At the Intersection of Missionary Zeal and Interfaith Passion

My own biography could reasonably be considered a kind of case study for exploring the question that organizes this issue: “What is the relationship between interfaith engagement and Christian mission?”1 Born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, the daughter of missionaries,2 I am now the assistant professor of Interfaith Studies at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts, where I also codirect the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE), a joint program with the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College. While this might seem like a uniquely long journey, the common thread that connects my story and my current vocation is a lifelong concern for what it means to be a person of faith living in a multifaith world.

The enduring question that emerges from my experiences is this: “How do I hold together the paradox of strong religious convictions with openness to those who hold different beliefs, sometimes incompatible with my own?” Perhaps a variation of this same question might be: “What does it mean to see irreducible differences not as a threat to solidarity but as the foundation for it?”

Max Stackhouse, a Christian ethicist who taught for years at Andover Newton, once said something to the effect that if we are to truly call ourselves Christians, we must constantly be open to conversion. That phrase has stuck with me. Years later when I was doing field work at a Benedictine Abbey, I took special note of their vow to “Conversion of Life.” They vow to remain constantly open to change—to being remade and unmasked daily. They vow to be available for those moments when the veil is lifted and we see perhaps a shade more clearly the complex, inexhaustible mystery of creation—God, our lives, and the connections among us.

I do not conflate interfaith understanding with “watered-down” convictions, a muddy middle ground where no one dares to use the first-person possessive to address God. My God knit me together in my mother’s womb. My God so loved the world that S/he meets us, incarnate, in the midst of our deepest human need. And at the same time, I do not want a world without the Islamic golden age, the Jewish Kabbalah, or the Sanskrit chanting of Brahmin priests.

“Is there a way,” I asked a colleague of mine from solid Baptist roots, “that missionary zeal can be compatible with a passion for interfaith dialogue?”

He looked at me. “Do you want the answer to be yes?” he asked.

“Yeah, I guess I do,” I said.

“Well,” he said. “The way I approach it is this; I don’t want to convert anyone and I don’t want anyone to convert me.” He paused. “And the second way I think about it is, “I want to convert everyone and I want everyone to convert me.” More paradox. He explained with an analogy saying, “When I listen to a Peter, Paul and Mary song, I expect to be moved. And if I create something powerful, I want it to move others, to change them.”3

One of the great intellectual revelations for me after years of seminary education and a doctoral program in comparative religions is that given the inescapable complexity of it all, we are called to cultivate a tolerance for ambiguity. We are called to find a way to simultaneously hold seemingly irreconcilable opposites, resisting the desire to push one or the other position out for the sake of a shallow comfort. We are called, in fact, to embrace paradox. It is the way we move closer to the nature of God.

We seem to be able to do this on a small scale. Take love for example. I love my husband because of all the ways we are similar—our mutual curiosity, our values, and so on. At the same time, I love my husband because we are so different. How many of us have given up trying to convert our parents, spouses, children, or friends to seeing the world exactly as we see it, yet without this surrender lessening our love for them? The difference seems to hinge on relationships. When we are in relationship, when we feel known in all of our faults and contradictions, we tend to be more gracious about allowing for the faults and contradictions of others.

In many ways, this is what animates the interfaith work CIRCLE does at Hebrew College and Andover Newton. As neighbors we began to ask what it would mean to take seriously this idea of loving one another. The slow, careful work of getting to know one’s neighbors is an ongoing work in process, and its demands are constantly changing. There are no short cuts. No vicarious experiences will substitute for the real thing. You have to show up and bring food that everyone can eat and think about how you speak. While this seems simple on one level, it is not easy. Relationships, as we all have anecdotes to back up, are in fact hard. They take willing partners with honest intentions.

When it works, where there is trust and good intention and each partner stands solidly in his or her own identity while reaching out to the other—listening and speaking with genuine curiosity— interfaith learning can shimmer with that Spirit-filled sensation that says to me, God dwells here. Deep conversation with the religious other can be transformative and satisfying without pushing either partner to the periphery and without diminishing one perspective for the other.

This brings me back to my opening question. If I could imagine an evangelical approach to interfaith work, it would have to include a rich mix of qualities and capacities including justice, passion, humility, strong religious identity, a vow to remain open to change, commitment to building relationships, tolerance for ambiguity, and a capacity to embrace paradox. These are the qualities we want to cultivate in the next generation of religious leaders who will be called on to help communities foster connections of peace across faith lines.


1A version of this essay first appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of the BTI Magazine under the title, “An Evangelical Interfaith Imperative?”; available at

2My father, Richard Peace, is the Robert Boyd Munger Professor of Evangelism and Spiritual Formation at Fuller Theological Seminary.

3Conversation between the author and Rev. Dr. Gregory Mobley, Professor of Christian Bible at Andover Newton Theological School and cofounder of CIRCLE.