Are Christians with an “exclusivist” view (a term used for the idea that Jesus is the only way to salvation) incapable of interfaith dialogue? I heard exactly this claim a few days ago at a conference of college professors and administrators and I’ve been stuck on it ever since.

The same man who made this claim also said that one needs an “interfaith perspective” to be able to engage in such dialogue. I pressed him, saying that he is simply privileging another opinion about religion over the exclusivist position, so he is actually making the same move as the exclusivists. He qualified: the “interfaith perspective” is a not a position but a “conversation tool” (his phrase) requiring openness of all parties to having their minds changed by the others’ viewpoints.

What we have here, folks, is an artful dodge. I am not saying anything about the man’s motive. I don’t know him. I am talking about the line of conversation itself, which has been repeated countless times in such settings. The interfaith perspective is popular on college campuses. It is profoundly misleading, though it sounds compellingly true to our culture of knee-jerk relativists.

First, even though the man said that the interfaith perspective is not a position but a conversation tool, he continued to use the word “perspective.” Doesn’t it imply a position, an opinion? If I have a perspective about something, then I have an opinion, no?

If I have an opinion, then I think my opinion is right. I privilege it over other opinions which I find, in some way, deficient. My opponent criticized exclusivism, ergo he likes his interfaith dialogue position better than exclusivism.

Lying behind the ostensible generosity of the interfaith perspective is the basic pluralist claim: no one religion is adequate to encompass legitimate, saving (to use a Christian word) forms of spirituality. Every major world religion is both right and wrong. If I’m convinced by the pluralist view, then I have two options: (1) I can try to live in a constant state of suspended belief. I can try to stay on a spirituality quest without ever identifying with one religion. (This position sounds familiarly American and Baby-Boomerish.) (2) I can settle for some kind of lowest common denominator “faith” – a set of attitudes (like loving one’s neighbor) that basically all the world religions affirm. In spite of how it seems, there is an identifiable theological position at work even here.

Thus, each of these two positions still say something about God, even if it’s a negative (i.e. we cannot really know God as God is). Now, if one prefers this opinion over the claim that Jesus fully reveals God, then preferring one over the other is the same as believing one is superior to the other, hence my contention that my opponent was actually doing the same thing for which he criticized exclusivists.

For people who have given sustained, careful thought to these questions, the notion that true dialogue requires a degree of open-mindedness that risks conversion is impossible. There is nothing new under the sun. If I have studied carefully and with humility, then I have come to some careful conclusions that elicit confidence in me about those conclusions. I cannot pretend as if I do not believe what I believe.

Thus, the “interfaith perspective” as I heard it last week, anyway, is incoherent. Everybody has to be someplace. My opponent has an interfaith perspective. I, on the other hand, believe in Jesus as the full revelation of God. This disagreement is the honest starting place for dialogue.

Everybody Has to Be Someplace, Or Why I Don’t Buy the Interfaith Perspective

Tagged on:                                 

7 thoughts on “Everybody Has to Be Someplace, Or Why I Don’t Buy the Interfaith Perspective

  • March 16, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    As someone who doesn’t share your religious opinions, I agree with your post completely. To suggest that one’s opinion that they are right (and is it an opinion if you think you’re wrong?) is somehow a negative is a red herring brought before me on a number of occasions.

    Perhaps what this interfaith person mean, to give him the benefit of the doubt that he may not deserve, is that to facilitate dialogue you may need to accept the right of other opinions to exist. (Not saying you don’t think that, as I have no idea if you do or not.)

  • March 16, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Yes, I think that my opponent was associating the abuses of power he has probably seen in arguments made by exclusivists with the actual claims themselves. I completely agree that for a dialogue to be true dialogue, one a priori accepts the right of all parties to speak their minds freely. Many thanks for commenting!

  • March 16, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    GK Chesterton put it best:

    “It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.”

    To me that is the essence of engaging other peoples ideas. If we aren’t able to at least imagine how we might be wrong, then it is an untenable position. On the other hand, if we can’t assume that someone is right (including ourselves), we have an equally untenable position.

    Real dialogue occurs when we understand what we believe to be right, but listen to how we might have gone wrong in coming to understand that.

  • March 18, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    I think what he was going for was respecting other people’s faiths. It’s possible to appreciate the Christian faith without being a Christian, to understand what they believe and not believe himself. He was just using an ineffective phrase to state his stance.

  • March 18, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    I hope you’re right, Elise. I completely support the idea of respectful dialogue. We have a lot to learn from each other. I’m afraid that, in academic circles, I’ve been in too many conversations in which terms like “interfaith perspective” are a kind of code for “let’s all think the same way about religion.” That “same way” is the interfaith perspective.

  • March 20, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    This blog keeps swirling in my mind. I attended an interfaith discussion on the situation in Gaza hosted here at PTS yesterday afternoon. The discoveries I heard in listening to the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian perspectives were quite educational and I believe efforts to dispell misconceptions of each one’s perspective. Interfaith dialogue helps to do this especially considering the aftermath of 911 for orthodox Muslims. Each representative mentioned specific theological issues each sect held, which were essential to their faith and clashed in some way to the other. I appreciated the firm stance on these because it reiterated the core beliefs that separate us even as we spoke of unity. For Christians, I think this is important to remember in these dialogues. In efforts to not repeat the past by ousting people, we must remember that there remain doctines that are not up for negotiation for each religion. As Christians the non-negotiable is Jesus. Therefore, the call to proclaim the good news and the Kingdom of God cannot end; however, it also means we are to be conduits of God’s grace and love regardless of religious differences and regardless of any conversions that may or may not occur following these conversations.

  • March 20, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    I believe that this kind of dialogue you attended has real integrity. Our challenge is to live at peace with people precisely because and especially when we do not agree.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.