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The Table Video

Richard Mouw

Making Room: Playing Host to Ideological Strangers - Richard J. Mouw

President Emeritus and Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary
July 13, 2017

The Bible tells us to provide hospitality to strangers. But does that include making room for the ideas of strangers—especially when they represent ideologies that seem directly opposed to what we believe as Christians? There are certainly dangers in giving too much intellectual hospitality. But there are also dangers in not making room at all for the ideas of others. To refuse to engage folks we disagree with means missing some important benefits for Christian growth.


We’re going to talk about making room and I get that title from a wonderful book by Christine Pohl, who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary. It’s the best book I’ve ever read on hospitality, and it’s called “Making Room”, what was the word that she uses? “Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition”. And I like that idea of making room. As believers we’re called to make room for the stranger, for the soldier, the person who wonders into our lives. I want to talk a little bit tonight about intellectual hospitality. What does it mean to make room for ideas that we disagree with?

We’ve already heard some wonderful recommendations along those lines. It’s so important for us to be not demonizing ideas that we disagree with. You know, G.K. Chesterton once said that idolatry not only means worshiping false gods but it also means setting up false demons. And the demonization of other human beings whom we disagree with and the ideas that they present to us can be the occasion for intellectual hospitality, making room, hosting ideas with whom we disagree. And one of my favorite comments along these lines comes from, that’s the book. G.K. Chesterton quote, but from Simone Weil who one of my heroines in the faith and this great quote that I’ve used in a book recently and some other things that I’ve written, really helpful comment, an inspiring one.

That, “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him,” she says, “because before being Christ he is truth. “If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, “one will not go very far before falling into his arms.” I love that. But a number of people have written to me recently when they read that my book and they said, “That’s kind of a dangerous thing. “I’m mean, do you really mean “that we ought to follow any old idea that comes along “hoping that Jesus is out there, “and is somehow gonna welcome us into his arms?” and they’re raising an important question. And this is why there’s a second teacher that, indeed one of the best teachers I ever had, I was an English major as an undergraduate at Oden College in New York State.

And I had a marvelous teacher, Dr. Josephine Ricker. We called her Doc Joe and in one of our seminars for English majors, we engaged in a heated discussion about the graphic portrayal of sexuality in fiction. And I argued in a very brass way that we Christians should see fictional portrayals of the human condition as an opportunity better to understand the reality of sin. And Doc Jo just did not like what I was arguing and said, “Mr. Mouw,” I can still that emphasis on Mister. “Mister Mouw, we can have a perfectly adequately awareness “of the reality of trash without having “to go around lifting the lids of every trash can in town!”

And that’s true too. There’s a kind of intellectual promiscuity that is a danger. But for many of us in the evangelical world, we have heard more on the side of intellectual inhospitably or inhospitality than we have heard on the side of intellectual promiscuity. So I have three recommendations that I’d like you to consider tonight. They really follow up on some of the wonderful things that have already been said.

Because what Doc Jo was saying to me basically was the need for discernment. And what Simone Weil is saying is that the discerning life does need to keep a focus on the fact of Jesus Christ as the truth. All truth is God’s truth. The late Arthur Holmes of Wheaton College, wrote a wonderful book with that title. And that we can’t use the search for truth as an excuse to engage in making room for that which is soul destroying. But we all do have to be open to the possibility that in the search for truth strange ideas will actually enrich our souls. So here’s my first recommendation. Don’t let the salvific dominate all of your thinking about other perspectives. Jesus Christ is the truth. Jesus Christ is the only way.

So if you ask me, you know Buddhism offers a way of salvation that leads to a kind of eternal peace. Is that a legitimate claim? I would say I do not believe that Buddhism offers us a legitimate way of salvation. And if you ask me to put it bluntly, I will say I believe Buddhism is one of the false religions. But that’s a very different thing than saying there’s truth in Buddhism. That we can learn from Buddhists.

