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Confidence and Arrogance in Inter-Faith Dialogue

Stephen Pardue


Professor of Theology, Asia Graduate School of Theology
October 21, 2017

Especially in a world where globalization means frequent interaction with sincere believers in other faiths, following Jesus sometimes requires a kind of confidence that must be a close cousin to arrogance. I can remember the first time this occurred to me, when I was in early elementary school. I grew up in a town in the southern Philippines that was home to a significant Muslim minority population, and my siblings and I ran with a group of kids in the neighborhood that included several Muslim children. We played in each other’s yards, rode bikes together, and played dangerous games with improvised fireworks. But as we grew up together, we increasingly became aware of how different our faiths were, and how mutually exclusive their truth must be. Though we always remained friendly, it struck me that both we and our Muslim friends stood in an awkward position—while we loved each other, at the end of the day, we each had to look at the other and say “As far as I can tell, you are wrong about the fundamental direction and shape of your life.” Surely only the insanely arrogant would have the audacity to make such a claim, right?

The most popular approach to resolving this dilemma is to minimize the differences between the Christian faith and other faiths. If you squint hard enough, one can argue, all religious movements share certain similarities—for example, they all point us toward some kind of love of neighbor, and to some kind of submission to a higher power. If all religions turn out to ultimately be the same sort of thing, then perhaps one can treat them like various ice cream flavors, or multiple paths leading to the same mountaintop—differences that are basically inconsequential and which therefore require no one to be “right” or “wrong.”

In all likelihood, then, Jesus took his first steps, learned to speak, and experienced his first taste of community as a refugee and immigrant in a foreign land.

The problem with this, of course, is that sincere believers of any faith will tell you that it not only misses reality, but fails to take their beliefs seriously. This was obvious even to me, my siblings, and our neighborhood friends—while we shared much in common, we and our families had important commitments that were mutually exclusive and which could not be resolved by pretending they weren’t there. Decades later, now that I live in the Philippines again and have colleagues involved in interfaith dialogue seeking to foster peace in conflict-torn parts of the Philippines not far from where I grew up, I am assured that the same truth prevails: neither the Christians nor the Muslims in the dialogues feel especially helped by conversations that simply seek to gloss over their actual differences.

What Would Baby Jesus Do?

So what does humility require of us in this situation? How should Christians square their commitment to make this virtue a central element in their lives with the simultaneous need to respect the dignity, intelligence, and morality of our neighbors of other faith? Let me suggest an approach rooted in the biblical account of Jesus’s life.

Most of Jesus’s ministerial teaching doesn’t have much to say explicitly about the subject of interfaith dialogue. The Gospels record that he had a special commitment to reach the Jews, but that his ministry also had a radical expanding effect—after his death and resurrection, all were welcomed to become a part of God’s covenant people through faith in him (Matthew 15:21–28, John 10:16, and Romans 3:29). The parable of “The Good Samaritan” is familiar to us now, but given the politics of the time, Jesus’s concern to make a Samaritan the hero of the story would have sent a clear message that God’s covenant people had no monopoly on moral behavior.

Flight to Egypt

But it is an incident in Jesus’s childhood that I think deserves our attention as we reflect on the challenge of interacting with those of other faiths. The Gospels record that when Jesus was an infant, the ruler of his region—Herod—sought to murder him because of his perception that Jesus would be a threat to his authority. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were forced to flee to Egypt, where they would live for the first several years of his life. In all likelihood, then, Jesus took his first steps, learned to speak, and experienced his first taste of community as a refugee and immigrant in a foreign land.

Of course, Egypt was not only geographically and culturally distant from Palestine; importantly, it was a context in which Jesus and his family were probably forced to interact with, depend upon, and befriend people of other faiths. In fact, this is not entirely conjecture; the Gospels record an important moment just before their flight to Egypt, in which Jesus and his family have fellowship with and accept the gifts of neighbors who followed a vastly different faith. I am talking, of course, about the Magi, those “travelers from the East,” who came seeking Jesus based on their reading of the stars.

Humble Confidence

It would probably not have been strange for Mary and Joseph to turn these folks away when they visited their home. The magi were pagans who didn’t eat kosher or keep the Sabbath, and they probably participated to some degree or another in idolatry, the most offensive practice that a first-century Jew could imagine. Yet from all we can tell, Joseph and Mary took a different approach. When neighbors of another faith showed up on their doorstep, and when they were forced to come to a country full of people who followed other gods, they adopted an attitude that can best be described as “humble confidence.”

When asked to depend upon and interact with their non-Jewish neighbors, they didn’t retreat into their own enclave, and they were even willing to accept very concrete gifts from them. They recognized that as finite individuals, they needed to embrace the gifts and assistance that their neighbors could offer, regardless of their remarkable differences in values and core beliefs. At the same time, we have no evidence that they downplayed these tangible differences, or pretended they did not exist.

Humility and Religious Belief

Humility requires an embrace of our limitations, and the ways in which this should inform religious faith can be complicated. In light of our fallenness and finitude, humility may require acknowledging that we may be wrong about many of our beliefs, including those that are very dear to us. But while maintaining a healthy degree of open-mindedness about our faith is consistent with humility, we should not expect ourselves or our religious neighbors to live their lives as perpetual skeptics. The life of faith is an embodied one, in which we must make concrete decisions about what it means to be faithful to the religious commitments that we find most compelling—we must choose how to pray, worship, and treat our neighbors, and this requires the courage to trust our faith and tradition enough to get on with life.

The example of Jesus and his family suggests that such courage can be combined with humility. My suggestion here is not only that we should emulate this example in concrete terms—developing community with our neighbors of other faiths by sharing meals and depending on one another for neighborly care, though I think this is an important first step.

Intellectual Hospitality

But I contend that Christian humility also requires that we practice a kind of intellectual hospitality and receptivity. That is, when we dialogue with neighbors of other faiths, we should be ready and willing to acknowledge the compelling and truthful aspects of their beliefs, even if we cannot accept the whole network of beliefs they maintain. We should be ready to learn new things about faith, morality, and even about the God we serve, acknowledging that neither we nor our traditions have a monopoly on truth, and that the Christian God often blesses his people through those presumed to be their enemies—whether magi, Egyptians, or Samaritans.

When we approach interfaith dialogue without authentic humility, we are doomed either to closed-minded arrogance or to cowardly skepticism.

At our best, I think this is one of the things that the small group of kids in our neighborhood did reasonably well. We depended on each other in our weekly routines, which helped build trust and common ground. And while we were no theologians or moral philosophers, we were able to gain from each others’ insights into religious matters. For example, it was partly those Muslim neighbors who taught me what it might mean to fear a holy God, something that I heard and read in my own Bible, but did not necessarily see embodied in my community.

When we approach interfaith dialogue without authentic humility, we are doomed either to closed-minded arrogance or to cowardly skepticism. But armed with a readiness to embrace our finitude, fallenness, and dependence on others, including those outside of our faith tradition, it can be a source of rich fellowship, sharpened understanding, and deeper acquaintance with the triune God.

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