In North America we are on the brink of interfaith living. This fact we cannot deny or avoid. The only uncertainty lies in whether it will be helpful or hurtful. Only those living in a Christian ghetto will be able to retreat from this issue–but the retreat is only temporary. Even small town, rural America is being challenged by religious pluralism. On a recent trip through rural Texas I drove through a town of 1500 and noticed that next to Christ’s Haven for Children, there looms in the distance a distinctly different structure, a Buddhist Temple. That this is occurring near "the Buckle of the Bible Belt" demonstrates the pervasiveness of this new religious reality.
Global living has elevated dialogue as the means by which we engage other cultures and religions. I celebrate the increase in exchange and learning, but there is a fundamental supposition that causes me concern. Dialogue is viewed as an open invitation to engage the other, the different. But is dialogue optional? I believe that a biblical theology of dialogue would have to answer resolutely, "No!" We, the Christian community, carry with us a dialogical imperative.
David Tracy has concluded that "Dialogue among the religions is no longer a luxury but a theological necessity (95). Though his final conclusion is valid, the assumption that dialogue was ever a luxury is deficient. Dialogue has never been an optional activity for theology. At the center of all proper theological thinking and praxis is dialogue; or one could say, there is no theology or missiology without dialogue. The basis for this flows from an incarnational theology reminding us that "The knowledge of Christ never comes to us apart from culture, or devoid of any cultural baggage. Christ comes to us in the garb of Christianity; and Christianity, in all its various forms, already involves an inculturation of the faith…. A Christ without culture is a docetic, non-incarnate Christ" (Gonzalez, 30).
The richness of this supposition is that the very thing that separates and often divides us, namely culture (and religion), becomes the basis from which the gospel is unfolded to us. This should lead us to seek out, dialogue with, and learn from other cultures because it gives us continuing opportunity to discover the fullness of the gospel. The potential distortion of the gospel always looms close if cultural and religious monologue prevail. Therefore we must ever hold as primary the unfolding of the gospel as dialogue between cultures, including their religious dimension. Just as "the Word became flesh," so too the gospel is "in the flesh" we call the Gospels. Therefore, minimally, dialogue represents the engagement between the culture in which the story of Christ is found and the culture from within which we seek to receive it.
This has special import for those who view dialogue of the interfaith variety as a betrayal of christological orthodoxy. Dialogue emanating from an incarnational theology upholds the Chalcedonian formula of Jesus Christ being "very God and very man." Unfortunately, many have sensed a forced choice between interfaith dialogue and faithfulness to Christ. Taking incarnational theology seriously compels us to engage in dialogue knowing that by doing so we are not abandoning our orthodoxy, rather we are living it out.
Having said this, I know that many will still feel reticent to embrace dialogue, especially if labeled "interfaith." Dialogue in a postmodern world implies that one must accept other faiths uncritically. It seems to carry an implicit mandate to embrace whatever one encounters. Because of this, people become uneasy with interfaith dialogue–and they should if this presupposition is true! However in searching Scripture to exemplify the dialogical imperative at work, we discover a prototype of interfaith dialogue that demonstrates how the Israelites engaged people of other living faiths.
In Hebrew Scripture we find an existing interreligious penetration that is often overlooked or under-applied. It is easily missed by those who rely on a synchronical approach to interpretation because only texts condemning the idolatry of foreign gods are found. David Lochhead says:
The very logic of Hebrew faith, as we know it through the Hebrew scriptures, relied on a sharp distinction between the God of the Patriarchs and the Exodus on the one hand, and on the other, the ‘other gods’ which were worshiped by the ‘nations’ in general and the Canaanites in particular. Faithfulness, in the apostolic writings as well as in the Hebrew scriptures, involved faithfulness to the God who is known through the Prophets and Gospels as opposed to the many gods and lords of surrounding communities. Openness to other traditions, in this light, would seem to be openness to idolatry (40-41).
