Theology

Yes AND No: On Christian Engagement with Other Religions

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“[Christians and Muslims] worship the same God.”

These words on a Facebook post by a Wheaton College professor, Larycia Hawkins, whose main aim appears to have been a demonstration of solidarity with Muslims (by wearing a hijab during Advent) in a time when Muslims are increasingly being demonized in the US, have caused much uproar whose ripples have reached far outside the relatively small world of North American evangelicalism (see the latest issue of Time).

Since then, Wheaton administration has recommended Dr. Hawkins’s employment be terminated, and Wheaton faculty council has asked the administration to withdraw its recommendation.

The Real Need: Deeper Theology

I have friends on both sides of this controversy, having graduated from Wheaton myself a few years ago, so I have personal and relational connections to this event, and like many others I will be observing with concern and prayer as this story unfolds. But more broadly, as someone who is very much interested in the advance of Christ’s mission in the US, I see the Wheaton/Hawkins controversy as serving to highlight the urgent and vital need for Christians in the US to develop a deeper theology of religions, and of our engagement with other religions — in this case, Islam.

Missiologists have called this field of study “Elenctics,” and although it used to be of interest only to missionaries and academics operating “out there,” in the foreign mission fields, current events have shown us that the conceptual divide between foreign missions and home missions no longer holds.

The missiologist J. H. Bavinck wrote The Church Between Temple and Mosque many years ago, drawing largely from his missionary experience in Indonesia. That church (between temple and mosque) exists now not only in Southeast Asia, but also in United States and Europe, former hearts of the late Christendom. If that church is going to be faithful to the mission of Christ, we had better get up to speed quickly. (A side appeal: Eerdmans, if you are reading this, please bring this book back into print. We continue to learn from Bavinck’s insights for our challenges today.)

Culture War: A Stumbling Block

A great stumbling block to a better understanding of the issues has been a usual culprit — the culture war. Writing as one of the numerous missiologists and missionaries with a wealth of field experience weighing in on the Wheaton/Hawkins controversy in a special edition of Evangelical Missiological Society’s Occasional Bulletin, Brian Howell, an anthropologist at Wheaton College, commented that the controversy has become “something of a Rorschach test” for evangelicals on either side of the culture war divide. (See his article, “Wheaton College, One God, and Muslim-Christian Dialog: The Recent Past and the Difficult Present” in the Bulletin — I highly recommend reading the entire issue, but Christianity Today has also provided a nice summary.)

For some it is further evidence of the narrow-minded, culturally- and racially-myopic nature of US evangelicalism, sliding into irrelevancy. For others, it is a case of an institution standing up to the forces of liberalism and pluralism that would devalue the truth-claims of the gospel and Christian theological distinctives in the name of tolerance.

The fog of culture war can derail the Church from its mission to be a faithful gospel witness among the nations and their religions, including Islam.

Robert Priest, who edits the Occasional Bulletin, sought to provide some clarity by asking the writers to stick to the question, “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” Although there are disagreements as to degrees of emphasis, the various writers broadly agree that the proper answer should be both “Yes” and “No,” which doesn’t fit nicely into a liberal-conservative binary framework.

Faithfulness to the gospel mission demands we hold both “yes” & “no” at the same time. Click To Tweet

However, faithfulness to the gospel mission seems to demand that we must hold to both “yes” and “no” at the same time, and resist answering only “yes” or only “no.” Put another way, a faithful gospel witness and engagement with other religions will always be both affirmation and confrontation of other religions, at the same time.

“Yes.” (Universal Religious Consciousness)

Calling God Allah?

Muslims are not only generally monotheistic, they claim to worship the God of Abraham specifically. I won’t go into all the details of how the God of the Muslims shares the same characteristics as the God of Jews and Christians — for instance, in his justice, mercy and love; in his unique identity as the Creator of all things; and his covenantal nature of revealing himself to humankind and entering into a relationship with them. Nor can I talk in detail about how Christianity and Islam share many of the same stories — of Abraham, of Moses, and even indeed of Jesus (though it is precisely here that we find our core differences). When Muslims say “Allah” and Christians say “God,” we are both referring to the Creator God, who alone is God over all.

As a related aside, it is not helpful for Christians to repeat the “Allah is a moon god” trope. (See Rick Brown’s 2006 article, “Who is ‘Allah’?” here.) It is simply not accurate, and only serves to offend Muslims. If Christians want Muslims to understand that we do not worship three gods, then we also need to do them the service of understanding their theology accurately.

If Christians want Muslims to understand our theology, we also need to understand theirs. Click To Tweet

Indeed, Arabic-speaking Christians call God Allah. That may be jarring to modern day US Christians (who tend to think of Allah as “the god of Islam”), but the term existed in the Arabic world long before Islam arrived on the scene, and it is the Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew word Elohim. Today, Arabic Bibles call God of Christianity Allah.

Can Christians call God Allah? They already do, and have been for millennia. This in spite of efforts in some Muslim societies to outlaw Christians there from calling God Allah. Could it be that present Christian efforts to marginalize the Muslims in US might mirror these Muslim efforts to marginalize Christians there, stoking religious tensions that only end up obscuring the gospel message and undermining the mission of Christ?

Can Christians call God Allah? They already do, and have been for millennia. Click To Tweet

Whenever the gospel entered new contexts, Christians wrestled with how best to communicate the truth of the gospel that not only utilized pre-existent religious forms and concepts, but also in a way that avoided imposing a foreign religion and culture. Thus, missionaries in Korea took a pre-Christian term already present in the Korean religious mindset, Hanulnim (which literally means Sky), and reworked it to Hananim (which means One). This became the name for God in Korean. Our own English word, and the related German word Gott, have pre-Christian, pagan roots.

Why Christians Can Use Various Names for God

Christians can do this because they believe that the God and Father of Jesus Christ is the God of all nations and cultures, not simply a tribal deity, and he has revealed himself in every human context and heart — including within other religions. Theologians have termed this general revelation, and while it is limited in scope (for instance, it does not tell us about God’s work of redemption in Christ), general revelation is sufficient witness to God’s being and his call on us to worship him (see Romans 1:18–20). Or, to use Calvin’s words, every bearer of God’s image have within him or her a sensus divinitatis by which God reveals himself and sends out a call for his creation to come back home. This general revelation cannot simply be dismissed as hopelessly marred by the noetic effects of sin. Rather, it provides a constellation of starting points, or a treasury of raw materials, for Christian witness.

Studies of various religions have supported this. For instance, many folk religions around the world, though their day to day religious dealings have to do with lesser spirits, nevertheless have within their mythos a concept of a High God who has gone far away from human affairs. Missionaries have identified this High God as the God the Father of Jesus Christ as they sought to bring the gospel message to these cultures. The High God has drawn near to us through his Son.

Paul himself showed us the way in Athens (Acts 17). At the Areopagus, he utilized the altar to the Unknown God (a god of the Greek pagan pantheon) and proclaimed that this Unknown God was the God who has once and for all revealed himself in Jesus Christ. He also utilized quotes from the pagan religious poems — the quote “We are his offspring” comes from Aratus who was originally referring not to YHWH of Israel, but to Zeus.

'We are his offspring' comes from Aratus who was referring to Zeus. Click To Tweet

May we not follow his lead and seek out ways to engage with Muslims and others with confidence that they too have reliable enough knowledge of God within their own religious thought and culture that we can work with in order to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ within their own worlds?

The “S” Word: Syncretism

However, someone will say, doesn’t all of this affirmation of Islam and other religions lead to syncretism, heresy, a denial of the gospel message which claims that salvation is found in no other name but Christ’s? Isn’t this just another way we are compromising with the spirit of our age that devolves into relativism and tyranny of political correctness at the expense of the unique Christian message?

In order to answer, we need to move onto the other side of the scale — to the “no” side. But let me first observe that US evangelicals have syncretism problems of our own. Syncrestim doesn’t go away simply because we belong to the “right” camp or subscribe to the most watertight system of doctrines. It is an ever-present human condition that also affects Christians from which ultimately Christ redeems us and we, like Muslims or adherents of other religions, need to look to Christ for rescue.

“No.” (Christ the Destination)

Biblical witness portrays a Christ who makes an exclusive claim as Lord over all nations. He does not claim to simply be the Messiah of the Jews but the final and authoritative revelation of God to every nation and the Second Adam of new creation. There simply is no other Lord but Christ. This is where we depart from Islam and other religions. As the writer of Hebrews says, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” (1:1–2)

Therefore, Christ is the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of every religious adherent everywhere. Insofar as Islam (or, for that matter, Christianity itself) fails to lead people to Christ, it fails as a religion, for the demands and longings of the religious consciousness present in every religion and human heart cannot be met by anyone other than Christ. Every religious endeavor must be judged by how it has led people to Christ, the ultimate destination of all religious pilgrimages and fulfillment of all religious longings.

Christ is the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of every religious adherent everywhere. Click To Tweet

Such a claim, of course, runs counter to a Post-Enlightenment notion that all religions are essentially the same, an idea that looms heavily over the Wheaton/Hawkins controversy. “There are many paths up the mountain” serves as a reference point for both those who say “Yes” as well as those who say “No.”

Yet, the universal claim of Christ transcends and relativizes our quibbles over which camp possesses the truth (and therefore the rightful religious authority). Christ is not merely Lord of Christians, he is Lord of every culture and people groups throughout all history. We see God’s glory properly only through the revelation we have in Christ.

This claim also will not submit to the demands of Western liberal thought that all the religions behave themselves and collapse their differences into a universal religion and ethos shaped by Eurocentric rationalism. Many have already noted that such an approach is paternalistic imperialism, in spite of prima facie protests to the contrary.

Instead, we must say both “Yes” and “No.” For instance, Paul, speaking to new Christians in regard to Judaism and its religious rituals, said this: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Col. 2:16–17) Judaism as a religion served its purpose as a sign pointing to its Messiah who is also Lord of all creation. Jesus, similarly, took forms of Judaism and filled them with new meaning, namely himself. He did this all the time — for instance, the Passover meal became a memorial of the new covenant mediated through his body and his blood. Could we speak similarly about Muslim prayers, fasts, and pilgrimages — that they are a shadow of the reality, which is Christ?

Connecting the Dots

You will notice that my language is different from a Christianity vs. Islam paradigm, a clash of religions locked in a struggle for domination. Such a view does not take the need for growth and discipleship within Christianity itself seriously enough, nor does it account for the danger of cultural chauvinism or religious imperialism — of which Two-Thirds World Christians are all too aware. Rather, faithful and wise communicators of the gospel message will connect the dots — whether they are dots within the Muslim world or within the context of Christendom — and show how the lines lead all to Christ. Harvie Conn said as much back in 1978, speaking of Muslims who came to profess faith in Christ: “We must look for a verbal equivalent similar to the Jews for Jesus movement who speak… of being ‘completed in Christ.’” (“The Muslim Convert and His Culture,” in The Gospel and Islam: A 1978 Compendium, ed. Don M. McCurry [Monrovia: MARC, 1979], page 108)

In order to describe this idea, we could perhaps borrow a term from my friends in biblical studies, Douglas Green and others, and speak of a Christotelic theology of religions — the telos of our universal religious consciousness is none other than Jesus of Nazareth who died on the cross and was raised to redeem all creation.

I say all this with an eye towards significant developments in the Islamic world. Lost among the news stories of extremists like ISIS and humanitarian disasters in the Middle East is a tectonic shift that missiologists are struggling to understand — mass movements of Muslims coming to faith in Christ. This has been documented by David Garrison in his Wind in the House of Islam (WIGTake Resources, 2014), and it should force those who have grown up in Christendom to re-examine everything. For many of these new followers of Christ came to faith not through the traditional missionary efforts of Christendom or its children, but quite apart from them. Many do not identify as “Christians” but rather as “Muslim followers of Christ.” (My colleague Stephen Taylor wrote a very helpful piece on the “Insider Movement” a couple of years back, which you can find here. Those who want to delve further into this topic need to read the seminal compendium, Understanding Insider Movements, ed. Harley Talman and John Jay Travis [Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2015].)

Could it be that we are finding in our day and age an echo of developments that led to the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, who came to recognize and affirm a new movement of God’s Spirit whose covenantal people now included Gentiles?

Uncharted Territory

This blog post has become far too long, and I have raised more questions than given answers. I have simply sought to sketch out some of the terrain ahead for us as those who follow Christ in Post-Christendom now encounter Muslims and adherents of other religions. It is uncharted territory, and we will most certainly make numerous wrong turns, but we must be confident that the Lord of all nations is sovereign and will guide us. For the journey ahead, we will need courage, not simply prudence.

One final note as I think of my alma mater. My hope is that the current throes at Wheaton prove to be the pains of childbirth, leading to a deepening theology of the missio dei at work among the world’s religions and cultures that equips the Church to more faithfully engage our neighbors for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.

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