Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 4, no. 2 (August 2013)

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Christian Mission and Interfaith Dialogue (Editorial Preface to the Issue)

John Barton

Dr. Barton is a professor of philosophy and religion and currently serves as the Provost of Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Michigan. He and his family lived and worked in Jinja, Uganda, East Africa, from 1994 to 2002 as part of a church-planting mission team. While in Uganda, he completed a PhD in philosophy at Makerere University in Kampala. Dr. Barton has special interest in the study of world religions and is specifically active in initiatives related to Christian-Muslim interactions. Recent publications include articles in Philosophia Africana, Missiology, and Turkish Review.

How should mission affect interfaith interactions?

This question surfaced in a unique way in the days following the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. On December 16, 2012, two days after the tragic event that claimed the lives of twenty first-graders and six adults, local and national leaders gathered with the traumatized community for a nationally televised, interfaith prayer service. Among others, President Barack Obama and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy participated, along with religious leaders from various denominations and faith traditions. Collectively, they prayed for peace and healing for the world, the nation, the community, and especially the victims and their families. Rev. Rob Morris, the young Lutheran pastor of Newtown’s Christ the King Lutheran Church, who lost one of the members of his congregation in the shooting, led the closing benediction at the prayer service. Within a few days, however, after mounting criticism from members and leaders of his Missouri Synod denomination, Morris offered a public apology for participating. Doing so, it seemed, violated the denomination’s prohibition against “joint worship” with other religions. Many believed that the young pastor’s participation in the multi-faith service unintentionally endorsed false teaching and condoned false religions such as Islam and Bahá’í.1

This was not the first time that such an issue had surfaced in the denomination. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Missouri Synod pastor David Benke participated in the huge interfaith prayer service in Yankee Stadium. It was later determined by denominational leaders that his participation in the service constituted syncretism and a breaking of the First Commandment (“I am the LORD your God”) by worshiping with “pagans” including Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus. In that case, Benke refused to offer the requested apology and was subsequently suspended from ministry for a year. Recently, Benke offered his support for Newtown pastor Morris. He said “I am on the side of giving Christian witness in the public square and not vacating it; if we don’t show up, who can receive our witness?” Significantly, Rev. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and one of the key leaders who had called for Pastor Morris’s apology, actually offered a follow-up apology to Morris and the public for the way he handled the Newtown situation. “I handled it poorly, multiplying the challenges,” he wrote. “I increased the pain of a hurting community.”2

Whatever else can or should be said, this case clearly demonstrates the sensitivity of discussions about Christian mission and interfaith interactions. Challenging and overlapping questions surface such as the following:

  • How should disciples of the Christ interact and work with people from non-Christian religious traditions? What guidance does Scripture provide?
  • To what degree can we share in the religious life of a person whose doctrinal convictions are opposed to our own?
  • Where are the lines to be drawn between authentic witness and compromising syncretism?
  • Must interfaith interactions and friendships involve an evangelistic “end game”?
  • Can we discern the truths of God in non-Christian religious traditions?
  • Is there a moment, in interfaith dialogue, when we should “shake the dust from our feet”? How is that moment discerned?

We would be foolish to think that we can easily untangle the many strands of these questions and provide clear, precise answers that settle all the issues. We would be equally foolish to ignore or evade the questions out of fear or in hope that they will go away. Increasingly, authentic Christian living in today’s global environments requires a wrestling with the realities and implications of religious pluralism.

This issue of Missio Dei addresses issues of mission and interfaith dialogue specifically among the Abrahamic traditions. It does so through a collage of voices and considerations that collectively is more impressionistic than precise. It is hoped that these voices will stimulate thought, challenge assumptions, and provide theological resources as we all seek to discern and faithfully participate in God’s mission in contexts of religious diversity.