In fact, we can even learn from Buddhism some things that can enrich our spiritual lives. And so it’s important, it isn’t always easy, but it’s important for us to keep a focus on Jesus Christ as the only savior, the heaven sent savior. But at the same time, to be open to the possibility that the one who is the truth and who is as it were the origin, and owner of all truth may in fact lead us into truth. He may be standing there to greet us as we move in the direction of engaging some ideas from other ideologies and other religious perspectives.

A second recommendation, don’t focus on your own best case against the worst case of others. I spent five years co-chairing with a Catholic bishop, the official reformed Presbyterian and Catholic dialogue. We got into some heavy discussions about the Eucharist and about baptism and things of that sort. And you know, there were times that we both erred on this point. You don’t say John Calvin is a lot better in his theology than village Catholicism in rural Italy. And you don’t say, on the other hand, that the great declarations of Vatican too have it all over us, think handling Pentecostalism in the Ozarks, for example.

You don’t put your best case against their worst case. If you’re gonna think best cases, think best cases on both sides. If you’re gonna think worst cases, think worst cases on both sides and there’s a lot for us to confess about our own worst cases. And then thirdly, and I’m gonna spend a little more time on this one. Use engagement with the ideas of others as an opportunity for self-critique. Back in early 1970s, John Stott, the great Evangelical leader had established an annual London Lecture in Contemporary Christianity and this was a time before some of you were born but a time when there was a lot of liberation theology and a lot of dialogue between certain kinds of Christian thinkers and Marxist thinkers, a kind of positive dialogue and there were Christians who were saying we have a lot to learn from Marxism and John Stott did a wonderful thing.

He invited a very well-known liberation theologian from Buenos Aires, Jose Miguez Bonino, invited him to London to give the lecture and it was produced in what I still consider to be a marvelous book entitled, “Christians and Marxist, “the Mutual Challenge through Revolution” and I used to use that book as a textbook in political thought and there was a wonderful line in there where Jose Miguez Bonino says, “As Christians we are not judges by Marx or Marxism, “one alone is our judge, the Lord. “But Marx is a witness and he witnesses against us precisely “at those points “where we have received the very definite responsibility, “love, justice, abundant life for all human beings, “the responsibility for creation and the world, “the care of the poor. “We must try to understand Marx’s accusation.”

And that says that Karl Marx is not our judge but he has a right to spend some time on the witness stand. And other people with whom we disagree, people who are angry with us as we heard in a very marvelous way from Christina, people are angry with us out of their own sense of powerlessness. We need to allow them to take the witness stand. And even if they have a hard time articulating it, we need to work at trying to understand what it is that motivates their angry accusations toward us. We have an obligation to understand their accusations.

I find that very helpful in my own life, in my own intellectual journey. We have a lot to learn from people with whom we disagree because of our sins against them. I was glad that Mike mentioned something about the gay lesbian or LGBQ, et cetera community this evening because as a conservative on these issues, I have to say, I also know that the Christian community has been inexcusably cruel to people who have experienced attraction to people of the same sex and part of what we need to do as people who are articulating our own, what we understand to be our Biblically based position on that is to confess our sins and it’s very important for us to allow them to take the witness stand against us and to hear what they have to say. I have worked for a number of years with the Jewish community on a number of projects and I was working on something for the American Jewish Committee on First Amendment issues and they sent a Rabbi to meet with me in the office, the President’s Office at Fuller Seminary.

We had about an hour and a half together. It was a very fine, pleasant conversation. A week later, he wrote me a letter. And he said, I wanna tell ya how great it was for me to come out of your office feeling safe with a Christian. He said I was raised in rural Minnesota, a small town, we were the only Jewish family in town and he said when we went to Synagogue in a city quite a bit far away, I was warned that I should not say the Lord’s Prayer because in those days, in public schools in Minnesota, every morning the teacher who was typically a Lutheran would begin the day by saying, “Let us say the prayer “that our Lord Jesus taught us to say.”

