Multi-Faith Matters: An Interview with John W. Morehead

Multi-Faith Matters: An Interview with John W. Morehead July 3, 2018
multi-faith
Photo Credit: Mythicist Milwaukee

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, please explain the terminology “multi-faith” and how, on your view, it relates to and differs from “interfaith.”

John W. Morehead (JWM): “Multi-faith engagement” is the term I prefer to use, or “religious diplomacy,” in distinction to “interfaith” or “interreligious dialogue.” Evangelicals are often skeptical and deeply concerned about dialogue and interfaith because this often implies a focus on commonalities between religions at the expense of differences, or the view that all religions are basically teaching the same thing. In addition, dialogue usually involves academics who engage in public conversations. While this has some value, often times the discussion doesn’t connect well with people in the audience, and there is no trickle down so that people watching actually try to engage in similar conversations in their neighborhoods and workplaces. Such efforts often lack in relevancy and application.

So whenever evangelicals or others assume that I am involved in interfaith work or dialogue, I correct them and offer the alternative term and concept of multi-faith engagement. In distinction with the discussion above, multi-faith engagement recognizes commonalities between religious traditions, but also irreconcilable differences. In fact, a multi-faith engagement approach might say that deep differences are more important than similarities in that we have to learn how to work through disagreements over issues that we care for deeply and which form our identity and communities, and to be able to hold these differences in a peaceful tension so that we can live and work together in a religiously diverse society.

Multi-faith engagement is also active rather than passive. It means that we go beyond mere tolerance of “the other,” and practice love of neighbor, even for those that we might consider an enemy (Matt. 5:44) because their doctrine and worldview is in strong conflict with our own.

Finally, attempts at mutual persuasion is also on the table in a multi-faith approach in that since we believe in the truth of our religious convictions, we want to share them with others in the hopes that they might consider making them they’re own. This is only done when there is an opportunity and when it is done ethically and welcomed by our conversation partner. I should also point out that multi-faith engagement is much broader than persuasion, and it is not a bait and switch or means to the end of evangelism (e.g., be nice and respectful so you can evangelize and if they don’t respond we withdraw and become defensive). Multi-faith engagement is a commitment to a broad-based way of understanding and relating to religious others as an emotion, attitude, and way of life, as Terry Muck once defined it.

So I believe that multi-faith engagement represents a viable alternative that evangelicals can and should embrace, one that avoids the conflicts that interfaith often involves in regards to evangelical convictions. In our time of increasing and deep polarization in the realms of politics and religion, multi-faith engagement is desperately needed as the way forward working through the divide and our convictions rather than around them.

PLM: What do you see as the most important aspects or traits of “multi-faith” for dialogue with people across the religious spectrum, no matter one’s own particular stance?

JWM: A few things come to mind. First, I think when we need to recognize that emotions are extremely significant and yet neglected in the way in which we relate to those in other religions. The Pew Forum has done some surveys on how Americans feel about religions, and evangelicals shared some of the “coolest” feelings among any other group. These feelings did not warm up in the three years between the 2014 and 2017 surveys, and at the same time feelings that others have about evangelicals have gotten worse. Understanding the emotions are important because they serve as the filters for how we think about them. Our cognition is made up of both the emotions and the rational, and evidence seems to indicate that our emotions and intuitions lead the way our rational faculties follow the emotional lead. So when we feel poorly about Muslims, Buddhists, or Mormons, we tend to come to rational conclusions about them, including doctrines and practices of engagement that reflect our negative feelings. So we need to be more aware of our emotions, and consider how to bring these into conversation with our rational minds as we develop a doctrine and praxis of relating to other religions.

Multi-faith can also help us understand that much of the way we understand and relate to each other is because of tribalism. In our case it is the evangelical Christian tribe vs. other religious tribes. Human beings tend to have an us vs. them perspective, whether in religion, politics, or other areas of life. Some recent studies in politics have documented that people tend to disagree with others not so much because of specific issues, but more because of loyalty to their tribe. We want to be good evangelicals, and we often think that in order to do that we have to build a fence to clearly demarcate between the us and the them of other religions. There will always be a sense of tribes because we are divided into different groups, but multi-faith engagement says you can be a good tribe member and relate to those in other religions in more positive ways in spite of our differences.

PLM: What are some of the most important influences on your thought, including your colleagues at the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy?

JWM: I’ll start with the theological influences. Terry Muck has been on ongoing influence. Terry is former editor of Christianity Today, he taught for years at Asbury Seminary in missions, and he has been involved in Christian-Buddhist dialogue for many years as well. Years ago I primarily worked in ministry through apologetics and evangelism, and when I came across Terry’s work in dialogue among the religions I found the approach very interesting. It opened up new possibilities for me. Then there’s Bob Robinson in New Zealand. His work in Christian-Hindu dialogue, and especially his broader theological reflection on Jesus in relation to how his example with Gentiles (e.g., Matt. 15:21-28) and Samaritans (e.g., John 4:4-26) might inform our multi-faith encounters today.

