How Multi-Faith Engagement Matters: An Interview with John W. Morehead, Part II

How Multi-Faith Engagement Matters: An Interview with John W. Morehead, Part II July 6, 2018

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John W. Morehead is the Director of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. He is also a part of the Multi-faith Matters Collaborative Inquiry Team working on a grant on multi-faith engagement by evangelicals funded by the Louisville Institute.

Paul Louis Metzger (PLM): John, in the last post (refer here), we discussed “multi-faith” in contradistinction to “interfaith” and referenced key influences on your thought, as well as key initiatives underway in this regard. At this point, I wish to highlight the work you are presently overseeing for the Louisville Institute. Please tell our readers about this grant initiative, including specifics regarding the original grant and now its renewal, as well as the make-up of your team(s).

John W Morehead (JWM): I mentioned in the first part of our interview that I am a part of a grant project team called Multi-faith Matters. As you know, Paul, because you are also a part of the team, this is a Collaborative Inquiry Team made up of three evangelical pastors and three evangelical scholars. The Louisville Institute funds these CITs as they explore different areas in order to strengthen the church in North America. We have been fortunate to receive an initial three-year grant, and we are now working on a two-year supplemental grant.

The initial grant put together case studies on churches involved in positive forms of multi-faith engagement. We found ten churches across the United States, interacting with different religious groups in their communities, including Buddhists, Muslims, Pagans (nature-based spiritualities), and more. Most of these churches had no prior awareness of each other, and thought before we contacted them that they were largely alone as evangelical churches pursuing these kinds of approaches. After the survey we did some analysis and each of the churches saw love of neighbor and hospitality as key biblical foundations for relating to others in the way that they were doing. We put the stories of these churches together on the Multi-faith Matterswebsite.

But near the end of the initial grant some questions arose. Why were these churches doing things this way rather than either ignoring non-Christians, engaging only in evangelism or apologetics, or pursuing more defensive and combative kinds of postures toward them, as perhaps many or most evangelical churches in America do? Why do evangelicals emphasize such a strong concern for purity of doctrine and worldview (in other words, what’s the psychology underlying the theological and biblical concerns)? It can’t be a matter of “We do it this way because the Bible says…” because churches that are more welcoming in multi-faith engagement and those who are more defensive both appeal to the Bible, they just cite different passages as a foundation for their views. We approached the Louisville Institute with a proposal for a supplemental grant to answer these and other questions, and we are a year into this two-year process. We have been exploring strategic storytelling so we can provide a new story of loving our religious neighbors for evangelicals to live their faith within. We have also been examining evangelical theology and bringing it into conversation with academic disciplines like social psychology and conceptual metaphor. This process has helped us understand why evangelicals are often hesitant to relate to those in other religions in less defensive ways.

PLM: John, you have dedicated a great deal of energy to people’s moral intuitions, and how our affections shape our decisions, including matters of religion. Please share with us about Jonathan Haidt’s work, and how it has proven extremely beneficial for the Louisville Institute’s two grant initiatives that you oversee.

JWM: Previously I’d come across a book review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I skimmed the review but didn’t look at it very closely. During the first grant project I ran across Haidt’s book again, and this time it struck me that there might be something important here for understanding the dynamics of conservative evangelicalism in regards to multi-faith engagement. Haidt is a social psychologist and he did his PhD work looking at the concept of purity in religions. He has done a lot of work on moral psychology, specifically what’s called moral foundations theory (MFT). As the MoralFoundations.orgwebsite describes MFT, “[i]n brief, the theory proposes that several innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of ‘intuitive ethics.’ Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too.” Not only cultures, but subcultures also seem to have these intuitive ethics and moral foundations. MFT research has identified at least five foundations. These include:

  1. Care/harm.
  2. Fairness/cheating.
  3. Loyalty/betrayal.
  4. Authority/subversion.
  5. Sanctity/purity.

Another interesting facet of this research is that while all human beings have these five moral foundations, the ones we emphasize will be different. In particular, liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral foundations. So for example, liberals tend to emphasize the first two, care and fairness. This helps us understand why liberals are involved in things like an interfaith approach, a model that works on behalf of what they see as fairness for an oppressed minority. By contrast, while conservatives draw upon all five moral foundations, in my research and experience with conservative evangelicals, we tend to emphasize the authority and purity foundations. In the area of multi-faith evangelicals are concerned about relating to those in other religions because they reject our sacred values of authority (biblical teaching) and purity (of right doctrine and a Christian worldview). The emphasis upon these two moral foundations sheds light on why evangelicals often cite concerns for syncretism when discussing other religions. The emphasis is on building fences to protect against the possibility of contamination, rather than bridges that might lead to spiritual harm.

My research for the grant has led me to conclude that evangelical concerns for purity that relate to fears of contamination are one of the most significant issues related to our more defensive postures and cool feelings toward those in other religions. I’ve bloggedon this and other research findings at the Evangelical FRD website. In addition, Richard Beck has written on purity in his book Unclean, but he doesn’t connect it to how we relate to other religions. I’ll develop these ideas further in my chapter contribution to the forthcoming Pickwick book on emotions and multi-faith engagement.