And he said, “I was instructed “that I wasn’t to say the prayer. “I was a Jew.” And on the way home from school, kids threw stones at me and called me a Christ killer and he said, “I’ve gotta say, “when I was told I had to walk “onto an Evangelical Christian campus, “as I got onto the campus of Fuller Seminary, “I broke out in a cold sweat.” And he said, “I wanna thank you for after an hour and a half “I came away feeling safe with a Christian.” We need to hear, he had a right and I believe God sent him to sit in the witness stand and to testify about his experiences. There’s so much more that we can say along these lines.

And it’s so important for us and again we just heard this from Laura that we not begin even though a person in the case that she gave, it’s a marvelous one, but we don’t begin with harsh critique of who people are and where they are. I’ve learned so much from Acts 17, the Apostle Paul on that. Paul was a Jew who had become a Christian and what was common to both of those was a deep antipathy toward idolatry and here he walks into Mars Hill and he sees all these idolaters, altars, these altars to all kinds of gods and Luke says in describing Paul’s inner feelings, he says, “And he was deeply disturbed “by the idolatry that he saw.”

But when he had a chance to address those people, he did not begin by saying, “Here are a bunch of idolaters.” But he said, “Hey, you’re a pretty religious people.” Isn’t that wonderful? And I’ve been reading some of your poets and let me tell you a couple things that they say and he engaged them on a kind of common ground although ultimately he did point them to Jesus. And there’s a wonderful line later on in that chapter. It says, “When they heard about Jesus “and the resurrection of the dead, “they scoffed but some said, “we wanna talk to you more about this.” I was on national public radio one time, I was pitted against a liberal Protestant theologian and the whole question was why does Jesus keep showing up on television shows and Time Magazine covers and Huffington Post, why are people so fascinated with Jesus?

And the other guy went first and he said well, he obviously was a very commanding personality, so much so that when he died, his closest disciples had a hard time accepting that fact so they created this whole myth about his being raised from the dead and he’s still alive and all the rest. And then it was my turn and I said he is still live. One of the reason why he continues to fascinate people is that he’s there drawing people to himself and that he’s the fulfillment of our yearning as human beings. And the other guys said, you don’t really believe that kind of stuff? And I said, the Apostle Paul said that if Christ isn’t risen from the dead, our faith is in vain, our preaching is in vain.

Yeah and he said but Paul’s wrong about this and he’s that and the other thing. He’s wrong about a lot of stuff and he’s wrong about this too. Then it went back and forth and I was defending a physical resurrection and he was denying the very reality of the resurrection and then there were call in and when you’re there in a studio, there’s a screen, a computer screen and there’s a Rabbi on the 210 who has a question about the Last Supper and Irma from West Hollywood has a question about the Dead Sea Scrolls and Joshua from Long Beach has a question about what it means to be a disciple and all of this kind of stuff. And then there was Heather from Glendale and she had a question about the resurrection, so Heather comes on. She’s about 15 years old. And she said like a lot.

I’m sorry but some of you do that too but she said hi, I’m like Heather and I’m from like Glendale and I’m not a Christian or anything like that, in fact, I’m into witchcraft and stuff. But I gotta say I’m shocked that the guy who says that Jesus was unrisen from the dead, I agree with the President of Fuller Theological Seminary. [audience laughing] We take what we can get in those kind of debates. [laughing] But I often think of Heather of Glendale and that wonderful verse in Acts 17 where it says but some said, we’ll talk to you more about this business of the resurrection. I wish I had a chance to welcome Heather into my intellectual space. I’d like to learn from her.

I’d like to allow her to sit in the witness stand and to testify against me and my kind of people. And then I’d like to engage her in a conversation about what it means really to affirm that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. And I’m sure that as I approached her, even as I approached reading Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud and the post-modern thinkers and all the rest as well as Jews and Mormons and Hindus and Buddhists that I can’t walk very far from the direction of seeking the truth without falling into the arms of Jesus. Thank you. [dramatic music]