Another influence is the founder of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, Charles Randall Paul. Terry introduced me to Randy and FRD. Randy is a Mormon, but he was interested in moving evangelicals, Mormons and others beyond debate, confrontational apologetics, and standard forms of dialogue. He is one of the pioneers in developing a religious diplomacy model.

In addition to the theological influences of people like Terry Muck, I have also found it helpful to bring the various theologies and practices of relating to people in other religions and to bring those into conversation with various scientific disciplines on human interactions and group conflict. Just as theologians and missiologists look to things like linguistics, historical studies, cultural studies, and anthropology, to name a few, I have learned a lot from engaging certain scientific areas of study. The work of Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene and others in social psychology, especially moral psychology, has been particularly helpful in shedding light on the morality underlying conservative evangelical concerns about multi-faith encounters. There’s also the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson on conceptual metaphor that has been helpful in identifying the metaphorical ways in which evangelicals think and conceptualize those in other religions.

PLM: The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy uses language like “trusted rivals” to speak of one’s religious interlocuters. Some people might find such language odd-sounding, even uncharitable or undiplomatic. What does this phraseology signify, and how might it be read as possibly more charitable or diplomatic than language that suggests there is no rivalry, since on their view we are all basically saying the same thing, no matter our religious traditions?

JWM: Yes, as I’ve shared the work of FRD, at times people to take issue with the idea of “trusted rivals.” I think the idea is spot on. It acknowledges that not only do we disagree with each other over strongly held religious doctrines and ideas, but we also try to do our best to share those ideas so that others will embrace them too. In other words, most religions are evangelistic in some sense. They may use different words for it and different approaches, but they spread their messages to the world. So in this sense the adherents of the world’s religions are rivals, we are in competition with each other for the hearts and minds of others. This isn’t going to go away, and given our differences and religious commitments, I don’t think it has to or should. So here I disagree that we need a naked public square, or one that is secular in order to avoid religious conflict. Conflict is a part of life, but the question is how one goes about a process of healthy conflict. Multi-faith engagement or religious diplomacy as practiced at FRD, says that we need to recognize the religious rivalry that exists, but engage in healthy forms of rivalry that is done between people who trust each other and engage in ethical forms of competition (in addition to cooperation) in the public square.

One of the things desperately lacking in our society is trust. This works in conjunction with our tribalism, our team vs. their team, us as the good guys and them as the bad guys. We tend to trust only those on our team. The process of multi-faith engagement brings together people who want to be open and honest, and to spend the time trying to understand each other and their disagreements, even if they won’t see things the same way at the end of the conversation. Over time trust is built and there is a commitment to relationships where trust is present through strong disagreement. So we seek to be and develop others as trusted rivals.

PLM: What are some current initiatives underway that develop further the work of multi-faith engagement, and how might people (regardless of their diverse religious convictions) find out more, including how they might collaborate?

JWM: The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy has chapters in different religious traditions, and each is drawing upon religious diplomacy or multi-faith engagement principles that are then framed to best serve their religious communities. In addition to being a board member for FRD I am also the Director of its Evangelical Chapter. In our chapter we are pursuing a supplemental grant project funded by the Louisville Institute for the Multi-faith Matters team. Our initial three-year grant put together case studies of ten evangelical churches across the country that were involved in positive forms of multi-faith engagement, all drawing upon the rationale of love of neighbor and hospitality. The two-year supplemental grant that a team of three evangelical pastors and three scholars is working on is looking at strategic storytelling so as to create a new narrative within evangelicalism for multi-faith engagement that runs through our convictions as we love our non-Christian neighbors. Another aspect of the grant is research in social psychology and other disciples so we can better understand why evangelicals tend toward more defensive theologies and apologetic approaches. This part of our research has identified the moral foundations of authority and purity as significant, and an emphasis on these helps explain why evangelicals emphasize doctrinal purity and freedom from worldview contamination so much in their understanding of other religions. We have also looked at conceptual metaphor, and here our research has identified the metaphors of disease and warfare as ways in which evangelicals tend to conceptualize those in other religions.

Our grant involves several project outcomes, including a new survey looking at Christian attitudes and values related to those in other religions (especially Muslims), a short film on one of our case study churches, and we are also editing a book under contract with Pickwick Publications that explores the significance of emotions or orthopathy in multi-faith engagement.

For those interested in learning more about religious diplomacy and how these principles can be used in their religious tradition they can visit FRD’s website at www.religious-diplomacy.org. Evangelicals can look at our chapter’s website at www.EvangelicalFRD.org, and the Multi-faith Matters team blog at https://multifaithmatters.org.

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