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Mission and Dialogue: An Analysis of Abrahamic Faith in the Academy

Author: Dyron Daughrity
Published: August 2013

MD 4.2

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

This article analyzes the interrelationship of mission and dialogue.  It discusses the urgency of interreligious dialogue in a hostile world, citing the Shoa (Jewish Holocaust) and 9/11.  It then maps out how Pepperdine University is taking steps to become more dialogical and globally aware.  The important work of Paul Knitter (a Buddhist-Christian) and Lamin Sanneh (a Christian convert from Islam) are juxtaposed as two different approaches to dialogue.  The article concludes with reflections on Father Vincent Donovan’s mission work among the Masai and how it relates to interreligious dialogue in the academy today.

Introduction: The Necessity of Interreligious Understanding

Many professors think their courses should be mandatory for a particular major. Some even believe their courses should be required for the general education curriculum; in other words, all students should take the class. I confess I am not exempt from either of these charges. I believe the study of world religions should be required for a religion degree, and perhaps even considered for inclusion in the larger liberal arts university curriculum. Globalization has brought winds of change to our cities, to our schools, and to our overall national consciousness. It behooves the academy to educate future leaders about other religions, and—perhaps even more importantly at a Christian institution such as Pepperdine—how to think about other world religions and the people who subscribe to them. There is too much at stake if we neglect the topic.

In the past, secular liberal arts universities did not need to think much about world religions. Neither did Christian institutions. The study of Judaism up to the time of Jesus was deemed appropriate due to the importance of Judaism being the foundation upon which Christianity was built. However, rabbinic Judaism after the second or third century petered out in the curriculum. Judaism was frozen in time, a religion that birthed Christianity and slowly ossified since. Naturally, the study of Christianity held center stage once it decoupled itself from its parent. And it all made sense because, after all, how much contact do we actually have with Jews? If we did know Jews, we thought of them as a blast from the past, a relic. But we also thought of them as a living testament to the truth of Christianity. Their mere existence proved that our Christian faith was built on facts, on something that actually existed and still exists. The Bible described these people, and we can now point to them as living proof of our Scripture’s veracity. Unfortunately, these people never took the important step to follow Jesus as Messiah. They were almost where they needed to be—but one more step was necessary. Never mind that we knew little of how Judaism functions today, or the 1900 years of history that transpired between the book of Acts and the founding of the modern state of Israel.

Jews, after all, are a very small group. In 2010 the worldwide Jewish population was estimated to be around 13.4 million people.1 There are actually fewer Jews than there are members of the global Stone-Campbell fellowship, which has around 14 million members.2 With such a small Jewish population, how necessary is it to dialogue with such a tiny faith? My answer to that question would be this: very.

After the holocaust, it was obvious that religious misunderstanding, interreligious strife, and plain ignorance have catastrophic consequences—in this case six million murders. It was clear: we need to know these people. We need to engage them and their beliefs. If nothing else, we need to acknowledge their basic dignity as human beings lest we repeat the atrocities of the past.

Tables were turned however when airplanes full of American passengers plunged into the two largest skyscrapers in the United States of America’s largest city on September 11, 2001. Philip Jenkins takes us back to the day before—September 10, 2001. In the preface of the second edition of his important work The Next Christendom, he pointed out the obvious: we have no choice but to learn about Islam and what its followers believe about us, the world, and God:

For any author, the most traumatic stage of producing a book is the day when he or she returns the final page proofs, because after that no further corrections or additions are possible, and any mistakes are set in stone. I returned the proofs of my first edition on a historic date, which was in fact the last day of the old world—arguably the last day of the twentieth century—namely September 10, 2001. That date explains several features of the original book, including my repeated calls for the need to understand religious influences in politics, to appreciate the dangers of global religious conflicts: not points that need much stressing these days. . . . It is precisely religious changes that are the most significant and even revolutionary, in the contemporary world.3

As Jenkins and other academics were seeing, the study of other religions, particularly Islam, had moved from an afterthought—even in a Christian university—to an imperative. Today, no liberal arts degree plan could be considered up-to-date without at least a basic introduction to the world’s religions somewhere in the curriculum! As we globalize through constant international air travel, increased connectivity through internet, and socio-technological revolutions linked to cell phones, we are realizing the importance of religious literacy.