Even though Lochhead advocates the dialogical imperative, without using a diachronical interpretative approach he overlooks the riches of the interreligious dimension of Scripture. As we shall see, lsrael’s contact with surrounding religions was not wholesale rejection but one of assimilation. All too often even those who do uncover the similarities between Israel’s faith and religion miss the significance. The parallels are too casually attributed to the cultural or literary influences in which the lsraelite’s faith originated, but it is more than this. It is a religious influence. We discover that interfaith dialogue is not a recent phenomenon in the history of our faith, for it stands at the heart of Israel’s unfolding of the message of Yahweh in Canaan. There is an intentionality in their encounter with other faiths whose fruits we see in our Scripture.As we shall see, lsrael’s contact with surrounding religions was not wholesale rejection but one of assimilation. All too often even those who do uncover the similarities between Israel’s faith and religion miss the significance. The parallels are too casually attributed to the cultural or literary influences in which the lsraelite’s faith originated, but it is more than this. It is a religious influence. We discover that interfaith dialogue is not a recent phenomenon in the history of our faith, for it stands at the heart of Israel’s unfolding of the message of Yahweh in Canaan. There is an intentionality in their encounter with other faiths whose fruits we see in our Scripture.
Dialogue implies encounter, openness, and learning, which leads to assimilation. It is not incorporation carte blanche, but a process of discernment leading to acceptance and/or rejection. In the Hebrew nomads’ encounter with Canaanite religion we see this process, demonstrating that it is more than literary dependence: the content of the Canaanite faith is also being adapted and adopted.
Let us briefly consider how El, the kind and compassionate high god of the Canaanite pantheon, and Baal, the god of fertility and vegetation, were encountered and assimilated into lsrael’s understanding of Yahweh.
It is interesting to discover that nowhere in Hebrew Scripture do we find antagonism between El and Yahweh. In El the Hebrews were able to assimilate and articulate a broader understanding of Yahweh. Mention of "the stars of El" (Isaiah 14:13) and "the assembly of El" (Psalm 82:1) are overt references to Canaanite mythology. We also find the combination with El to form proper names arising from the patriarchal worship of God, e.g., Gen. 14:22 (El Elyon), 16:13 (El Roi), 17:1 (El Shaddai), 21:33 (El Olam), and 31:13 (El Bethel). It is in Genesis 33:20 that we find the clearest example of their conscious identification of El with Yahweh: "There he erected an altar and called it ‘El is the God of Israel’" (El Elohe Israel). "One could say that El has been fused with Yahweh in one way or another" (Wessels, 56). It may be an overstatement to say that they equated El with Yahweh, but the absorption of El into their understanding of Yahweh is clearly evident.
The encounter with Baal was quite different. Here Israel had to say "No" to assimilation. Though they used some of Baal’s characteristics to express their understanding of Yahweh, the Israelites came to see the fertility cult of Canaan as evil and adulterous to Yahweh. The climax is the contest on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18), which is the familiar story of Elijah defeating the prophets of Baal.
The purview of this piece does not allow us to expand on the process of assimilation, but it is sufficient to show that Israel said both "Yes" and "No" to Canaanite religion, which implies an intentionality to the encounter. We catch a glimpse of how the dialogical process works at unfolding the message of God, for Israel did not adopt a position of total rejection (monologue) or total acceptance (situationalism). It was only through dialogue that true contextualization and communication of their faith was possible. From this we learn that though an openness to discover and learn is critical in dialogue, so too is it for the community to use its faith as a foundation from which to discern whether incorporation or adaptation of another’s ideologies and practices are possible. A proper theology of dialogue casts fear of dialogue aside because we realize that we do not set our faith aside when engaging others.
As we stand on the brink of interfaith living, our scriptural and theological roots remind us not to evade that which is culturally or religiously different. Instead our faith calls us to seek out the opportunity to have the gospel unfolded through dialogue. Though the dialogical process has not always been named or officially recognized, it is clear that it stands as an imperative in fulfilling the calling of the Church.
Gonzalez, Justo L. Out of Every Tribe & Nation: Christian Theology at the Ethnic Roundtable. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992.
Lochhead, David. The Dialogical Imperative: A Christian Reflection on Interfaith Encounter. Faith Meets Faith Series: An Orbis Series in lnterreligious Dialogue, ed. Paul F. Knitter. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988.
Tracy, David. Dialogue with the Other: The Inter-Religious Dialogue. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1990.
Wessels, Anton. "Biblical Presuppositions For and Against Syncretism." In Jerald D. Gort, Hendrik M. Vroom, Rein Fernhout, & Anton Wessels, eds. Dialogue and Syncretism: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Currents of Encounter: Studies on the Contact between Christianity and Other Religions, Beliefs, and Cultures. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans & Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 1989, pp. 52-65.