For many Christians the word “interfaith” carries with it rather negative connotations. Afterall, if we wholeheartedly believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), why should we care about trying to understand other religious positions? It seems at best a wasted effort and at worst a malevolent act of pluralistic heresy.
Jesus is, however, far greater than Protestant Evangelical Christianity. In John 1:1 we read Jesus described as the “logos”, quite literally the ordering principle or ultimate reason behind the universe. What this reveals is that at the most fundamental level all truth is God’s truth. Jesus has a total monopoly on reason because he is reason.
With this in mind, it is at least conceivable that there are elements of God’s truth and reason within religious or intellectual contexts that lie outside of our specific understanding of faith. This is not to concede a pluralist stance, which holds that all religions are “true” and provide a path to the same God, but rather to highlight that all human beings are made in the image of God and have a natural proclivity to look beyond themselves and to reach out to a transcendent reality that offers some level of truth beyond what they can individually attain.
Indeed, when embarking on inter-faith dialogue we are not trying to avoid being seduced by the “lies” of other religions, but rather to see where the person of Jesus can be illuminated to us in these respective religious contexts; where the logos can be revealed for who he really is.
With this in mind, let us explore three main reasons for why interfaith dialogue is an incredibly important and meaningful component of the Christian life.
Dialogue with those who think differently from us keeps us humble. It allows us to learn from one another by highlighting the inconsistencies in our own thinking about other religions (and our own) and provokes us to go deeper within our own traditions; unlocking hidden levels of insight that we didn’t even know existed. For example, while I may not be required to get on my knees and pray five times a day as a foundational pillar of my faith like my Muslim sisters and brothers, I am totally inspired by this level of dedication to spending time with God. Whilst it would be easy for my internal ‘by faith alone’ drive to kick in and scoff at the ‘legalistic’ nature of Islamic worship, I instead wish to ask: “What can I learn from this? How can I incorporate this level of dedication to God in my life? What would making time for God in this way look like?” Allow the zeal of other faiths to transform your own.
We have an incredible opportunity to show God’s love to our sisters and brothers of other faiths when we engage in dialogue. At present, dialogue in our increasingly polarised world is not done well. When it comes to issues of faith or personal belief in particular, dialogue seems to be almost always about winning an argument rather than getting closer to the truth. When Jesus engaged in dialogue he was sensitive but firm, provocative but meaningful, challenging but kind, questioning but never straw-manning, and, at the most fundamental level, always understanding. We need to be the same. There is a tremendous amount of space in the public and private sphere for Christians to introduce challenge and contestation of other faiths in a loving and humble way.
Interfaith dialogue makes us better evangelists. It forces us to get away from relying on Christian jargon and encourages us to explain our most important truths in a way that all people can understand in a range of different contexts. For example, interfaith dialogue with a Muslim or a Jew - a fellow member of the Abrahamic tradition - will look rather different from dialogue with a Buddhist or Hindu who is not part of such a tradition; a tradition that draws on similar scriptures, stories and narratives to Christianity. Both of these contexts provide incredibly exciting opportunities for us to grow in wisdom and discernment, communication and lucidity, patience and respect as we decide what concepts to deploy and not deploy, what theologies to clarify and not clarify, what cultural parallels to draw and not draw.
In essence, dialoguing with other faiths is crucial if we are to be people who truly wish to embody the love, compassion and humility that Christ showed to everyone he encountered. Interfaith dialogue is not about compromising what we believe, it is about going beyond our intellectual and social comfort zones to engage with those who think differently from us so that we can “delight in truth” as we show love to one another (1 Corinthians 13:6 NIV).
David Clegg is a final year International Relations student at the University of St Andrews and co-founder of TruThink, an interfaith blog and podcast.
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