What does an evangelical theology of religions look like? As, if not more, important, what is an evangelical missiology of religions like? There are many reasons why I pose both question together. One is that, oftentimes, evangelical beliefs and practices vis-à-vis those in other faiths are inconsistent. We have one set of doctrines regarding the religions that mostly emphasize the disjunction between Christian faith and other traditions, while we have another set of practices related to mission and evangelism that are (perhaps surprisingly to some) much more friendly and dialogical in multifaith contexts. Most of us would agree that it behooves us to align our practices with our beliefs and vice-versa. On this matter, I believe part of the problem is that evangelicals have not asked hard theological questions about their missional practices. If we were to do so, I believe that our missional work would be even further revitalized even as our theological commitments, even doctrinal confessions, about the religions might be more expansive, surely more scripturally nuanced, and perhaps even more deeply embedded within the full scope of the Christian tradition.
So what then might happen if we were to think both theology and missiology of religions together? For starters, I would urge that evangelical mission theology and praxis as a whole is implausible in the present time unless we are attentive to the opportunities and challenges of interfaith engagement. Although unfolding within an increasingly secular global context, non-Christians are mostly people of faith rather than atheists or agnostics. Credible Christian mission in a religiously pluralistic world, then, cannot but be fundamentally alert to interfaith complexities. Three modalities and rationales for interfaith interaction are interrelated: orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy.
First, the orthodoxic trajectory foregrounds the human quest for and witness to the truth. There is a dialogical character to such witness bearing. The missional thrust of Christian and specifically evangelical faith motivates confession of Christ. Here orthodox confession denotes less affirmation of specific creedal formulations than it does the commitment to engage with religious others at the discursive level. Such “truth encounters” insist that in the meeting between people of living faiths, there are not only similarities but, more importantly, inevitable differences that identify what is at stake. Hence the interfaith encounter includes both negative and positive apologetics – the former defending the plausibility of Christian faith against the polemics of others, the latter involving interrogation of other faith claims from the Christian standpoint. Interreligious dialogue at this level is crucial to clarify what it is that interlocutors in other traditions affirm so that Christian apologetics speaks truthfully about rather than bears false witness against religious others. At a deeper level, Christian mission in such interreligious contexts appropriately contextualizes faith claims in order more effectively to engage those in other traditions. Just as there are dogmatic traditions within the Christian stream that are received variously by Christians, so also are there variations within other faiths that inform their adherents across the spectrum. Effectual Christian witness thus must be attuned to traditional, regional, cultural, linguistic, and personal dynamics in an interfaith world.
Yet Christian enthusiasm for proclaiming and sharing the truth must be matched by their quest for truth. There is a fine line here, one that involves the Christian conviction that the truth is found in Christ on the one hand, but also recognizes that our knowledge of “the mystery of Christ” remains partial in some respects on the other hand (Eph 3:4; Col 4:3; cf. 1 Cor 13:12; 1 John 3:2). Although people in other faiths certainly do not testify to the truth of Christ (that is the point of non-Christian faiths), who is to say that their own quests for the truth might not also somehow refract the light of Christ that shines somehow in every heart (cf. John 1:9)? If on the one side Christians interact dialogically with people of other faiths in order to understand them and thereby witness truthfully and effectively to them, then on the other side Christians also ought to expect nothing less than such committed approaches from others. The result would be a standoff – in which both groups dig in their heels convinced of their own corner on the market of truth and of the others’ misguided beliefs – but Christians have theological warrant to believe both that the conversion of others is ultimately God’s responsibility and that their own transformation might indeed be mediated through substantive encounters with others. After all, as evangelical missionaries consistently testify, participation in God’s mission involves not only witnessing to others but also being shaped by the living witness of others in turn. Hence there is not only the hope of influencing and impacting the lives of others, but there should also be every expectation that authentic interfaith interaction will result in personal transformation as well. At the more general level of communal faith identity, Christian thinking theologically, doctrinally, and constructively in a pluralistic world will then be informed by in-depth reflection on and with those in other faiths. Theology by and for the church in the twenty-first century cannot proceed in isolation as if others were absent. In short, any evangelical theology of religions in the present time must be sufficiently expansive to underwrite the full scope of evangelical modalities of witness in relationship to people across the faith spectrum. Anything less than this is an anemic theological stance that undercuts rather than nourishes the diverse forms of evangelical dialogical interaction with religious others.
