More than a mutual sharing of good gifts

Brian McLaren offered a blog post last week in which he shared his response to a question from a Hindu friend regarding the place of proselytism in a multi-faith world. His post has been running in the back of my thoughts for a couple days now.

McLaren suggested that there is a difference between proselytism and evangelism. Proselytism is where some “actively recruit people from other religions to defect from those religions and join their own.” Evangelism, with its missional character is concerned with the common good and, in it’s original sense (distinguished in his post from “the traditional sense of demanding conversion with the threat of eternal damnation”), occurs as “each religion is encouraged to bring its good news – its message about the common good, its transferable wisdom, its treasures to be shared.”

I appreciate much in McLaren’s response, including the fact that he provides a “response” instead of an “answer” to his friend’s question. To his credit, McLaren is opposed to the imposition of Christianity on others through coercive means, like the ones employed when some expressions of Christian mission shared a common imperialistic and paternalistic vision with colonial powers. His humility in calling for the recognition of the divisiveness and brokenness within each religious tradition further distinguishes his approach as moving in a beneficial direction. If for nothing else, his simple willingness to engage this kind of conversation is worth encouraging. We need more Christians to recognize the complexities of being evangelistic in a religiously and culturally pluralistic world. Yet, in reading McLaren’s response, I am left with a few lingering thoughts.

The first is whether being evangelistic in a Christian manner can be simply a mutual sharing of good gifts with other religious traditions. McLaren suggests that each tradition bring the gifts and the good news of their particular tradition into dialogue with one another so that we can learn from each other. My concern is not with this approach; there is certainly room and necessity for interfaith conversations from a Christian perspective. Rather, what strikes me as askew in McLaren’s response is how the evangelistic character of Christianity is reduced to only the sharing of the tradition’s good gifts in this manner.

It seems to me that the evangelistic character of Christianity is more than a sharing of stories and gifts. It is a humble participation in the cosmic transformation being brought about as God reconciles all things in Jesus Christ. As such, the evangelistic character of Christianity cannot be limited to the mutual sharing of good gifts among various religious traditions. Instead, Christian participation in interfaith sharing of good gifts becomes one expression of its evangelistic character. A full expression of Christianity’s evangelistic character also embodies intensely political, social, and economic implications that at times prophetically critique and defy powers that are asserting themselves over against the flourishing of life envisioned and realized in the shalom of God’s present and still-coming kingdom. The good gift of the embodied declaration that “Jesus is Lord” which Christianity has to offer to the rest of the cosmos will not rest easily as simply one gift among many others at a table of interfaith dialogue.

My second lingering thought lies in an assumption that seems present in McLaren’s response: namely, that other religions desire to participate and conform to the evangelistic character of the interfaith dialogue McLaren envisions. Is “sharing good gifts” around an interfaith table a concept that is inherent within other religions? For which religious tradition is such a practice of dialogue integral to the practice of that faith? Is it possible that the concept of interfaith dialogue presented in McLaren’s post is an imposition of pragmatic humanism (“we live in a pluralistic world and we need to figure out a way to survive together”) upon religious traditions that are unconcerned with (or possibly, bent against) the well-being of other religious traditions?

My other lingering thought is in relationship to the language of the common good. I am not ready to say that interfaith dialogue is impossible because the categories, stories, and means of depicting common good might be too distinct from each other to be intelligible across religious traditions. However, I am willing to say that the possibility exists that a vision of the common good in one religious tradition may very well be incompatible with another tradition’s understanding of the common good. What do we do when those visions of common good are in conflict with one another? There is consistent testimony in the Christian narrative that conflict of this sort is to be expected. John goes so far to represent Jesus as saying that “the world will hate you” because you are his disciple. Sharing stories and wisdom about visions of common good operates on an assumption that in fact the common good is found in the sharing of such stories. And such an assumption cannot offer direction on how to respond to conflict among visions other than to demand toleration of all visions.

The challenge of Christian evangelistic witness then is not whether a Christian vision of common good can be expressed among other visions. Rather, the challenge is what to do when that Christian vision is incompatible with other religious visions of common good. The violent, coercive patterns of evangelism that we’ve known all too well in recent history are not an option. But reducing the evangelistic character of Christianity to simply a sharing of stories about inter-religious visions of common good does not seem to do justice to the gospel either.

Something else is needed in the presence of those who embrace a narrative other than a Christian story. I wonder what it could look like to have an embodied response that avoids both gospel-denying abuses of power and gospel-reducing assent to an artificially imposed toleration of all visions of common good. If “Jesus is Lord” conflict is going to happen, what does the evangelistic character of Christianity look like when it does?

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