Don’t compromise on multi-faith dialogue. Go all out. Multi-faith dialogue entails thick narrative descriptions that allow for each tradition to emphasize distinctives as well as similarities rather than minimize those differences for the sake of thin harmony. Moreover, while multi-faith engagement seeks to safeguard against manipulation and bait and switch strategies of evangelism, it also seeks to provide compelling reasons why one would/should become an adherent of a particular religious tradition. This is what the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy and the Louisville Institute grant initiative, “Multi-Faith Matters,” espouse and seek to embody.
Based on my affirmation of the aims of multi-faith dialogue over interfaith dialogue, I would go so far as to say that Christology and evangelism are great strengths of the Evangelical Christian heritage and potentially glaring weaknesses, if not approached with sensitivity. Counter-cult apologists are among those within the Evangelical family who are always fearful of compromise. While we who promote multi-faith engagement do not allow the rightful concern to guard against compromising the Christian faith to keep us from dialoguing with those of other faith traditions, we who call for multi-faith dialogue do wish to safeguard and promote our particular Christian convictions, such as the supremacy of Jesus Christ and commitment to the Great Commission. Here I recall a liberal Christian seminary professor claiming that one of the weaknesses of many of his students was their lack of Christian self-understanding, including sufficient awareness of who Jesus is and what he has come to do. He also shared openly that liberal Christians should be committed to a form of evangelism. Those who do not know who they are and who are not confident in promoting what they seemingly cherish as ultimate concerns do not add much to dialogue with various traditions. The dialogue ends up being thin pea soup.
The liberal Christian seminary professor’s humility should also serve as a challenge to Evangelicals. Just as he is willing to admit weaknesses in his own camp, we should be willing to admit our own weaknesses. While Evangelicals have historically been rightfully concerned to guard against compromise on doctrine and have been committed to evangelism, we have not been so good at safeguarding concern for the religious other. We must not compromise them either. How do we compromise the religious other? By not seeking to understand their perspectives in the best possible light, but promote straw man arguments to promote Jesus. Moreover, we have often fallen prey to disingenuous strategies of evangelism, where we claim to cherish friendship and dialogue, but are really using friendship and dialogue as a cover to evangelize. While evangelistic fervor will always accompany a truly evangel-ical approach to multi-faith engagement, such fervor should never minimize or overshadow the desire for honesty, lasting friendship, and authentic dialogue. The questions to ask here are: ‘Am I straightforward and honest about my motives to evangelize the other, or do I cover my motives with talk of friendship and diplomacy?’ and ‘Would I still want to be in dialogue with the religious other and desire friendship, if I knew my partner in dialogue would never convert to Christianity, or would I abandon dialogue and friendship?’ If one answers in the affirmative to the first of the two options in each of the two questions, well and good. If one answers in the negative to the first of the two options in each of the two questions, then one is compromising or demeaning the religious other.
Now some will say that evangelism is always bad, and never good. My response: everyone does it, no matter how pluralistic they are. We are always seeking to persuade others to our point of view, and in a variety of ways. Religious pluralists argue that they are right, and that those who believe that Jesus is the only way to God are mistaken, and that the latter need to change their view, if they wish to cultivate peace and harmony in our global society. I have no trouble with them making this claim (though I disagree with it and will argue to the contrary). What I have trouble with is the claim championed by many pluralists that they are not evangelizing, only Evangelicals and others who invite others to convert to their particular faith traditions.
What I value in religious pluralists is their instinct to guard against hegemony and hubris. Thus, I am open to being evangelized while also seeking to evangelize. I am open to learning from the adherent of another tradition, even while I believe I have something to offer to the conversation. Moreover, I readily acknowledge that I myself am in need of Jesus’ mercy—he alone has supremacy; those who know his love and mercy see themselves like Paul as the worst of sinners. So, every multi-faith encounter in which I promote Jesus should bring me to my knees.
I am an evangelist for multi-faith engagement because I believe it does a better job of safeguarding authentic Christian convictions and practices than that form of interfaith dialogue which focuses on commonalities and minimizes differences. I also believe multi-faith engagement does a better job of safeguarding the religious other in terms of what they espouse and making clear our multiple reasons for engagement (dialogue, friendship and evangelism) than those Christian apologists who will use straw men arguments and the veil of friendship to push Jesus no matter what.
All of us engaged in dialogue with those of other religious and spiritual paths need to bring the best of our traditions to the table, and be honest and straightforward about our motives as well as weaknesses. Only then can we truly guard against compromise.