In a clip on social media, a comedian who self-identifies as an immigrant to the U.S. recounts being visited by “two men in white shirts and ties.” They asked if he knew Jesus Christ and then warned him that without Jesus he would be destined for hell. In response, the comedian asked if they were claiming that a billion of his fellow Chinese were going to hell.
No, they answered, because not all of them have had the chance to hear the gospel—but now you have.
To which the comedian replies with feigned fright: Why would you do that to me?!
The punchline is hilariously effective, but it is also entirely predictable to those of us familiar with this reasoning. If ignorance is soteriological bliss, why burden people with the responsibility of gospel knowledge? Readers of this week’s Sabbath School lesson may quibble with the representation in the comedy bit. We know who the “men in white shirts and ties” are—not us. We don’t condemn people to hell; we warn them about being eternally lost. Yet the essential logic remains: the Adventist mission imperative is to reach the unreached, those “ignorant” of the gospel. The Teacher Comments tell us, in fact, that (at the time of publication) 7,400 of 17,446 people groups in the world are “considered to be unreached by the gospel.”
The comic’s truth-telling gives us pause over this particular missional posture.
I am also given pause by imagining having to read from the lesson at the podium of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, pictured in the title image above. Or reading it aloud to my grad school classmates of non-Christian faiths, or to the clergy and lay hosts with whom I have twice arranged class visits in Boston. How might the following characterizations of unreached “pagans” (from Tuesday’s lesson) land?
“He [Paul] gathered whatever points of good he could find, few as they were . . .”
“Paul was complimenting pagans! Their religion was misguided in every way, and yet, Paul complimented their devotion.”
“Were they misguided? Of course . . .”
Sure, the lesson is written to insiders and not intended as public speech, but sometimes saying the quiet parts out loud invites self-reflection.
This strategic orientation to global mission praxis arises out of a theological belief that the only way to avoid final damnation is to hear and accept the particular story of Jesus’s atoning sacrificial death as coverage for one’s sins. While people may only be responsible for what they have heard, this Adventist story anticipates that the end will not come until everyone has, in fact, heard and had the opportunity to decide for or against Jesus. This imperative is also our way out of the comic’s conundrum: Why would you do that to me? Because we, as Adventists, have to finish the work.
This theology of salvation, which insists that becoming Christian is the only way to escape final judgment, is sometimes called “exclusivism.” It exists alongside other ways of understanding salvation, such as “inclusivism” (see Karl Rahner’s notion of “anonymous Christians,” for example) and “pluralism” (many paths up the same mountain), though this typology is a bit dated. While space does not allow for a full exploration of viable Adventist alternatives to an exclusivist soteriology here, I want to use the remainder of this post to offer resources for thinking about the practice of relating interreligiously as an expansion of Adventist mission.
What follows is a sampling of folks who are working in interfaith dialogue, interreligious education, or comparative theology. Any one of these resources is a worthwhile entry point into robust reflection on this subject, and together they capture an orientation, a posture, that I find life-giving and urgently relevant. This posture embodies ways of deeply valuing both the particularity of one’s own faith and the authentic difference and integrity of the Other. It understands the shape of encounters across difference as essential to Christian formation.
Theologian Leonard Swidler’s 1983 “Dialogue Decalogue” remains a classic. Highlights in his ten commandments for interfaith dialogue include:
Number Seven. Dialogue can take place only between equals, which means that partners learn from each other and do not merely seek to teach one another.
Number Nine. Participants in dialogue should have a healthy level of criticism toward their own traditions. A lack of such criticism implies that one’s tradition has all the answers, thus making dialogue not only unnecessary but unfeasible. The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn, which is impossible if one’s tradition is seen as having all the answers.
Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion who helped transform the study of everyday lived religion, points out that how we frame the conversation about religious pluralism betrays a lot about the assumptions of entitlement we hold.
When questions about religious pluralism are framed in the language of ‘challenges,’ the hidden assumptions are often found in a narrative of loss—loss of privilege, loss of authority, perhaps loss of vitality and influence. . . . It imagines that ‘we all' once shared a religious world view that has now been challenged by the presence of religious diversity among us. I want to suggest, by contrast, that pluralism is not new, but is the natural state of religion, everywhere and always.
John Thatamanil writes from the perspective of a Christian theologian on religious diversity. In Circling the Elephant, he frames religious diversity as something to be desired. This means an internal conversation about how to understand the religious other is not enough; encounter and dialogue must be sought out.
Can we imagine theological reflection that begins with a “delight in multiplicity,” reflection that even invites us to “grow an appetite” for religious difference? Might we begin to think of religious diversity as promise rather than as problem?
Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook, a religious educator at the Claremont School of Theology, insists that interreligious encounter and learning are at the heart of a robust religious formation.
[We must] push beyond seeing interreligious learning as a specialized program, or an optional activity, toward seeing it as integral to the vocation of faith communities. In order to accomplish this vision, we need to begin to see all of organized religious practice—education, worship, social action, hospitality, pastoral care—through the lens of interreligious learning.
Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith America (formerly Interfaith Youth Core), takes a profoundly practical approach to interreligious encounter. His model is based not in “dialogue” for the sake of dialogue, but rather in coming together to work on problems of mutual concern. He believes this process allows us to learn about and from each other’s differences.
Interfaith cooperation is a way to achieve pluralism. It’s a process in which people who orient around religion differently come together in ways that respect different identities, build mutually inspiring relationships, and engage in common action around issues of shared concern. . . .
Importantly, interfaith cooperation doesn’t depend on shared religious, philosophical, or political views. . . . Instead, interfaith cooperation builds bridges across differences, bringing people together to build relationships, learn about each other, and take part in common action despite deep differences.
Joung Chul Lee, scholar of religious education, writes about a relational perspective on interreligious learning. Importantly, Lee does not want us to picture interreligious encounter as an exchange between “essences” of religions—as in, an encounter between “Buddhism” and “Islam.” Instead, he reminds us that encounter takes place as relationships between individual persons.
Interreligious encounter is, rather, a venue in which the participants—their individual bodies that carry their unique memories, experiences, and narratives gained from various events that have happened in particular times and spaces—meet one another. Here they discover and create their physical, spiritual, political, cultural, and religious locations and relations with the other. Thus, interreligious encounter is not only inter-religious, but also inter-personal, inter-spiritual, and inter-cultural. It is a holistic encounter.
Finally, religious educator Christine Hong cautions in Decolonial Futures that when learning about other faiths, “competency” or “mastery” are the wrong goals. Instead, she focuses on developing “postures of interreligious learning,” which she says form an embodied “interreligious intelligence.” Such postures are themselves part of our character formation.
Intercultural and interreligious intelligence is an embodied posture. It is connectional. Each of us can name someone in our lives who has embodied a posture of intelligence. A posture of humility, deep listening, and understanding. For me, this person was my maternal grandmother. . . . She embodied intelligence as a posture for how one navigates and uses emotional and spiritual heft, how one deepens instincts grounded in empathy and compassion, and how one fearlessly engages in the sharp critique of the powers that be as a form of resistance to dominant and oppressive structures and systems.
Vaughn Nelson is Spectrum editor of Adult Sabbath School commentaries for this quarter. He can be reached at vaughn[at]spectrummagazine[dot]org.
Title Image: Art Institute Chicago, World Parliament of Religions, Chicago, 1893
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