Thursday, July 23, 2009

Notes from the Culture Wars -4

It seems rather innocent and benign to speak of interfaith "dialogue"--I mean who doesn't like dialogue. It appears rather safe, wholesome and respectful. I am all for discourse that embodies these qualities. When faced with confronting ideas that conflict one another our first instinct cannot be to draw swords.

However, the common lingo of "dialogue" means something entirely different. Here's a summation of the idea means in the common understanding:

How do we participate? Scholars, theologians, clergy, and people at the grass roots know dialogue can revive the perennial values at the heart of each faith: humility, sincerity, and trust. The task is not easy, but necessary as will be the need for forgiveness--also valued in all faiths. The hope of dialogue is to keep the search for truth grounded in openness to new insight without losing the wisdom of tradition.

In Swidler's words, "Whether I claim that the Bible or the Qur'an or the Gita is God's truth, it is I who affirm that it is so. But if neither I nor anyone can know everything about anything, how do I proceed to search for an ever fuller grasp of reality, of truth, especially about the most complicated claims to truth, religion? Dialogue becomes a whole new way of thinking and acting. In dialogue I talk or collaborate with you primarily so I can learn what I cannot perceive from my place in the world, with my personal lenses of knowing. Through your eyes I see what I cannot see from my side of the globe, and vice versa."

When the sincerity of my truth pushes me to challenge the sincerity of yours, trust in God's mystery requires both the inspired zeal of my conviction and the humility that I cannot know everything. We crowd out the destructive forces of zealotry the instant we seek to know why the other person holds to her or his truth with such conviction. To begin to understand why is to make room for the healing power of understanding. Dialogue Institute administrator, Dr. Julie Sheetz-Willard, calls such a moment of understanding a "meeting"--when we realize that, "even though it's true that we have real, meaningful differences, it's also profoundly true that we are connected, bound together in some common desire for seeking God's purposes in a shared world."

I agree that no one person can know everything about anything. But at issue here is the gospel and the truth of God's Word. I agree that by interacting with people I can learn, grow and often come to a deeper understanding of things. However, 'dialoguing' in this manner with people who reject the Christian faith puts us at odds with what the gospel and the kingdom of God actually is. We all agree we should flee personal arrogance but assured conviction of the truth is not arrogant.

We are not talking about a lively debate about politics, or chatting about cooking recipes. Of course, even in religious debate we should be respectful and loving. Christians must speak the truth in love. They cannot violate 'the second greatest commandment' even when we speak the truth. By the same token, we cannot violate the first greatest commandment just because we want to fake keeping the second. If your keeping of the second--loving your neighbor as yourself--leads you to break the first--loving the Lord our God (and having no other gods before Him) then you should rethink how you keep the second.

As for being bound by "some common desire for seeking God's purposes in a shared world," if we can't even agree who this God is--how can we agree on his purposes? The God of the Bible is a Trinity. This God has a specific name--YHWH--and a specific covenant. Sure we all want to see people live at peace, but the Christian wants more: he longs for the day when Jesus returns and all are united under His Lordship. Sadly this brings consequences for those who reject this Lordship.

More than that--while we must stand for the truth, debate the truth, and proclaim the truth in manners that respectfully interact with other people, the Bible tells us clear that the preaching of Christ crucified is foolish to those who are perishing. If we are seriously proclaiming Christ crucified in this 'dialogue' do we honestly think that people will set aside what they think is foolish in order to 'reach a common understanding'? Either we set aside 'Christ crucified' or they set aside their estimation that at the core the Cross is foolish (or at least unimportant).

The idea of 'trusting in God's mystery' is rather empty. The whole notion of Christianity is the mystery of God is revealed. Yes, we will never know all there is to know about God but in the person of Christ--the fullness of God's revelation--we know enough to know what God is not. certain things that other religions claim. Thus knowing Christ puts us fundamentally at odds with the gods of this age. To shirk on fundamental Christian convictions is to be insincere.

We are connected by a common humanity. There is a 'human nature' that makes us the same at some core level. We often share the same aspirations and emotions.; there is the same image of God in all of us. However, for the non-Christian-they take this image of God and surprise it. There idolatry borrows from the truth to thwart the truth. Even the 'common ground' is not common when we use it to different ends. For the Christian, we believe in the restoration of God's glory in man, through Christ's resurrection. Thus, we bear that glory internally as we see the gospel. If we've moved from light to darkness by God's greatness, we don't dialogue with darkness but herald the light--the gospel message 'Christ crucified.'

I'm all for the kind of engagement that we see in Acts 17 and in the early church, but the modern lingo of 'dialogue' is none of this. To enter into this dialogue when must set aside the notion that the Bible alone is God's Word and the gospel alone saves. It is not humility to set these things aside so we can interact with people--it is the height of human arrogance. Who am I to say to God that because I want to love people--these things don't matter. Not even Jesus took that stance.

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