Mormons, Buddhists and adherents of other religions are not “-isms.” They’re not even “-ists.” They’re people. So, for all their differences from us Evangelical Christians, they’re still so much like you and me. Moreover, as with us, their humanity shapes their approach to their faith traditions, just as their faith traditions shape them as humans.
While I find it refreshing and right to hold passionately to ultimate truth claims in a society where relativism is so prevalent, Christians must guard against approaching adherents of other religions in exclusively doctrinal terms. If we approach people in such singular terms, we miss vital connections with those of other faith traditions. Why? Many religions do not view themselves primarily in doctrinal terms. Of course, doctrine is very important to many Christian communities and should come into consideration when engaging adherents of other paths. After all, the Apostle Paul told Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). Still, we must learn to ask questions that reflect sensitivity to how these traditions view themselves in terms of their important stories, experiences and customs, even while discussing and making ultimate truth claims that bear on all of us, no matter the tradition.
I have learned this the hard way, when I have unwittingly imposed my categories on others. Do you know what it is like when people impose categories on you before even knowing you, presuming and perhaps even demanding that you respond in ways that fit their expectations? Such exchanges are very off-putting and demeaning. When I have operated in this way, I have missed out on interpersonal connections that should be intertwined with consideration of biblical truth claims. As a result of these missteps, I have often experienced painful reactions. Exchanges with diverse religious practitioners led to the volume, Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths (an excerpt [click on the search result] from this forthcoming book was published in the April 2012 edition of Christianity Today). These encounters have opened my Evangelical eyes to the vast complexities that must be accounted for in engaging people of other spiritual paths in relational terms. Some of those conversations are included in the volume.
Christians must consider the historical, cultural and experiential forces, including symbols, stories and rituals of the diverse traditions, approaching these religions from sociological and historical vantage points in addition to biblical, theological, and metaphysical categories. We also need to reflect upon our own traditions from these various angles. In fact, we must also ask the adherents of these diverse traditions to share with us how they experience our faith through us.
This last statement draws attention to other important matters. Asking good questions and listening well are essential components of effective inter-faith communication. So, it is important to ask our Mormon, Buddhist and Jewish friends to share with us how they view their traditions and religions generally. We should also ask them how they approach their faith personally, for they are not “-isms” or “-ists,” but particular, personal adherents with their own distinctive stories.
Hypotheticals and stereotypes might work well on paper, but not in life. I have never encountered a hypothetical or stereotypical person. And even if I think I have, it just indicates that I have not probed deeply enough. Hopefully, the more personally and particularly we engage diverse religious practitioners from the perspective of their experiential participation in their traditions, the more they will experience through us and hopefully for themselves how personal—not packaged—the Jesus revealed in the Bible really is.
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths. This volume and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.