How Would Jesus Interact with a Muslim? An Interview with Bob Robinson
Bob Robinson is Senior Lecturer in Theology at Laidlaw College in Christchurch, New Zealand. He is also a charter member of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religions Diplomacy. He is the author of Christians Meeting Hindus (2004), and the new volume Jesus and the Religions. He and I had the following discussion of the ideas surrounding his new book.
Bob, how did your experience among Hindus in India, and later as a scholar reflecting on the biblical materials, shape your theology and praxis of interreligious engagement to its present form?
I had long thought (and taught) that, biblically and theologically, a) the religions are both a running away from God and a seeking after God; and that b) before Paul (and Jesus, in his full humanity), spoke to their cultures, their cultures had spoken to them. I clearly remember how my actual lived encounters with Hindus, first in Singapore and then in India, vividly confirmed the truth of both those previously abstract truths.
You state in your book that you were surprised to find few Christians applying the example of Christ to encounters with those in other religions as they try to follow his example elsewhere? Why do you think Jesus' example has been ignored?
Leaving to one side Jesus' encounters with his fellow Jews, part of the answer is quite simple: Jesus never actually met any Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims; we do, he didn't—so "What would Jesus do?" doesn't come quickly to mind. We Evangelicals also want to hurry on to the death of Jesus as so important that the example of his life counts for rather little. Or we're semi-Docetists who don't really grasp the full humanity of Jesus. Or perhaps we notice that talk of following Jesus' example is what Catholics or liberals stress—so we think we mustn't. But I want to retrieve and apply what the New Testament tells us. Christians are called to "have the same attitude of mind that Christ Jesus had" (Phil. 2) and to "imitate Christ" (1 Cor. 11). We're called to "live ['walk'] as Jesus did" (1 John 2). That's how I want to behave when I meet, or even think about, people of other religions.
Your book looks at the New Testament accounts of Jesus and his encounters with Gentiles and Samaritans as examples that should inform our present encounters with those in other religions. Although these texts are few, you suggest they are significant. How is this the case, and why these texts and not others, such as Jesus' denunciation of the Jewish religious leaders?
There are some simple cultural and demographic reasons why Jesus had rather few dealings with Gentile and Samaritans: he was a conservative Jew and he lived in conservative Jewish Galilee. But when he announces his mission (Luke 4, the "Nazareth manifesto") he defends his credentials as Spirit-led fulfiller of God's Messianic promises by pointing to God's treatment of Gentiles. And in his subsequent meeting with them (and Samaritans), and in much of his teaching about them, he attaches eschatological importance to their responses and sees them as confirmation of the new age that has arrived in him. There is some correction of Gentiles and Samaritans by Jesus—but the surprising thing is his generally positive and affirming reaction, especially by comparison with the generally anxious response of the disciples. The Gospel writers rarely comment on the emotions of Jesus but they recall his amazement at what he finds.
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.