Dialogue Without Compromise Is Possible By Robert D. Hughes and A. Wayne Schwab

The Living Church, May 30, 1993

As our world gets smaller, more people of other faiths become our neighbors.  Can we engage in open dialogue with persons of other faiths without compromising our own?  The answer is yes.  In fact, many people see respectful dialogue with people of other faiths as the most effective means of evangelism there is.  Our basis for advocating this approach goes like this:

A Christian enters the dialogue freely, affirming the unique identity of Jesus.  The credal affirmation is that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God…”  We affirm that for us humans, the only true and full incarnation of God the Word, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is Jesus of Nazareth.  To water down such a forthright stance is to avoid genuine dialogue.  The Christian position would be no more on the table than the Islamic position if its representative were prepared to abandon the claim that Mohammed is a true prophet of God.

Many Christians fear dialogue because they assume they must, to be faithful, affirm Jesus Christ as the only mediator of salvation and revelation. For them, evangelism has nothing to say when it does not claim this exclusiveness for Jesus. For them, therefore, genuine interfaith dialogue is not a means of evangelism, and indeed is impossible.

In odd agreement with this group are those like John Hick and Paul Knitter.  In The Myths of Christian Uniqueness (Orbis, 1987) they argue that for interfaith dialogue to be genuine, Christians must abandon the claims for Jesus’ uniqueness and universal significance.  Their difference from the first group is they think that is worth doing.

We believe both positions make a fundamental error by confusing uniqueness and universality with exclusivity.  We believe one can assert the gospel claims for Jesus within a genuine, open, mutually
respectful dialogue with persons of other faiths, acknowledging that grace and salvation may also be present in their traditions.

The claim that Jesus is unique is the claim that there has been no other human incarnation of God in history.  The individual Christian’s grasp of the Incarnate Word is partial and so is the church’s grasp of the Incarnate Word.  That is why we need to be in dialogue.  One can leave a dialogue with one of another faith saying, “My! I had not seen that!”  To do so is to recognize that the Word has other modes of operation than incarnation, and that the presence and work of the Holy Spirit are not limited to the people of the Christian covenant.

The first chapter of John’s gospel speaks of the Word, or the light incarnate in Jesus, as that which enlightens every human being who comes into the world. St. Paul, in Romans 1:18ff., also affirms
the revelation of God to all humanity.  Thus, a Christian can claim the uniqueness of Christ and still entertain the possibility that, in interfaith dialogue, one will recognize grace and salvation in other faiths.

Having Discernment

David Lochhead says the usual error lies in thinking one can decide in advance of the dialogue  whether one will find grace and salvation in another religion or not (The Dialogical Imperative: A Christian Reflection on Interfaith Encounter, Orbis, 1988.)   He says, rather, that the presence of grace and salvation in another religion can be discerned only by experience — Christians using Christian principles for discernment.

Only in respect to Judaism can one say in advance of the dialogue, whether or not grace and salvation can be found there.  Here again, Paul is our guide.  The covenant with Israel stands.  It has not been set aside, abrogated or superseded (Romans 11).  Christianity is theologically committed to the validity of Judaism.

To put it briefly, a Christian does not enter dialogue prepared to dismiss the claim of the gospel that Jesus Christ is the unique incarnation of God in human history.  Rather, one enters the dialogue consciously committed to Jesus Christ as God’s unique self-revelation.  In the same way, we affirm that the “work of Christ” — his life, teachings, cross and resurrection — are necessary for human
salvation and thus of universal significance, without saying this work is effective only where explicitly named, and without saying that there is in another religion no possibility of grace and salvation unique to it.

We affirm, then, the truth of John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.”  But we recognize that its context is John 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many rooms.”  The person and work of Jesus Christ are essential elements in the story of God’s history with humanity, but they are not the whole story.  The uniqueness and universality of Jesus and his work need not and cannot be abandoned in interfaith dialogue.  While a Christian has much to learn from a non-Christian, a Christian does not lapse into a relativism which says anything goes.

It is well to note how easy it is to confuse inclusivity, pluralism and relativism.  Inclusivity means everybody is welcome.  However, inclusivity also names the basis on which people are included.  Pluralism means we recognize that all human approaches to truth are partial.  However, pluralism does not preclude judgments between the various approaches or deny that truth does exist.  Some approaches may be more complete than others.  Relativism denies there is any absolute truth on which to base judgments between various approaches.

Christians point to the open arms of Jesus Christ, ready to receive and include all who will come to him as the unique incarnation of God in human history.  They are welcome to bring with them all that is true from their own traditions as gifts which we shall gratefully receive in turn.  And this is, indeed, a healthy and dialogical evangelism.

[The Rev. Robert D. Hughes, III, is professor of systematic theology at the School of Theology of the University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn., and the Rev. A. Wayne Schwab is evangelism officer of the Episcopal Church.]