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.