Second, the orthopraxic domain focuses on the human need for and collaborative fostering of the common good. There are both theological and pragmatic aspects to such missional thrusts vis-à-vis those in other faiths. Theologically, Christian mission is increasingly being recognized as multifaceted inasmuch as Christian salvation is also understood in more holistic terms. If the latter includes not only spiritual but also material, communal, social, political, economic, and environmental (at least) dimensions, then the former must engage deeply with these multiple levels in order for the message of Christ to be good news to the world. Christian mission participates in the redemptive work of God to heal, restore, and renew what is fractured by sin. Hence concrete impact in many of these arenas involves bringing faith commitments into the public square. In a postsecular world, then, people of faith walk a fine line that both refuses to blur the lines between “church and state” (or synagogue and state, etc.) and yet recognizes that meaningful human efforts in the public realm cannot be achieved if homo religiosus had to check their deepest values at the door before making such contributions. If that goes for Christian believers, then it applies mutatis mutandis also to those of other faith persuasions.
Simultaneously, it ought to be recognized that people of other faiths are also motivated by their faith traditions to work for the common good. Other religious ways have nurtured human flourishing in cultures and civilizations for millennia long before our current age of globalization. The difference today is that all humans need to draw from their own wells in order to collaborate better on matters that impact the common good not just for their own specific faith communities but for all. Response to the environmental crisis, for instance, has to be an interfaith effort, and members of the various faith traditions will need to muster all resources available to them – religious or otherwise – and then work cooperatively with people of no or any faith in order to make a difference for succeeding generations. Christian mission work, therefore, now proceeds with people of other faith rather than merely to them. On the other end, Christians also reap the benefits of the work of religious others in the public sphere. In brief, then, only a multidimensional evangelical theology of religions in the present time can hope to fund the full scope of evangelical missional engagements with people of various faiths. Anything narrower will undermine rather than empower the kind of holistic mission that already characterizes evangelical mission in a pluralistic world.
Third, the orthopathic sphere highlights the human orientation toward and desire for the beautiful. The point here is not only that other religions are also in search of the beautiful. In fact, if the glory of the new heavens and earth will be constituted in part by what kings and nations bring into the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:24, 26), it is inconceivable that such will be bereft of the beauty found in other faiths. But more importantly, what is being discussed concerns the affective dimension of the human constitution: the beautiful is what we hope for, long for, and love. This aesthetic vision, however, can be reduced neither to cognitively construed propositions (orthodoxy) nor pragmatically resolved constructions (orthopraxis); rather, it operates at the interior level of the human will, imagination, and heart. It is for this reason that religious conversion is both about being caught up by something beyond the self (this is the point about grace) and by choosing to make a commitment (this is the point about religious freedom). Hence at the end of any kerygmatic declaration of the gospel’s contents or after any manifestation of works of mercy regarding the gospel’s commitments, there involves an invitation to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8; NRSV). Christian testimony (orthodoxy) and holistic witness (orthopraxy) here culminate in an appeal to the heart (orthopathy).
But herein lies the deepest and most profound challenge for Christian mission in a pluralistic world. If the beauty of Christian faith derives from in its being experienced by others, so also is the beauty of other faith traditions incomprehensible apart from some kind of performative engagement with them. Just as the mysteries of the incarnation and the Trinity are captivating only to those who have immersed themselves in a lifetime of spiritual disciplines, so also the beauty of other faith traditions are fully available only to those who have walked in those pathways. Yet evangelicals cannot give their hearts to other faiths in these ways for that would be akin to selling their souls to other deities (the temptation to idolatry). However, in the image of the triune God who sent his Son incarnationally into the far country and poured out his Spirit pentecostally on all human flesh, so also are Christians invited to be both hosts of and guests to those in other faiths. In the role of the former, Christians welcome those in other faiths to experience the gracious hospitality of the triune God. In the role of the latter, Christians enter into other ways of life following in the footsteps of Jesus and empowered by the Spirit who enables human solidarity across otherwise constructed boundaries (e.g., of race, gender, class, culture, language, and even religion). Although hosts maintain a certain level of control over the (interfaith) environment, guests are vulnerable amidst the parameters established by others. Evangelical Christians will disagree on how much to risk in venturing affectively, performatively, and practically along the road with their neighbors of other faiths. Yet their own faith commitments suggests that their own transformation in the process pales in comparison to the glory to be revealed in the big scheme of things when and where all creatures – “us” Christians and “them” of other faiths – are guests in the beautiful presence of the triune God. In the end, then, an evangelical theology of religions in the present time will need to go far beyond the concern with doctrinal correctness about other faiths and deal with the full scope of spiritual practices and orientations with other traditions. Anything less than this will remain merely at the cognitive level and be ineffective in addressing matters in the depths of human hearts.
The thesis presented here is that Christian theology and mission in the third millennium will need to be deeply interfaith in character. Responsible theological participation in the mission of God involves not just our heads (orthodoxy) and hands (orthopraxy) but also our hearts (orthopathy). These are certainly interrelated so that each informs the other and together they enable full participation in the mission of the triune God. Such a posture, of course, invites evangelicals to not merely cogitate about religious others – as if to develop abstract theological ideas (even speculations!) about them – but to engage in theological reflection with others amidst practical engagement with and for the common good and spiritual discernment with and alongside our various intersecting and interfacing religious ways.
If evangelicals were to approach their theologies of religions as people informed by missiological dynamics, a whole new arena for thinking theologically might open up. Up to now, of course, evangelical theologies have been fixated on identifying if other religions are truly revelatory or authentically salvific. By this of course, the question is whether people of other faiths can be saved as evangelicals understand salvation. The answers have been neatly categorized accordingly: exclusivists deny that other religions can save; inclusivists are not sure if other religions save but insist that if yes, other religionists are still redeemed by the work of Jesus Christ; and pluralists (of which there are few, if any, self-identified evangelicals) believe that people are saved according to faithful participation in their own religious way of life. But such exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist responses still are our efforts to categorize and classify all so-called non-Christians, as if being able to pronounce objective judgment on the complexities of their traditions and practices, not to mention individualized expressions within these so-called religions.
The approach I am recommending here turns the tables and asks us what we ought to think about the religions in light of our practical response to them and in light of our relationship with them. More to the point, this is not only a matter of formulating right beliefs based on the status quo of practices, nor is it about the mere articulation of a theology of others. Instead, it asks if our beliefs and practices are still flexible enough, pliable enough, to be transformed within the hermeneutical circle of theological reflection and missional engagement with and in the presence of others. While not minimizing the issue of the salvation of others, what is foregrounded here is our own conversion. Just as Peter went to Cornelius to proclaim the gospel but found his own horizons of understanding to have been challenged and turned upside down instead, might the interfaith moment bring about our own change of heart and mind as well? This is not to say that we might not still be concerned to share the good news of Christian faith in Jesus Christ. It is to say that such sharing includes moments in which we experience transformation by the Spirit of Jesus in and through our interacting with, relating to, and encountering others whose fundamental commitments differ from ours. For such to happen, our missional practices must be rich, and our theological formulation supple, but with both anchored by depths and liberating breadths that can welcome the other even as such welcome enables the truth, beauty, and goodness of the gospel to leave its divinely intended mark.
Note: The preceding expands on my “Missiology and Mission Theology in an Interfaith World: A (Humble) Manifesto,” Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue.