Conversion and the Mutually Transformative Power of Dialogue

What is the purpose of dialogue with those of other faiths? As a teacher of world religions at Fuller, this question often arises in my classes. Evangelicals have become increasingly involved in expanding dialogue from the historical focus on conversion to seeking mutual understanding and working together in areas of common concern such as social justice.1 Some evangelicals, though, are left wondering in this widened context what role conversion should play, if any, in interfaith dialogue. Are we in danger of losing Jesus’ mandate to preach the good news and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19)? I believe there is a way forward through which we can retain our mandate even while the vision of dialogue expands. We can do this by situating conversion in its proper relational context—not as something that happens only to the Other, but as a part of a process of mutual transformation.

Conversion is a work that belongs properly to the Holy Spirit. We participate in the Spirit’s work through proclamation and witness. This witness has often been conceived as bringing the truth of Christ to others, and rightly so. However, coupled with an enthusiasm to demonstrate other beliefs as wrong, we have sometimes failed to appreciate that our primary engagement is not with belief systems, but with persons. Belief is not something held in the abstract, but is fundamental to a person’s self-understanding. This does not mean that we do not confront belief systems that obscure God’s intentions for us, or that there is no place for apologetics, but rather that we understand that the primary context for interreligious dialogue between persons is relational, not epistemological.

Contemporary trinitarian theology has called attention to the fundamental reality that we are created to be beings-in-communion whose personhood is constituted through our relations with God and with others. In other words, relation is intrinsic to our personhood.2 Alistair McFadyen describes personhood as the depositing of layers of sediment of relation that are dialogically formed in a history of reciprocal movements of address and response.3 The Jewish thinker Martin Buber wrote of this dialogical relation, characterized by mutuality and love, as I-Thou. For Buber, relation is reciprocity: “I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You.”4 The I opens itself to the Thou and in so doing becomes more fully itself. Buber made the point that we encounter God, the eternal Thou in the Thou that is person; therefore, in our encounter with others, God is present.5

From a Christian perspective, it is significant that it is the triune God who encounters us in this dialogical relation. We are not alone in our encounter with the Other. The Spirit stands with us, opening us up to one another such that together we are turned back to Christ and brought to the foot of the cross.6 It is the transforming power of God’s love encountered at Calvary that informs this I-Thou encounter. When a Christian enters into dialogue, it is in humility and love, knowing that he or she does so as a forgiven sinner. Thus, the embrace of relation takes place under the outstretched arms of the crucified Christ. The forgiveness present at the cross creates the space and freedom for genuine dialogue to occur precisely because a loving and forgiving God goes before us. It is in this place of loving encounter, with the triune God at the center, that relational transformation takes place and personhood is realized.

Although relation may be constitutive of personhood, not all relations contribute to personhood equally. Some are more significant than others. My father contributed deeper layers of sediment to my personhood than my violin teacher. This sedimentation was occurring as the result of a transformative process of becoming-in-relation. Thus, when my father died when I was a child, I lost not only his presence in my life, I lost who I was uniquely becoming in my relationship to him; in essence, all the potential of who I would have become through our relationship was cut off. My point here is to illustrate how integral relation is to personhood. When we engage in dialogue, we are not simply exchanging ideas or trying to disprove the beliefs of another, we are involved in a relational and thus potentially transformative act.

Martin Buber Illustration by KlitsiePhilosopher Martin Buber was a Jewish author born in Austria in 1878. A prolific essayist, translator, and editor, he focused on the dialogic principle, the revival of Jewish religious consciousness, and the Zionist movement. A selection of his writings, which he edited while in his eighties, comprised over 4,000 pages, yet his most influential work was a short essay from 1923 called Ich und Du, translated into english as I and Thou.

If relationship is constitutive of our personhood, what form should our engagement take? Not all encounters contribute in a fulfilling way to personhood. McFadyen distinguishes between two forms of communication that address may take, one dialogical and the other monological. In dialogue, the other is addressed as subject, the Thou to the I. The self is opened to the Other in a way that allows for transformation by the Other. Dialogue depends upon maintaining and respecting the distinct identities of the participants as subjects and is the form of address of properly constituted relation. In contrast, in monologue the other is addressed as object, an It instead of Thou. As an It, the Other is subject to the manipulation of the I. Instead of the subjective engagement of I-Thou, monologue is directed to success in achieving a goal.7 I would argue that witness has often been conceived monologically. The Other is regarded as an It to be converted. We “win” the other to Christ, but create no space within ourselves to be transformed or affected by the other. The result is the objectification of the Other. Dialogue, on the other hand, is an act of mutual “conversion” in which I become transformed in the giving and receiving. This is exemplified by God himself who opens to us in a mutually reciprocating and transforming relationship.

Many evangelicals are familiar with conversion as a singular event. However, while conversion can occur as a decisive moment in which one makes a “decision for Christ,” it is more often part of a process of many smaller events or “conversions” involving a number of “yesses” to the address of God and others. When viewed as a decisive moment, there is a greater tendency to see conversion as an event that forms a complete break with what has gone before, accompanied by a devaluing of that which is present. When viewed as a process, on the other hand, conversion is more likely to honor what is already there.

Perhaps the best way to understand conversion is in terms of continuity and discontinuity. Conversion is continuous and may be seen as a process, occurring in relational contexts in which new layers of sediment are added to the base of personhood. We do not become completely different persons. Rather, it is a re-creation that respects the reality of redeemed personhood.8 Also, it is discontinuous because it involves a decisive break from previous contexts, in which our transformed identity in Christ becomes excentrically reoriented towards God and others.9 This new identity in Christ does not erase layers of sediment but recontextualizes them. Conversion involves a “turning away” and “turning towards” God, signifying a transformed orientation.10 The danger is when conversion is regarded as completely discontinuous and as something that occurs apart from its relational and mutually transformative context. Rather than regarding the Other as person who contributes to my personhood, the Other is viewed as an object to be converted.

When conversion is understood as a dialogical relational event, I cannot remain untouched; I, too, am transformed by the encounter and may find myself subject to “conversions” of my own heart. This goes beyond the exchange of information or engaging in common concerns, this dialogue is fundamental to identity, not only the Other’s, but my own. When we engage with the Other in a dialogical fashion that allows us to receive as well as give, we honor the trinitarian God in whose image we all have been created, even if that image has been distorted by the Fall and subsequent sin. Furthermore, when I acknowledge this image, I am also recognizing the mediated presence of God in the Other. Whether or not someone is a Christian, all persons already stand in some relation to God by virtue of this image and God’s sustaining hand. This recognition of God’s preexisting presence necessitates an important paradigm shift from models of engagement in which I bring something to the Other that is completely absent or in need of total replacement.11 Rather, conversion is a process that involves discovery, not only for the Other but also for myself. In our witness, we help awaken the Other to the image that is present, even if imperfectly, and help foster an understanding of that person’s true identity in Christ. Seeing God’s image in the Other leads us again to the understanding that conversion is a dialogical communication. I hold the mirror up to the other so that they may see the image, but they hold a mirror to me in return. As the mirrors reflect each other we find ourselves in a place of mystery as God stands within our midst.12


Christians have sometimes conceived of mission and evangelism in monological terms; we bring to others what is lacking. Especially when religion is involved, the Other, as Muslim or Hindu, either has nothing to offer or what is offered is regarded with suspicion. We thus close ourselves to the Other. Such interaction, however, fails to understand God’s continual movement towards us in address and response. The other already stands in some relation to God. We do not know what “yesses” have already been said in response to God’s address.13 We are not the primary agents of conversion; that is first and foremost the work of the Holy Spirit. Rather, we have been graciously invited to participate in the Spirit’s ongoing activity, which is already a relational act. If we all bear God’s relational image, distorted as it is and as yet awaiting that final moment in time in which that image will be fully restored, then dialogue cannot be simply about my giving and the other receiving but is a reciprocal event of mutual transformation even as we help the Other to hear and respond to God’s address.

Conversion should not be abandoned as a goal of dialogue, nor should we lose the sense of urgency of mission, but conversion must be placed within a proper dialogical and relational context. Conversion is a relationally restorative process that itself occurs as a result of relation; relation is both instrument and result. If conversion is understood in its deepest relational sense, it is not about “winning” someone to Christ. Rather, it is a profoundly mutually transformative event in which I give of myself and find myself. Conversion is a relational process that leads to salvation, the ultimate relationally restorative event of reconciliation with God and others. In the now of dialogical relation, we anticipate the eschatological relational vision of Revelation 21–22. This is a process of becoming in which each encounter carries within it the possibility for mutual transformation and discovery. Conversion, understood in this relational sense, is a proper goal of dialogue.

1.Fuller Seminary is no stranger to interfaith dialogue, as demonstrated by the active efforts of faculty such as President Richard J. Mouw, Douglas McConnell, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, and more indirectly, the work of William Dyrness. Earlier this year, students at Fuller launched a quarterly online journal, Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue, to encourage evangelicals toward greater understanding and sensitive engagement with those of other faiths.
2. See, for example, the seminal work of John Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993); also Alan Torrance, Persons in Communion: An Essay on Trinitarian Description and Human Participation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996); Stanley Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001).
3. Alistair I. McFadyen, The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationships (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). See especially chapters 3 and 4. I am heavily indebted to McFadyen’s work in the area of personhood. The brevity of this essay precludes doing full justice to his work.
4. Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970), 67.
5. E.g. Matthew 25:35–40.
. McFadyen, Call to Personhood, 121–26.
8. Ibid., 71.
9. Ibid., 55–58.
10. This is the sense of the term µετάνοια (metanoia) that we find in the context of Acts 20:21. Мετάνοια can be translated “repentance” or “conversion.” Its use in this verse signifies a turning to God and the beginning of new relationship with him. Walter Bauer, An English-Greek Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 512.
11. Paul Knitter explores this attitude towards interreligious dialogue in the opening chapters of his book Introducing Theologies of Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2007). See especially chapters 1–3.
12. Thanks to my fellow theologian Lindsey Smith Nibecker for this illustration.
13. The story of Cornelius in Acts 10 appears to indicate this; Cornelius had already responded “yes” to God before Peter’s arrival, yet Peter’s witness seems to have been instrumental in the pouring of the Spirit on Cornelius’s household.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2010, “Fuller in Dialogue: Engaging the ‘Other’ with Civility.”