PLM: What are some of the “aha!” as well as “argh!” moments you have experienced with this research initiative(s)? How do you see the research related to Haidt and social psychology help Evangelical Christians become more astute on multi-faith engagement? And for those who wonder, what answer would you give to those Evangelicals who think it is wrong-headed and spiritually dangerous to become more engaged in exchanges with those from other traditions?

JWM: In terms of “Aha!” and “Argh!” moments, I’ll address the “Aha!” first. I’ve been in evangelical circles for a long time. Years ago I pursued an apologetics form of ministry to adherents of “cults” or new religious movements. My fellow apologists and I, and the evangelicals who were interested in our teaching and research materials, were very concerned about doctrinal purity, and confronting those in new religions with the authoritative claims of the Bible. We were also very concerned about a lack of doctrinal purity that we saw in other religions. After moving on to a multi-faith engagement approach that concern for purity stayed in the back of my mind, and I kept running into evangelical fears over syncretism, the inappropriate mixing of different religious teachings, and when during my research in MFT I was finally able to understand some of the moral and psychological concerns that are underneath our theological concerns and preferences for apologetic approaches that emphasize doctrinal fidelity and boundaries.

Another “Aha!” moment from MFT came with a principle of moral psychology that “intuitions come first; strategic reasoning second.” Evangelicals emphasize rationality, and I think that’s important, but the more I’ve studied the sciences related to human cognition I think we are emotional creatures first and rational creatures second. I think we have intuitions that are connected to how we feel about an issue, and then we often draw upon reason to confirm or justify our feelings. In my view this is the case with other religions. So we need to recognize that human cognition is a combination of emotion and reason, with emotion often leading the way, and we have to work through people’s emotions and intuitions in order to create space for a greater emphasis on reason and new intuitions. In addition to concerns for purity, we need to recognize the importance of emotion in multi-faith engagement as well.

A major “Argh!” moment comes through my belief that evangelicals emphasize purity many times at the expense of love of neighbor in terms of hospitality and embrace. We can be concerned for both. The problem comes not with a concern for doctrinal purity, because after all the Scripture tells us to “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim. 4:16). Where things go awry is when our concern for purity and fears of contamination prevent us from loving neighbor in the ways that we should.

A good example of Jesus in this regard is his participation in table fellowship with Matthew the tax collector in Matt. 9:10-12. The Pharisees saw this, and given their concern for ritual purity they thought Jesus was contaminating himself by his associations. Jesus’ response in vs. 12 was a quotation from the Old Testament: “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” In the tension between the biblical call to purity and engagement, Jesus comes down on the side of engagement. I recently came across an articleby the New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn on Jesus and purity, and he concluded that while Jesus was concerned with the purity requirements of his time in Second Temple Judaism, “Jesus evidently had no interest in making ritual purity a test case of covenant loyalty. The emphasis on matters of purity, so characteristic of factional rivalries of the time, was for Jesus an overemphasis.” I wonder whether evangelical concerns for purity and doctrine in relation to other religions might learn something from Jesus’ example.

PLM: What were the outcomes of the first Louisville Institute grant initiative, and how have they proven beneficial?

JWM: There have been several initial outcomes from the Louisville grants. We produced a series of ten case studies of churches and a website telling their stories from the first grant. With the supplemental grant we conducted our own psychological study among Christians online to understand issues related to purity, Christian nationalism, views of Muslims, and other things. We have produced a short filmtelling the story of one of our case study churches and their love of Muslim neighbors in Sacramento, California. And we are currently putting together a book on emotions and orthopathy in multi-faith engagement. Over the course of the remaining year of the grant and beyond we will take this research and develop further outcomes.

In terms of benefits, the survey helps evangelicals understand the “what” and “why” of how we relate to those in other religions. Our storytelling shows that you can be a good evangelical and live out your convictions through a multi-faith engagement that includes love of neighbor. And we hope our book will stimulate evangelical scholars, pastors, and laypeople to consider alternatives for how they feel, think, and act toward our non-Christian neighbors.

PLM: What are your long-term hopes for the work you and your team are doing on multi-faith engagement, and how do you think we can/will get there?

JWM: Our grant work has provided a great foundation for the future. We are just scratching the surface. I hope we can continue to reflect on what we’ve already learned, engage in new research through additional questions that have opened up, and that pastors and evangelical scholars will be interested in a multi-faith engagement approach and want to pursue this themselves. The hope of the Multi-faith Matters team is that a future generation of evangelicals will relate to those in other religions using multi-faith engagement and that will be the default mode.

PLM: If people wish to know more, how can they get in touch with you?

JWM: For those who want to learn more or ask questions they can reach out to me through the Evangelical FRDwebsite, through Multi-faith Matters, or by email. Thanks so much, Paul, for your partnership on the grant project team and in our professional collaborations, and for this interview opportunity.

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