Paul Knitter: Going Well Beyond COEXISTENCE

My institution, Pepperdine University, has repeatedly emphasized that Christian education must be globally aware. This means a constant dialogue with world cultures must play a central role in how we educate. As a religion professor I have seen great gains in this direction, and I consider myself a participant in the task of globalizing the curriculum.

In my case, the challenge is to introduce students to global themes in the study of religion without creating an army of relativists who shrug their shoulders, put “COEXIST” stickers on their cars, and repeat that tired, pluralist platitude “There are many paths to the top of Mount Fuji,” meaning there are many avenues to God.

While at Abilene Christian University in the late 1990s, I wrote my MA thesis on the pluralist Catholic theologian Paul Knitter and I came away from that exercise agreeing with him in the sense that we need to be in dialogue with people from other faiths. However, I was disenchanted by his conclusion that, essentially, Jesus is one of many names by which we can get to God, or whatever one might call the Supreme Reality and cause of the universe.4 I was not terribly surprised when, in 2009, Paul Knitter admitted to having dual loyalties in his book Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. In the preface, he wrote:

Like many of my theological colleagues, I have come to realize that I have to look beyond the traditional borderlines of Christianity to find something that is vitally, maybe even essentially, important for the job of understanding and living the Christian faith: other religions. . . . I’ve come to be convinced that I have to do my theology—and live my Christian life—dialogically. Or in current theological jargon: I have to be religious interreligiously. . . . But . . . Am I still a Christian? That’s a question I have heard not only from others . . . but one I have felt in my own mind and heart. . . . Am I a Christian? . . . Or have I become a Buddhist who still retains a stock of Christian leftovers? I’ve wanted to write this book in order to find out.5

Neither was I surprised when I read Knitter’s conclusion:

And so I made a big, but also an easy, decision during the summer of 2008 when I was doing the final revisions of this book. . . . After careful consultation with my teacher, Lama John Makransky, I decided to “Take Refuge” and to pronounce the “Bodhisattva Vows” as part of the Dzogchen community in the United States. I was given the Dharma name of Urgyen Menla—Lotus Healer. So it’s official. I am now, you might say, a card-carrying Buddhist. In 1939 I was baptized. In 2008 I took refuge. I can truly call myself what I think I’ve been over these past decades: a Buddhist Christian.6

Knitter finds a satisfying solution to the problem of “the one and the many” in the concept of hybridity:

We’re all hybrids . . . our religious identity is not purebred . . . It’s not singular, it’s plural. We’re constantly changing and we’re changing through the hybridizing process of interacting with others who often are very different from us. . . . But being religious hybrids doesn’t mean that we don’t have an identity. . . . For me, Christ has a certain primacy over Buddha. . . . Even though my primary allegiance is to Christ and the gospel, my Christian experience and beliefs have not dominated nor always had to trump what I learned or experienced through Buddha. . . . And yet, at the end of the day, I go home to Jesus.7

One of Knitter’s students quipped, “Well, it looks like you love both Jesus and Buddha. But you sleep with Jesus.” Reflecting on that student’s observation, Knitter responded, “Uncomfortably inappropriate, the statement is also pretty accurate.”8

With all due respect, and I mean real and deep respect—I know Paul Knitter personally and spent two years researching him—I found his conclusions to fall short with regard to what I hope to foster and encourage in my students at Pepperdine. For example, my “Religions of the World” syllabus has the following statement on the first page:

Understanding the beliefs, texts, rituals, and worldviews of our fellow humans opens up potential for good relations. It is our duty to understand people of other faiths so that we can dialogue, share, and ultimately improve our human communities. It is part of the Christian narrative that we extend basic human dignity and goodwill to all our neighbors, serving them in the name of Christ. By engaging other faiths, we create room for bearing Christian witness.

Similarly, my “Abrahamic Faiths” course statement is resolutely Christian but uncompromisingly committed to a genuinely dialogical approach:

The fundamental connectedness of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is a reality; understanding that reality is a major challenge facing Abrahamic peoples today. This course is an attempt to address the central concern that Abraham’s children—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—will seek to understand one another through dialogue, reconciliation, and respectful engagement. From a Christian perspective, this course upholds Jesus Christ’s principles of agape love and the Golden Rule to be foundational for deeper reflection on these and related themes.

It is entirely reasonable to be committed to Christ while engaged in genuine, transformative dialogue at the same time.

While I am fully aware of Knitter’s hybridization thesis and the fact that many people in the world today have complicated ways of embodying Christian faith—such as Christians in India or in the Arab world who struggle with accusations of being somehow alien upon their conversion to Christ—I cannot imagine encouraging my students to join two separate religions.9 Where does it end? If one is a Hindu-Christian, can she become a Hindu-Christian-Bahá’í? It is a slippery slope and it threatens to morph into outright religious pluralism: “there are many ways to the top of mount Fuji.” The other possible outcome is relativism, which threatens to overwhelm a student at such a sensitive and pivotal moment of life. To me, those conclusions—pluralism and relativism—are incoherent at best and harmful at worst. Imagine the student who takes the idea seriously that he can be a Christian and something else at the same time. Students already struggle with identity; it seems counterproductive to encourage them to experiment with new faiths, rather than fostering their growth and maturity within one.

Filling a 19-year-old’s mind with relativism can potentially backfire into unhealthy skepticism, existential homelessness, and deep angst. These outcomes rarely lead to spiritual health. And spiritual health is precisely what I hope to foster in the lives of my students. Teaching them about world religions is part of my task as a Christian pastor. These students are my flock. With their parents’ direction, they have chosen to come to a Christian university. They know what they have signed up for. And as much as some of them want to resist, deep down they know, and I know, that it is my responsibility to help them through the difficult questions that arise when encountering Allah, Elohim, or Ahura Mazda. It is irresponsible to inundate them with unanswerable questions and abruptly send them on to their next class. My classroom is a rigorous, challenging place, but it is also a sacred space where I practice my vocation, my ministry. I owe it to my students to cut through the fog of relativism and simplistic coexistence platitudes, and into a richer, more informed way of being dialogically Christian.

Lamin Sanneh: The Courage to Dialogue as a Christian

One might ask, “Doesn’t it destroy true dialogue if the non-Christian interlocutor realizes that the Christian has a hidden—that is, evangelistic—agenda?” The answer is absolutely no. People from other faiths respect a Christian who knows who he is, and is not afraid to express himself in the historic Christian way—offering the good news to whomever he encounters. This is especially true in the Muslim-Christian dialogue. There are huge consequences to misunderstanding between these two leviathan faiths at this moment in time. We must break the ice and get to know our Muslim neighbors. With Christianity claiming the allegiance of 33 percent of the human race, and Islam claiming the allegiance of 22 percent, over half the world’s population has a vested interest in this ongoing conversation. Much blood has been spilt in the Muslim-Christian clash, going back to the Islamic conquests, through the Crusades, the fall of Constantinople, the age of colonialism, and now the culture of terrorism and counterterrorism we find ourselves saddled with today.

Thankfully, there are trailblazers in this area who are giving us answers. In the Muslim-Christian encounter, there are few more capable commentators than Lamin Sanneh, an eminent professor of history, African studies, and world Christianity at Yale University. Sanneh’s autobiography—a devout, Muslim boy from a poor, polygamous family in the British colony of Gambia ends up a renowned professor at Aberdeen, Harvard, and Yale—is a captivating story.10 Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh are considered the primary architects of World Christianity, a cutting-edge, rapidly expanding academic discipline that is inspiring conferences, endowed chairs, and centers of research all over the world.11 Sanneh was trained as a scholar of Islam, but he steered his expertise in the direction of critically comparing these two titanic faiths.

Due to his Muslim upbringing and training in Islamic studies, Sanneh makes penetrating insights into the nature of Muslim-Christian dialogue. He argues that Muslims want nothing less than a “vigorous debate” with Christians. In his experiences with Islamic-Christian encounters, he noticed Muslims becoming annoyed by the extreme conciliatoriness of Christians who went

tiptoeing around the differences between the two faiths. It was intriguing that the gentle Christian approach aroused the suspicion of Muslims—it looked to Muslims as if Christians were seeking to smuggle their controversial doctrines under the innocuous cover of dialogue. Muslims were eager to flesh out the issues. Muslims may not naturally know how to engage in dialogue, but they certainly know what dialogue should not be: an exercise in airy politeness.12

Sanneh observes that Christians seem “out of their element” when forced to dialogue with Muslims. They shrink back, unable to defend the notion of a triune God in the face of Islam’s uncompromising monotheism, “leaving sincere Muslim queries unaddressed.”13

Sanneh argues that, typically, Christians think of interreligious engagement as “action programs and community projects” which only sidestep the authentic dialogue about what faith in God means, and how it should be rationally explicated. He writes, “For Muslims truth is not something you can deduce from its indirect expression in actions. Rather, truth is truth by virtue of having its source in God the Exalted.” And here comes the punch: “Muslims are inclined to view Christian action programs as tantamount to Christian retreat from religion, their weak point.” He continues:

They do not understand that for Christians social action is a legitimate outflow of the injunctions of Jesus, an engagement that is grounded in the regard for human beings as made in the image of God. It is instructive to recognize that what looks like retreat from one standpoint is actually a form of faith commitment from another.14

Sanneh’s advice is that Christians honor Muslims with respect and openness. They should not, however, recoil on the tenets of their faith. Muslims see a weakness in Christian witness here. While Christians are happy to converse, and even to work together toward social improvement, they are often caught without a properly informed understanding of what they believe. Muslims do not admire this tendency to ignore doctrinal justifications for why Christians think and act the way they do. Christians should be Christians confidently—literally, from the Latin: con fide, with faith. Christians should take heart and cherish their rich Christian heritage even while engaged in difficult dialogue.

While religious pluralism might reign supreme in our Western cultural zeitgeist, it can breed mistrust amongst Muslims, especially when it is perceived that we are saying “all paths” are equally valid, without any qualification. This type of laissez faire pluralism does not make sense to Muslims and is illogical to more thoughtful Christians. And the question of whether one could possibly be a Muslim and a Christian is preposterous, insincere, even offensive for Muslims. A self-proclaimed Christian who embraces multiple faiths, who has a hidden, secular agenda, or who is a closet relativist, will merely cause the Muslim to want meaningful dialogue with a Christian—a sincere and committed follower of Jesus Christ who walks the historic, orthodox path of discipleship. Christians need to offer up devout and practicing Christians to the table of interreligious dialogue. To do otherwise is to miss our opportunity to share the good news that Jesus Christ is for all, not just for our tribe.

Dialogue is not always fun—to use the dominant adjective of our day—nor is it innocuous, especially with Muslims. There is bad blood: jihads, Crusades, clashing civilizations, land grabs, and a mutual anxiety that continues into the present. The Abrahamic faiths are, on some level, siblings coming from the same patriarch, but sibling rivalry is the worst kind. As reconciliation within families often requires unpacking the issues, similarly, productive dialogue refuses to skirt around the issues of the past that have caused so much pain. We cannot pick at these wounds indefinitely; there must be an end in sight. But it would be naïve to pretend they have forever gone away. Dialogue that is rooted in knowledge, openness, and friendship will function with tenderness, with a listening heart, and with tears when we hear the pain that has been inflicted in the name of God. Tragedy must be acknowledged as a first step towards reconciliation, and reconciliation will only occur when we are honest about the horrors our civilizations have caused.

While the Muslim-Christian dialogue has become more urgent since 9/11, there is still much work to be done in Jewish-Christian understanding. Recently I moderated a session at Pepperdine where we invited two rabbis—Rabbi Judith HaLevy of Malibu and Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA—to come and share with our students about modern Judaism. Ironically, the day they came happened to be the same day of Israel’s national elections. I asked the question of what implications the election might have on Judaism. Both of them immediately lit up, passionately explaining their views on the intertwined nature of Israel’s religion and its politics. Rabbi Seidler-Feller discussed the complex relationship between American Jewry and Israel, “Jerusalem is in my very bones!” At that point Rabbi Judith looked over at me and said, “We should probably stop there; otherwise this issue will dominate the entire night.” I quickly switched the topic to Germany’s circumcision ban—which, wisely, has since been rescinded—and explored issues related to continued anti-Semitism in Europe. There was pain in the rabbis’ voices as they remembered aloud their grandparents’ generation going to the gas chambers. Seidler-Feller exclaimed into his microphone: “We are a traumatized people!” It became clear to me and to those in the audience that the holocaust was not so long ago.

The Crusades, the Jihads, and the Shoa (Jewish Holocaust) are difficult topics, and can prove highly provocative. But responsible interreligious dialogue will eventually get around to them if the dialogue continues long enough. Unfortunately many walk away from dialogue the moment such challenges arise. Conventional wisdom says to let sleeping dogs lie. Perseverance is required to see dialogue through, however. Like family relationships, dialogue should never really end. There will high points and low points. Such is the nature of being patient enough, and courageous enough, to work towards the prize of reconciliation, peace, and shalom.

Trialogical Reconciliation in the Academy: A Case Study

As a professor of religion, my best hope for Abrahamic reconciliation is found in the legacy of my students. In my courses and in my own life, I try to live dialogically, but more importantly, I try to live Christian-ly. My hope is that my courses, lectures, interactions with students, and overall scholarly agenda will open up meaningful, informed conversation with non-Christians in such a way that they might come to understand the “good news” I have to offer. To wind down this essay, I will discuss a few ways I am trying to work and live more dialogically. I will conclude by reflecting on mission as dialogue, citing the work of Father Vincent Donovan.

First, the rhythms of academic life are found in the classroom. The classroom is where I can foster a dialogical outlook and engender principles of mutual respect. At the time of writing this article, I was teaching two courses, “History of Christianity” and “Abrahamic Faiths.” Early in both courses, my lectures attempted to unpack the concept of inspiration in the three Abrahamic religions. Inspiration plays out in different ways in different faiths, at different times, and in the minds and hearts of different interpreters. For example, Christians generally believe that the Old Testament writers were inspired, but the New Testament takes a certain privilege in what we believe and do. The Apostle Peter believed in the inspiration of the Jewish Scriptures, but critical matters had been redefined in light of Christ’s teachings, death, and resurrection. Moses was inspired when he spoke of certain animals being off-limits for food, but the coming of Christ mandated that Christians reinterpret those laws. In addition, Peter sensed God was telling him that Gentiles were as acceptable to God as Jews. Peter’s vision of a sheet full of animals in Acts 10 convinced him that God was revealing new information that changed the way he thought about his faith heritage. No longer were Jews exclusively chosen. Gentiles were welcomed into God’s tent as well. Thus, Christianity’s teachings are to be taken as more recent revelations from God to humankind.

Six centuries later, Muhammad accomplished a similar feat as Peter, but in a different way. Instead of referring to the Qur’an as the fulfillment of Old and New Testaments, he argued that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures were corrupted due to careless copying, poor theology, and half-truths that had been passed down. For example, in the Qur’an, Jesus is not the son of God; he did not even die on the cross. The crucifixion was invented. Jesus was protected from such a brutal, heinous act—far below the dignity of a prophet—and was assumed into heaven directly. Sura 4:155–59 reads:

No! God has sealed them in their disbelief, so they believe only a little—and because they disbelieved and uttered a terrible slander against Mary, and said, “We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.” (They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition: they certainly did not kill him—God raised him up to Himself. God is almighty and wise. There is not one of the People of the Book who will not believe in [Jesus] before his death, and on the Day of Resurrection he will be a witness against them.)15

The gnostic Gospel of Basilides (early second century) argues ideas strikingly similar to the Qur’an on this topic, although it was dismissed by mainstream Christianity as being heretical.16 Gnostic ideas similar to these have been categorized under “the semblance theory,” arguing that while Jesus may have appeared to have been crucified, it was probably someone else such as Simon of Cyrene or Judas. Whatever the case, there can be little doubt that Basilides—or someone with a very similar understanding of Jesus’ death—influenced how early Muslims understood the crucifixion.17

Thus a dialogical starting point has swiftly unfolded, linking the histories of these three faiths, showing how their understandings of interpretation spill over into each other. This example shows how basic events get interpreted between the Abrahamic faiths and even within each faith itself—in this case gnostic versus orthodox renditions of the story. Similarly, with virtually any issue in Christian history, there is a connection to Judaism and Islam: politics, interpretations of monotheism, authority, worship, ethics, architecture, and more. Siblings indeed; the Abrahamic faiths offer three different-yet-vaguely-similar perspectives on virtually any aspect of religious life.

Part of my mission to live dialogically means I will actually get to know people of other faiths, in this case Muslims and Jews. Inviting them to speak in my classes is part of this task, but I should also go out to them. Pepperdine has been extraordinarily helpful in facilitating this goal. In 2010 my provost, Darryl Tippens, connected me with a Turkish Islamic organization so that my wife and I could be their guests in Turkey for two weeks. The friendships we made on that trip and the conversations launched continue to the present day in meals together, shared speaking engagements, and good memories of flying around Turkey while talking about theology. I will never forget one of my Turkish conversations, when someone asked, “If indeed there is only one God, then does that mean we are members of the same religion?” Still, I must pause to think that one through.

Both of our tour guides from that trip have come to Pepperdine to speak and share about Islam. One of them came to my World Religions class and talked about the Muslim holiday Ashure, sharing with us vast servings of “Noah’s Pudding” he and his wife made just for the occasion. Another came to participate in a three-part convocation series for students entitled “The Future of Religion,” dealing with each of the Abrahamic faiths. These young, capable men also connected Pepperdine with Turkish author Mustafa Akyol, author of Islam Without Extremes, who visited and spoke to a packed house.18

Pepperdine has recently established the Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute for Jewish Studies with generous support from the Glazer family.19 This institute is making a difference at Pepperdine. The “Future of Religion” series was the idea of the Institute, and it was a great success as students were introduced to committed, practicing leaders from all three Abrahamic traditions. The Glazer Institute supports student travel to the Holy Land, offers various scholarship programs, supports several staff and faculty to promote Jewish studies and Jewish events at Pepperdine, and they provide grants for professors who integrate Jewish studies into their courses. The Glazer Institute illustrates that while interreligious dialogue generally begins at the grassroots, there is nothing prohibiting effective strategies from a top-down approach. Together, the Glazer family and the Pepperdine administration are creating programs that stimulate and facilitate a culture of dialogue on our campus.

Conclusion: Father Donovan and Mission as Dialogue

I end with an explanation as to why I think dialogue is imperative. It has everything to do with my understanding of the nature of Christian mission. In his book Christianity Rediscovered, Vincent Donovan provides a riveting account of his years (1955–1973) evangelizing the Masai people of East Africa.20 As a Roman Catholic priest, he was trained in method and theory, but found nearly everything he had learned to be wholly inadequate for evangelizing the people with whom he had come to work. During his years of service, Father Donovan realized that the good news would have to be shorn of its Western packaging if it was to make any sense to the Masai. There were implications in doing this, however. He would have to “rediscover” the faith he thought he was familiar with and “jettison the Western hardware and begin from the ground up.” The old missionary model was to bring Enlightenment, meaning “material advancement: . . . schools and literacy, planned development, hospitals and clinics, sanitation, organized nation-states, individual fulfillment.”21 Donovan wanted nothing less than for the Masai to discover the God of the Bible in their own culture, in their own methods, and in their own history. And they did—eventually.

When the Masai were able to be their own missionaries, and when Donovan was able to point out that God had been with them all along and they simply needed to understand God in the light of Christ, the conversion of a culture began. The Masai had to take control, and Donovan had the good sense to allow their own understanding and assimilation of Jesus to come alive, while his understanding of Jesus had to be placed aside. The Masai came to recognize Jesus as Lord, even penning their own “African Creed,” which, Sanneh argues, bears

little sign . . . as there is in the Nicene Creed, of words smelling of the litigious lamp, of the scars of bitter theological battle, of rubbing in the noses of the vanquished, of haunting heresy, or of the West’s twilight mood. Masai ideas of God are not as prickly, and it is as such that they have shaped the outlook of their African Creed.22

I have included that “majestic” creed in its entirety here.23

We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the earth. We have known this High God in the darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the book of his word, the Bible, that he would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good his promise by sending his son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.24

By the end of his work in Africa, Donovan’s mind had completely changed about missions. He came to realize he had rediscovered Christianity. And he would remain, in some sense, a foreigner to his own culture’s understanding of Christianity when he returned home to the United States. His own sister—who nursed him to his death in 2000—wrote the following:

He worked in Africa from 1955 to 1973, and the experience changed him forever. His struggle to honestly present the Christian gospel to people of a different culture caused him to wrestle with his own faith and everything that he had taken for granted about creation, the incarnation, Jesus Christ, the church, priesthood, the sacraments, the Holy Spirit. That struggle never ended.25

It is unnerving to think of having to rediscover Christianity in order to evangelize effectively. However, “it is an eminently logical outcome if you think at the deeper level of the missio dei that lies in the fact of God having preceded missionaries in the mission field.”26

May God guide and bless the Abrahamic trialogue, and may God help us to understand Christ afresh—perhaps even rediscover him—as we bring Jesus to those who do not yet trust in him as Lord of all creation. Amen.

Dyron Daughrity is Associate Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. He is the author of numerous academic publications, including his most recent book Church History: Five Approaches to a Global Discipline (New York: Peter Lang, 2012). He can be reached at:


Abdel Haleem, M. A. S., trans. The Qur’an. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Akyol, Mustafa. Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011.

The Catholic Encyclopedia. 16 vols. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907.

Daniels, Gene. “Worshiping Jesus in the Mosque.” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 22,

DellaPergola, Sergio. World Jewish Population, 2010. Current Jewish Population Reports. Storrs, CT: Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, Jewish Federations of North America, and North American Jewish Data Bank, November 2010.

Donovan, Vincent. Christianity Rediscovered. 25th anniversary ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003.

Jacobs, Lyndsay. “The Stone-Campbell Movement—A Global View.” Leaven: A Journal of Christian Ministry 17, no. 3 (Third Quarter 2009): 141–42,

Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Rev. and exp. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Knitter, Paul. Jesus and the Other Names: Christian Mission and Global Responsibility. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996.

________. No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes toward the World Religions. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985.

________. One Earth, Many Religions: Multifaith Dialogue and Global Responsibility. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995.

________. Without Buddha I Could not Be a Christian. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009.

Lewis, Nicola Denzey. Introduction to “Gnosticism”: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Sanneh, Lamin. Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.

Tennant, Timothy. “The Hidden History of Insider Movements.” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 28,

1 Sergio DellaPergola, World Jewish Population, 2010, Current Jewish Population Reports (Storrs, CT: Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, Jewish Federations of North America, and North American Jewish Data Bank, November 2010).

2 Lyndsay Jacobs, “The Stone-Campbell Movement—A Global View,” Leaven: A Journal of Christian Ministry 17, no. 3 (Third Quarter 2009): 141,

3 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, rev. and exp. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), xi–xii.

4 Paul Knitter, No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes toward the World Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985). See also Paul Knitter, One Earth, Many Religions: Multifaith Dialogue and Global Responsibility (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995) and Paul Knitter, Jesus and the Other Names: Christian Mission and Global Responsibility (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996).

5 Paul Knitter, Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009), xi–xiii. Italics are his.

6 Ibid., 216.

7 Ibid., 214–15.

8 Ibid., 215.

9 Dual religious identity can and does happen, as Gene Daniels addresses in “Worshiping Jesus in the Mosque,” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 22, Daniels’s interview tells the story of a Muslim man who slowly converted to Christ in a profoundly Muslim culture. In that case, and many like it all over the world, it is entirely sensible that a Christian convert move towards Christianity in stages, developing a hybrid identity along the way. This conversation takes us into discussions of syncretism; for example, the conversion of sub-Saharan Africa to Christianity did not occur in a day. However, I believe that eventually the Christian convert will confess the lordship of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Christian Scriptures rather than remaining content with his/her dual identity. See also Timothy Tennant, “The Hidden History of Insider Movements,” Christianity Today 57, no. 1 (January/February 2013): 28,, where he discusses Hindus and Muslims who worship Jesus, yet remain identified in their religious community. These people do not formally join a church community because of the social problems it will create. However, they often maintain exclusive allegiance to Jesus as God.

10 Lamin Sanneh, Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

11 For example, see Edinburgh’s centre at; Boston University’s center at; Yale’s initiative at; and Calvin College’s institute at

12 Sanneh, Summoned from the Margin, 191–92.

13 Ibid., 192.

14 Ibid.

15 Quotations of the Qur’an are taken from M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, trans., The Qur’an (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

16The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 2, s.v. “Basilides,”

17 Nicola Denzey Lewis, Introduction to “Gnosticism”: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 63.

18 Mustafa Akyol, Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011).

20 Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered, 25th Anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003). I am particularly indebted to Lamin Sanneh’s insightful comments at the end of the book, pp. 151–59.

21 Ibid., 156.

22 Ibid., 158.

23Ibid. Sanneh refers to the creed as “majestic.”

24 Ibid., 148.

25 Ibid., 167.

26 Ibid., 157–58.

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