts are few in number, they provide an important example for those who would imitate Christ, as Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman (Jn. 4:40-42), and his interactions with the Syrophoenician mother (Mk. 7:24-30) make clear.
3) Live the ethic of love for neighbor. When asked the greatest commandments in the Law, Jesus responded by pointing to the need to love God and neighbor with all our hearts, might, mind, and strength. When asked a related follow-up question, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus told the story of the good or compassionate Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). Jesus' teaching here is revolutionary and must have scandalized his audience. The Samaritans were considered religious heretics, and this story would have been received by his listeners much as an updated version would be by Evangelicals if it were retitled "the Parable of the Good Mormon, or the Good Muslim." Here a member of a despised religious group does what members of the Jewish community wouldn't do, as the Samaritan exhibits love and compassion for a religious outsider and enemy. Jesus concludes this story by calling his followers to practice this radical ethic of love toward others, even strangers and religious enemies to be embraced as neighbors. A comment by Eric Sharpe, the noted scholar of religion, missions, and dialogue, is applicable to Evangelicals in the context of this discussion and this text: "compassion must always have the upper hand of orthodoxy."
4) Practice the art of hospitality. In Hospitality & the Other, Amos Yong says that "[i]n a world of interreligious violence, war, and terrorism, Christians can and should respond with acts of interreligious hospitality." In his exploration of this idea he reminds us that Jesus was the "paradigm of hospitality because he represents and embodies the hospitality of God." In the Gospel of Luke this is especially evident as Jesus was dependent upon hospitality on many occasions from his birth, to his life as a "journeying prophet," as well as various meal scenes that are found throughout Luke where Jesus participates in the hospitality of others. These examples should be understood as living parables where Jesus embodies the hospitality of God. Yong also echoes other commentators who suggest that Jesus' teaching on hospitality is most especially evident in the parable of the Good Samaritan. By incorporating the Scriptures on hospitality, and practicing this art with those of other religions, Evangelicals have an opportunity to follow the example of Jesus, and engage in a performance of the sacred story of the gospel as they embody the virtues of humility, service, and benevolence.
In the 21st century, Evangelicals are faced with a global cultural context of religious pluralism, misunderstanding, and violence. We need to maintain our commitments to sound teaching within our religious community, but the biblical foundations for understanding that responsibility do not serve us well as a foundation for understanding and engaging our religious neighbors. A Christological approach to Scripture, the example of Jesus, love for our neighbors, and the practice of hospitality provide us with a better biblical model and way forward.
John W. Morehead is the Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, the Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, and has been involved in interreligious dialogue for many years in the contexts of Islam, Mormonism, and Paganism. He is editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega.