DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

An Awkward Dance

Written by: on October 22, 2015

Many of us may remember attending our first school dances: perhaps in junior high school. Observing such events now is very humorous because of the obvious discomfort of 13 year olds figuring out how to navigate across that expansive dance floor in order to ask someone to dance. It was not so amusing when I was that 13 year old. Learning how to dance in that setting felt awkward at best. It may well be that engaging in dialogue with people of other religious faiths feels similarly awkward for many Christians.

Alister McGrath’s book, Christian Theology; An Introduction is quite comprehensive and is worthy of being the primary text for a semester-long class on an introduction to theology. Because of the wide range of topics covered it does not go into great depth in any one area, but this is understandable since the book is designed as a survey. I appreciated that he dedicated the first hundred pages to historical theology, which gives an overarching context for theological discussion.

I wish we could read and discuss every page and word of Christian Theology. But given the nature of our task I will focus this blog in Chapter 17 which considers “Christianity and the World Religions.” I have chosen this focus because it helps me further consider my D Min task of engaging international students in our community. Before adequate field research I can only speculate regarding the different world religions represented in the international student population at Oregon State, but my preliminary opinion is that virtually all major world religions are present.

In Chapter 17 Professor McGrath presents three viewpoints from which the relationship of Christianity to other world religions may be approached. These three are Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism. [1] Exclusivism maintains that the Christian Gospel is the only means of salvation. Inclusivism wants to believe that while Christianity is the primary way God reveals Himself, it is still possible to find salvation through other religious faiths. Pluralism believes that all religious systems have equal validity.

As we who are exclusivists attempt to follow Christ, we realize that we must find a way to demonstrate that loyalty while finding a way to engage people of other faiths in life-changing conversations about Jesus: hence the awkward dance. Contributing to the complexity of the discussion is the sense that western culture today pressures the acceptance of pluralism.

As Christians “do” theology and anticipate cross-religious conversations, one of the most awkward aspects of the discussion pertains to whether or not any shred of truth may be found in other “competing” religious systems.

Dr. McGrath presents the work of Hendrik Kraemer, who unequivocally states that Jesus is THE way, truth, and life, and that “God…wills this to be known throughout the world.” [2] Through this section, the questions kept circulating through my mind, “In Exclusivism, is there room for the possibility that hints regarding general revelation might be found in other religions? If so, is it possible to find a recognition/acknowledgment of general revelation in other faith systems?”

I further wonder about what we might call the stealth work of the Holy Spirit: the possibility that God sneaks into other religions and world views in order to leave bread crumbs enabling people to find their way home. For instance, in speaking with a Muslim, is it possible to start a conversation with what the Qur’an says about Jesus?

But having said that, it’s important to emphasize that all truth is God’s truth, and any alleged truth that does not lead to Jesus does not qualify as truth. Make no mistake: we exclusivists WILL die on that hill. With this conviction, might we find some things in other systems that are such crumbs?

If we are to take the position that acknowledging general revelation in creation may be found in other beliefs, even this position does not leave Christ behind, because as pointed out in last week’s blog, creation (the very ‘stuff’ of general revelation in nature) came into being by the action of the whole of the Trinity (Genesis 1:2, Malachi 2:10, Colossians 1:16). General revelation in nature IS the work of the Divine Christ. In addition, McGrath keeps the Trinity at the center of these conversations when he sites the work of Raimundo Panikkar, who argued that “a trinitarian framework offered a means of making sense of the complex nature of human spirituality, including religious experience and expression.” [3]

I am absolutely convinced as to the exclusive claims of Jesus and His Gospel. This is the foundation of Christian faith. But, if we approach people of other religions wearing that strong conviction on our sleeves, it will be so off-putting to the other person we will lose all hearing. I have heard Christians express the genuine desire for Christians to be THE MOST loving people Muslims and people of other faiths will ever experience.

I must confess that even working through this progression of thought continues to have the uncomfortable feel of that awkward dance. The awkward dance takes place as we look for the right way to engage others in Jesus’ Name.

[1] McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology; An Introduction. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. p. 435

[2] McGrath. Christian Theology; An Introduction. p. 436

[3] McGrath. Christian Theology; An Introduction. p. 434

About the Author

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Marc Andresen

I have a B. A. in Music from San Diego State University and received an M. Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1977. July 1 2015 I retired after 38 years in pastoral ministry. The passion and calling that developed in the last 20 years is leadership training in cross-cultural contexts, as my wife and I have had many opportunities to teach in Eastern Europe and Africa. I have been married for 38 years and have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and a beautiful granddaughter. My hobbies are photography and British sports cars.

10 responses to “An Awkward Dance”

  1. Hi Marc.
    Thanks for focusing on one chapter! I think there can be truths in other religions. I like Paul in Athen when in Acts 17 he actually uses other religions to point to Jesus. One of my current heroes Richard Rohr has a daily devotion that I’ve been reading and he has been quoting a ton of different religions, mostly Buddhism. I like in the Good Samaritan how Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero and example of how we should live.

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Aaron – Acts 17 on Mars Hill is a great example. And of course Paul masterfully uses that moment to lead to the One, True, Living God.

  2. Pablo Morales says:

    Marc,
    I agree with you in that there are glimpses of truth in many other religions, and that it helps to find that common ground in order to share Christ. A good illustration of this truth is found in this video about a Muslim who became a believer after realizing what the Koran says about Jesus (I highly recommend it! https://www.facebook.com/DrAndrewDoan/videos/727597013965574/). As an exclusivist myself, I find the words of the Apostle Paul very eye opening. Even though he did try to find common ground with people in Greece when he quoted from Greek poets and pointed to Greek idols, he knew very well that they were in deep deception. Even though in 1 Corinthians 8 he points out that an idol in itself is nothing, he acknowledges in chapter 10 that idol worship is in reality demon worship. These are hard words that many people don’t want to hear! Yet, they make sense. If Satan is the master deceiver, and if he has blinded the mind of people so that the truth of the gospel will not shine in their hearts, he will work as the best deceivers do. He uses glimpses of truth to cover up a mountain of deception. That’s why it is always encouraging to talk to former Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims about their conversion experience. They are the best testimony to the truth of the gospel in an increasingly pluralistic society.

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Pablo-the video is quite fascinating, thanks for the link.
      Paul is really a great example for us: he obviously knew enough about culture to find ways in and from the culture to point to Jesus.

      Pointing out to people the deceptions of the enemy truly is a challenge. I think it’s a part of the awkward dance, but my God give us courage, that at the right time we will call idolatry what it truly is.

  3. Claire Appiah says:

    Marc,
    I believe that before one can have an objective, productive dialogue with a person of a non-Christian religion, there must be mutual respect up front for one another and each other’s religious beliefs and traditions. There is always a way to find a common point of reference or contact between the two religions. That is if the objective of the discussion is to promote a better understanding of the opposing religion and the people who embrace it, and not purely involvement in a hot theological debate. For instance, in discussing Islam with a Muslim, the Christian could point out their respect for Muslims who pray six times a day, starting before dawn and ending in the late evening. The Muslim might point out respect for Christianity that emphasizes that love of God is demonstrated by loving one’s neighbor. In this way the dance is not so awkward.

  4. mm Marc Andresen says:

    Claire, I think you’re right: mutual respect is essential.

    For me the dance gets awkward in that while we show respect for others, if we’re honest, we don’t just want to know about their religion. We want them to be converted to Jesus.

    So for me it feels awkward in that while I truly do want to have respect, honestly, I do have an agenda. Sometimes I fear people can smell that and therefore I/we come across as disingenuous.

  5. Claire Appiah says:

    Marc,
    Of course, that dance will always be awkward if you are coming with the agenda to convert the Muslim to Christianity, because the Muslim is just as enthusiastically coming with the agenda to convert you to Islam. I still believe that first, an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect has to be established before religious commonalities and differences can be objectively analyzed between truth seekers. That is your moment to shine and expound the Christian faith to that person. Conversion is the sole activity of the Holy Spirit of God.

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Yes – agreed regarding the work of the Spirit. That confidence actually sets us free to be respectful, knowing that the Spirit will do what the Spirit will do.

  6. Aaron Cole says:

    Marc,

    Great Blog! I really enjoyed your perspective on Exclusivism. In your blog you posed a question: “For instance, in speaking with a Muslim, is it possible to start a conversation with what the Qur’an says about Jesus?” I am curious of your personal thoughts on this question.

    Aaron

  7. mm Marc Andresen says:

    I think it is possible to start there. I can’t site specific instances personally, but I’ve heard stories of people who have started conversations with the Qur’an. I’ve seen publicity in the past for seminars that offer such training.

    Plus – if you scroll up the Pablo’s response, he gives a link to a testimony from a Muslim man who was really touched by how much the Qur’an says about Jesus.

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