Posted by: Alex | December 28, 2011

Evangelicalism and Inter-Religious Dialogue

This is sure to be a controversial topic amongst this group of people, but that makes it all the more worth raising, right?

Every semester Yale Divinity School publishes a peer-reviewed journal of student papers from several major divinity schools called Glossolalia, and in the most recent edition there was a very interesting article about inter-religious dialogue and evangelicalism.

You can read the article here (opens as .pdf).  It is fairly long, so I’ll provide a brief summary.  The author’s argument is that evangelicalism has traditionally not participated in inter-religious dialogue for a few major reasons.  One reason is that inter-religious dialogue has traditionally been a product of a “classical liberalism” which assumed that a common core amongst religions could be found through such dialogue.  To evangelicals, this process seemed to be a betrayal of Christian orthodoxy because it often led to the jettisoning of distinctive Christian doctrines such as the trinity or deity of Christ.  Another reason evangelicals have avoided inter-religious dialogue is because evangelicalism is committed to what the author calls “rationalistic epistemological foundationalism.”  Essentially what this amounts to is a belief that with the proper epistemological starting point a case can be made for the objective truth of evangelicalism’s conception of God and religion and thus all other religions can be demonstrated to be false.  Finally, evangelicals have avoided inter-religious dialogue because evangelicalism generally holds to an “exclusive” or “particularist” soteriology which claims conversion to evangelical Christianity as a prerequisite for salvation.  The implication of this is that dialogue which is not aimed at conversion would be for the evangelical pointless.  Given these barriers to inter-religious dialogue in traditional evangelicalism, the author goes on to argue that the Post-Liberal movement in theology opens up a new possibility for inter-religious dialogue by overturning some of these barriers.  In particular, post-liberalism abandons “rationalistic epistemological foundationalism” for a more perspectival view of religious knowledge claims which would see particular systems of religious belief as “narratives” or “languages” within which their adherents operate.  Inter-religious dialogue then becomes a process of sharing these particular narratives and languages and not one of seeking a common core.  While this process may certainly allow for a reasoned defense of one’s own religious system, it does not necessarily lead to an emphasis on conversion so much as mutual understanding.

There are a lot of issues raised by this article.  While some sectors of evangelicalism (such as the emergent/ing church) might be embracing a kind of post-liberal paradigm, it seems to me that there is also a resurgence of more “traditional” evangelicalism happening in the evangelical community (via the neo-reformed movement, for instance).  The author expresses some frustration at the control of evangelical media by neo-reformed theologians.  Even though I am inclined to agree with the author, the question is worth asking: is the goal of inter-religious dialogue meaningful enough to evangelicalism to warrant the approach to religious “language” that the author suggests?  Further, is this an issue which evangelicalism as a whole can embrace or does this represent a fundamental splitting of evangelicalism which cannot be healed?  Does evangelicalism necessitate a commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy, “rationalistic epistemological foundationalism,” and evangelical conversion as traditional evangelicalism has held or can these stances be overturned and the result still be called evangelicalism?

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