The issue begins with four articles of Missional Theology. In the first, Old Testament scholar Paul Watson draws our attention to the wide and complex contours of God’s mission in the Old Testament, balancing the themes of Israel’s distinctiveness with God’s deep concern for “the nations.” Watson explores how these themes inform an understanding of Christian mission in today’s pluralistic world. Next, Rabbi Mark Kinzer provides key excerpts from his groundbreaking book, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism (Brazos, 2005). Kinzer, a leading scholar of Messianic Judaism, offers theological insights for Jewish-Christian relations and identities that are as provocative as they are grounded in a careful reading of Scripture. His conclusions concerning an understanding of church identity and mission will be “unsettling” to some, but he provides a unique and faithful voice that should be taken seriously. In the article that follows, I consider Christian-Muslim interactions and provide an exploration of the faith’s “substantial similarities and irreconcilable differences.” By comparing and contrasting the contributions to Christian-Muslim dialogue offered by Yale’s Miroslav Volf and Lipscomb’s Lee Camp, I seek to provide tools to help us faithfully and lovingly navigate the issues. In the final installment in this section, Kyle Holton provides a challenging and potentially controversial look at the much-debated issue of “insider movements.” Based on his own long-term ministry in Muslim-majority areas of Mozambique and his critique of John Travis’s influential classification system for assessing insider movements, Holton seeks to “cut through Western classifications” and “(de)franchise” missions through an event-oriented understanding of faith and hospitality. While not all will agree with his conclusions, the article brings a level of insight and critique that is needed in these delicate and important discussions.

Three contributions form the section on Missional Praxis. In “Mission and Dialogue: An Analysis of Abrahamic Faith in the Academy,” Pepperdine professor Dyron Daughrity analyzes the interrelationship of mission and dialogue. Through a comparative analysis of thinkers such as Paul Knitter, Lamin Sanneh, and Father Vincent Donovan, Daughrity explores these issues in the context of his own work and interfaith developments at Pepperdine University. In a similar vein, professor Keith Huey describes what he calls a “Laboratory for Christian-Muslim Dialogue” currently taking place at Rochester College. The laboratory is in the form of a class co-taught by Christian and Muslim professors seeking not only to analyze interfaith dialogue but to practice it in the educational community. Huey describes the challenge of such an experiment, and the kinds of growth and frustration that the mostly Christian students experience as they seek to understand Islam and practice dialogue. In the end, Huey proposes that such processes challenge and clarify faith convictions and are mutually beneficial to those of both faith traditions. Next is an excerpt from Lee Camp’s important book Who Is My Enemy (Brazos, 2011). The excerpt explores the significance of shared hospitality and the way the hospitable kindness of some Muslim hosts informed and helped frame Camp’s own reflections on interfaith dialogue.

The Reflections section includes interviews of two significant Christian leaders of interfaith initiatives. Brad East, a PhD student at Yale University, interviews Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School whose ground-breaking work in Muslim-Christian interactions is reflected in several places in this issue. The interview provides insight into the development of Volf’s thinking since the publication of his book Allah: A Christian Response (HarperOne, 2011). In addition, Sara Barton of Rochester College interviews Lynne Hybels, author and co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church, whose reconciliation efforts among Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land reminds us not only of the fragile difficulties of such work, but also the call for all of us to be ministers of reconciliation who embody humility and practice the disciplines of listening and prayer. The section also includes a piece by Alan Howell not directly related to interfaith discussions but relevant for cross-cultural ministry in general.

Finally, the issue concludes with a section of Book Reviews. Josh Graves, author and lead minister at the Otter Creek Church in Nashville, reviews Carl Raschke’s provocative book GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn (Baker Academic, 2008), which, among other things, offers a reading of Muslim-Christian interactions, and Ben Howard reviews Graves’s most recent book, Tearing Down the Walls (Self-published, 2013), which analyzes the relationship between Christians and Muslims in the United States. The section also includes reviews of Dyron Daughrity’s Church History: Five Approaches to a Global Discipline (Peter Lang, 2012) and Fujino, Sisk, and Casiño’s edited volume Reaching the City: Reflections on Urban Mission for the Twenty-First Century (William Carey, 2013).

Through these various articles, reflections, and reviews, we hope to provide challenge and inspiration that assists and guides as we all seek to understand and embrace God’s mission, Soli Deo Gloria.

1 Sharon Otterman, “Pastor Apologizes to His Denomination for Role in Sandy Hook Interfaith Service,” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/08/nyregion/lutheran-pastor-explains-role-in-sandy-hook-interfaith-service.html?_r=0.