Evangelical Christianity and the Philosophy of Interreligious Dialogue

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PRECIS

In this essay, the author, an evangelical Christian, seeks to analyze the arguments for and against evangelical participation in interreligious dialogue. He finds that, while the arguments against evangelical participation in dialogue suggest some important boundaries for dialogue, they do not completely militate against it. Conversely, the arguments for dialogue form a persuasive case for evangelical participation.

I. Introduction: The Evangelical Quandary

Evangelical Christianity [1] is a movement that is in tension. Evangelicals constantly struggle with opposing forces in the challenge to seek doctrinal purity: the impulse to thwart apostasy by avoiding exposure to heterodox doctrine, alongside the need to be broad-minded in order to avoid hasty conclusions on difficult doctrinal decisions. The current movement toward dialogue among the world's religions finds many within evangelicalism wanting to benefit from the insights of dialogue [2], yet uncertain whether they can do so without compromising key aspects of their identity. The appeal of interreligious dialogue is undeniable, but the question of whether Evangelicals can benefit from such dialogue, while still honoring the evangelical interpretation of the Christian message, demands an answer.

This essay will investigate the compelling reasons that have led to the growth of interreligious dialogue and the arguments for and against evangelical participation therein. These arguments will be of two types: those that would be persuasive to Evangelicals because of the obvious rationality of the arguments, and those that would be persuasive to Evangelicals because of the high status they give to the Christian Bible. [3]

II. The Philosophy of Interreligious Dialogue

Dialogue is a communicative and investigative process engaged in by two or more persons (or communities) with differing beliefs, [4] wherein each attempts to gain an increased understanding of the other's beliefs and the reasons for those beliefs. The primary goal in dialogue should be understanding the other, rather than expressing one's self, though self-expression is obviously also essential to dialogue. The benefits of dialogue are many; among the most obvious are increased self-understanding, improved understanding of others, better relations with others, and broad-based ideological research. Dialogue between equal parties should be beneficial to all involved.

It is not essential to dialogue for one to give up belief in the truth of one's own system. It is essential for one to give up the view that one has a "corner on the truth," if one holds such a view. One must be open to the possibility that some of one's beliefs are in error and that the beliefs of the dialogue partner may be correct -- or at least more correct than one's own. As Leonard Swidler has observed:

Religions and ideologies describe and prescribe for the whole of life; they are holistic, all-encompassing, and therefore tend to blot out, that is, either convert or condemn, outsiders even more than other institutions that are not holistic. Thus, the need for modesty in truth claims and for acknowledging complementarity of particular views of the truth is most intense in the field of religion. [5]

Recent developments in epistemology virtually necessitate surrender of the traditional attitude of dogmatic certainty with which religions have regarded their doctrinal formulations. The certainty that was a result of foundationalist epistemic strategies has, following the apparent failure of foundationalism, [6] become much more tentative. Postmodern epistemology is "perspectival": it recognizes that all beliefs reflect the knower as much as the known. What one believes is influenced by one's culture, background, needs, and perhaps even one's genetic make-up and the ideological framework and constraints of one's native language. Dialogue can help one to step outside of one's own perspectival situation and see one's beliefs from another's perspective. …