Dialogue, what is it?

When it comes to our faith and non-Christian faiths, what does it mean to enter into “dialogue”? The most recent Cape Town Commitment addressed this question in the context of “living the love of Christ among people of other faiths.” In other words, instead of seeing other faiths to be one of confrontation, the CTC locates this word “dialogue” in the context of a life that witnesses to the love of Christ. I am sure that John Stott, for whom this was an important question, approved of how the CTC framed this.

But John Stott, in his classic book, Christian Mission in the Modern World (IVP Classics) , addressed “dialogue” in a different context: he used this word with an eye on the ecumenical movement which was becoming increasingly pluralistic and the other eye on the need for post Lausanne folks to sustain the importance of evangelism.

Are you involved in dialogue with other religions? What do you have to tell us? What have you learned? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

An observation: in re-reading this book I was impressed how conversant Stott was with the world ecumenical councils on evangelism and missions.

Dialogue is about a willingness to listen and to learn as well as to instruct. God, Stott observes, enters into dialogue with humans when God asks and waits for answers from humans. And there is the famous “come let us reason together” (Isa 1:18). Jesus dialogued. Paul did too (Acts 17:1-4): we see him teaching, debating, explaining, arguing, proving and proclaiming — in short, dialoguing across the spectrum of its behaviors. But it was subordinate to his overall aim of proclaiming the good news about Jesus.

He disapproves of major thrusts in the ecumenical councils on missions, including pushing back against Rahner’s “anonymous Christians.” So, he asks, is Christ present in the non-Christian world? [By the way, this was a significant theme in Rob Bell's recent book.]

He looks at Acts 10:34-35, but he is not agreement with those who would see here an already-believer but one prepared to believe. God is known in the whole world, according to Paul. John says Christ is the light in the world. So there are reasons to think God is made known to all through reason and conscience, but this is not saving light (104) but is “twilight.”

Yes, he agrees, there is truth in all religions. But these are not adequate for salvation. So there is the need for proclaiming the gospel to all. He believes in “elenctics”: the Holy Spirit shaped preaching designed to lead people to Christ.

But, yes, too to dialogue: it is a sign of authentic, humility, integrity, and sensitivity.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Taylor

    Two quick questions:

    If dialogue is a willingness to listen and learns, and God dialogues; is the assumption that God enters into a process in which He learns from man, or simply that He listens willingly?

    Is there such thing as a religion where the concealment of truth is central, and truth observed from natural theology is essentially non-existent? I have a hard time seeing a case for pointing to Jesus through Molech, if that makes sense.

    (I think question two is important because upon actually interacting with non westerners of other religions, I don’t always see people prepared to believe. Many times I more easily see how we exchanged truth for a lie.)

  • Taylor

    (i didn’t intend suggesting that all other religions equate to belief in ancient idols and child sacrifice)

  • Joe Canner

    I lived in a Muslim country for seven years. Due to language barriers I didn’t dialogue as much as I would have liked, but I did enough (and heard enough stories) to realize the advantages:

    1. Many cultures (including most Muslim cultures) are very relationship oriented. It is usually unfruitful to present the gospel in the absence of relationship. So, the dialogue can be part of the relationship building.

    2. Dialogue helps find bridges between the two faiths, common elements that can be used to help contextualize the gospel. Think Paul at Mars Hill.

    3. Dialogue allows the gospel to be presented in a non-threatening way and to let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

    I like the last sentence of this post. Authenticity and humility are definitely necessary in these contexts and dialogue is a good way to achieve them.

  • Chris Corrigan

    The purpose of true dialogue is to be open to and be changed by another. If you using dialogue to convert, you are in an ethical quandary. Christ did live in a non-Christian world. He engaged in all kinds of ways with those around him who didn’t share his thoughts, sometimkes in dialogue, sometimes in healing, sometimes teaching and sometimes in insurgency.

  • Dana Ames

    Chris,
    I get your point about a possible ethical quandary. I think your example of Jesus doesn’t hold up your point very well, though. Sometimes we forget that Jesus was a Jew, and he was speaking to Jews against the backdrop of the Roman occupation of the Jewish land. There was no “Christian” or “non-Christian” anything yet. Those who had difficulty with Jesus did not necessarily have difficulty because they didn’t understand Jesus, but because they understood his meaning quite clearly – clearly enough so that they had to kill him.

    There were others who seemingly didn’t “get” Jesus, whom he treated with extraordinary kindness, most of who, were typically outside the community of faith as most Jews understood that: the Syro-Phoenician woman, the centurion whose slave Jesus healed, the demon-possessed, lepers, the woman taken in adultery, the woman at Jacob’s well, etc. He did not break the bruised reed, but exhibited “humility, integrity, sensitivity.”

    Dana

  • http://faithlineprotestants.org Cameron

    I’m a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is highly involved in interfaith service work, and who has also co-founded a website (faithlineprotestants.org) that hopes to explore how to evangelize in our more pluralistic world.

    Joe Canner’s comment rings true to my own experiences, thus I won’t repeat his three points here, but only add that it’s my belief that engaging with other faiths in productive dialogue should be more of a concern in the modern church. It has proved itself to me much more effective than mere proselytizing– sadly an all-too-common evangelism strategy present on university campuses (and beyond)– in promoting peace, increasing understanding, and displaying Christ’s love to those of other faiths.

  • Taylor

    Joe #3,

    I see where you’re going, and I don’t disagree. I would question whether or not that’s what Paul did at Mars Hill. He contextualized the gospel, but not by emphasizing the truth in the other gods, rather almost solely in pointing to the Truth that was missing from their context.

    Thoughts?

  • Joe Canner

    Taylor #7: In case you are still here…Sorry to take so long to respond; it took me a while to think of how to respond. I think you are right that there are some kinds of contextualization that go beyond what Paul did. I’m not sure such methods are necessarily wrong, although some probably stray too far into syncretism. In any case, I think my point in mentioning Paul on Mars Hill is that he didn’t just come barging in and preaching the gospel out of context. He did his homework and found a way to relate the Athenian context to his message. Dialoguing is one way of finding out where people are to start with, their assumptions and preconceptions, so that the gospel message can be adapted so as not to seem so foreign.

  • Taylor

    Thanks Joe. I actually agree almost entirely with you, but I enjoy pushing from both sides of a discussion like this. Like you mentioned, going beyond Paul is not necessarily wrong.

    As I’m going through Corinthians right now, I have been impressed that Paul seemed to almost take the opposite of the approach he took at Mars Hill. I’ve been wondering how one discerns when to contextualize and when to preach nothing but Christ and Him crucified.

  • Joe Canner

    Good question…I also wonder about what being “all things to all people” meant for Paul with respect to preaching the gospel.


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