In some missiological circles, if ‘evangelism’ is a ‘boo word’, then ‘interfaith dialogue’ is a ‘hooray word’. Evangelism is so one-way, so high-and-mighty, so two centuries ago. Interfaith dialogue doesn’t assume one ‘faith’ is better or more enlightened than another; nor does it mean that one is telling the other, for it is an attempt at a two-way mutual sharing, and its aim of ‘mutual understanding’ sounds so much better than the ‘conversion’ of another.
I guess Elijah’s encounter on Mount Carmel with the prophets of Baal wouldn’t be a ‘prooftext’ for such dialogues, nor would Jesus’ uncomfortable words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6).
But notwithstanding those pretty formidable apparent opponents to the process, dialogue is certainly the word that is most amenable to the current western environment, which still wishes to push the Enlightenment myth that the west still holds to ‘tolerance’ as one of its core values. That is the arena in which we westerners are seeking to proclaim the gospel (which, just to set the record straight, certainly aims at conversion of the most radical kind).
Pragmatically, why would Christians be involved in dialogue? It is certainly always worthwhile for human beings to chat together with the aim of mutual understanding, and to clarify misunderstandings. Christians are well aware of the misunderstandings and, well, downright lies that are often circulated about our faith—even, dare I say it, by the champions of ‘tolerance’. Why would we expect that other ‘faiths’ come off any better in their hands? Surely it is right and proper—especially for people who, at least, share a common view that the world is more than what can be experienced by the senses—to get together to mutually clarify positions and strip away the lies.
But if the gospel is about conversion, why would Christians (who believe in conversion) be involved in dialogue? It may be wrongheaded to even ask the ‘win-lose’ question of such a neutral-sounding cooperative activity, but if we can ask such questions for the moment, does dialogue actually put the Christian mission at risk? For is such an encounter ‘won’ or ‘lost’, depending upon who has the best kind of rhetoric,argument or emotional connection with the listeners?
This is where we have to move beyond mere pragmatics to theology. Conversion is not a human activity; it arises from God turning the heart of a person to himself, and so away from his/her former manner of life. The way that God has chosen to bring about this turning is simple: it’s the gospel, which (as we should never tire of saying) is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16).
Here is a profound reason for Christians (who believe in conversion) to be involved in dialogue: a dialogue of any kind provides the opportunity to talk with another group of human beings about serious, life and death, God-kind of issues. It provides the opportunity to clarify what is not the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to restate what that gospel actually is. And as that simple statement of the truth is launched into yet another human context, then it will do its powerful work in the hearts of the hearers. No manipulation. No forceful arguments. No attempt to get the better of the ‘opponent’. Nothing from us, except the simple and straightforward presentation of the truth (2 Cor 4:2).
Then, once it is unleashed just one more time, watch the world turn upside down yet again.