A Safe Space for Evangelism?
Last weekend, I was lucky enough to co-present a workshop with my friend Greg Damhorst on engaging “evangelicals” (from evangelical Christians like Greg to evangelical atheists like myself) in interfaith work at the Illinois Conference on Interfaith Collaboration. As part of the workshop, we brainstormed with our participants potential barriers to evangelical involvement in interfaith activities.
One participant asked whether the inherent paternalism of any evangelical perspective might be an insurmountable barrier to interfaith work. Her questions were too big to fully answer in a one-hour workshop, but they are certainly worth grappling with. We always talk about disagreeing respectfully, but is that even possible? Isn’t it inherently disrespectful and condescending to tell somebody that you are right and they are wrong? How can you possibly have respectful collaboration as equals when some people think they have privileged access to Ultimate Truth?
As you can probably guess, I think evangelism and interfaith cooperation are entirely compatible. And I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with evangelism. Although a 500-word blog post is not much better than a 1-hour workshop for answering these big questions, I’d like to sketch out my perspective on this topic – and I’d love to hear your reactions in the comments.
This participant’s main objection to evangelism was her contention that Truth with a capital T is fundamentally unattainable, and therefore it is arrogant and misguided to claim that you have found it and somebody else has not. I agree that we might never know everything there is to know. But I do think there are simple yes or no answers to a lot of the most important questions we can ask about our world. Was the Earth created 6,000 years ago? Or is it much older? Is it getting hotter? If so, can we stop it? Is there an omniscient, omnipotent, conscious being who created everything? Is Jesus this being’s son? Is Muhammad this being’s prophet? Will I continue to be conscious after my physiological death? Will I go to Heaven?
A few of these questions have quite obvious answers, while others have answers that we might never know for sure. But that doesn’t mean those answers don’t exist, and it doesn’t mean we should stop asking the questions. I don’t see any better course of action than to make our best guess in each case based on all the available evidence.
This is exactly what evangelicals are doing. They think their answers to some of these questions are pretty good; in fact, they think the evidence points more toward their guesses than toward yours. Because these questions have important consequences for your wellbeing, and because they care about your wellbeing, evangelicals want you to find the right answers. Contrary to popular opinion and the bad rap it gets from people like the Phelps family, evangelism doesn’t usually come from a place of hatred. It comes from a place of love – a very, very well-meaning (if sometimes misguided) place.
One of Diana Eck’s requirements for engaged pluralism is respect for religious and non-religious identity. I interpret this principle to mean that I must respect people, but I need not respect their ideas. We can all admit that we believe in a lot of mutually incompatible truth claims. We can even try to convince others that our truth claims have more merit than theirs. But we can have those conversations respectfully, and without losing sight of the fact that people’s beliefs are important to them. Interfaith work can – and must – be a safe space for evangelicals and others.
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