Convicted Civility & Interfaith Dialogue

Richard J. Mouw originally published his thoughts on convicted civility in his book Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, released in 1992. Here, courtesy of Richard Mouw and InterVarsity Press, we offer Dr. Mouw’s recent development of these ideas as they relate to interfaith dialogue.

“Knowing” a Religion

How should we respond to diverse religious perspectives? Do they bring opportunities that we should take advantage of?

Ari Goldman went to Harvard Divinity School to find answers to these questions. Goldman is a religion reporter for the New York Times. He is also an Orthodox Jew. In his engaging book The Search for God at Harvard, Goldman tells about the sabbatical leave he took in 1985 to study various religious perspectives at Harvard.

Goldman was thrown off guard when Professor Diana Eck started her first World Religions lecture with this declaration: “If you know one religion . . . you don’t know any.” Goldman had gone to Harvard thinking that he already knew one religion very well; he had been steeped in the teachings and traditions of Judaism. But Eck’s statement made a deep impression on him; he quotes it several times in his book. Clearly, he believes the time he spent studying other religions deepened his understanding of Orthodox Judaism.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Goldman’s book, but I am not quite as taken with Professor Eck’s declaration as he is. Indeed, my initial reaction was to reject her comment as a piece of intellectual arrogance. What can it possibly mean to say that one can “know” one religion only after one has studied many of them?

I know dozens of devout Christians who have never given any thought to the content of another religion-does this mean that they do not really “know” Christianity? My maternal grandmother was a deeply devout Christian. Her faith sustained her through many difficult trials in life, including the loss of a teenage son. She certainly could not talk very long about, say, the doctrine of the Trinity or the theories of the atonement, and she certainly knew absolutely nothing about any other religion-or even about the teachings of other Christian denominations. But I was always impressed with her quiet faith in Christ and her devotion to the church. I have a hard time thinking that some 19-year-old undergraduate who has earned an “A” grade in two college courses in comparative religions “knows” his own religious perspective better than my grandmother knew hers.

That was my instinctive response to Eck’s declaration-and, after reflection, I still think it’s a plausible reaction to her statement as it stands. Christian faith, properly understood, is a relationship to God. To know Christianity from the inside is to pray to God, and to read God’s Word, and to worship with other people who have come to know God through Jesus Christ. I don’t see how taking a course in Buddhism or animism could add anything to this foundational “knowing” of God. Saying “If you know only one religion then you don’t really know any” seems to me as confused as saying, “If you know only one set of parents then you don’t know any.”

But let me try to be a little more charitable toward Professor Eck, by following through on my parenting analogy. While it surely would be arrogant to say that you don’t really know your parents at all until you have compared them carefully to other parents, there is something to be said for exposure to what we might call “comparative parenting.”

Actually, it’s a very good thing that some experts study parents to understand the differences and similarities in the way parents and offspring relate to each other. These parenting studies often help ordinary people gain a healthier understanding of their own parent-child relationships. New parents find it very helpful to read parenting guides, which are based on studies of many different family settings. Adults who were abused by their parents need desperately to be reassured, by people who know about families in general, that what they experienced was not “normal”-that they don’t have to feel guilty about the childhood hurts and fears that still keep cropping up in their lives. And for other people, it is encouraging simply to see that their experiences with parenthood are better than the run-of-the-mill. “Comparative parenting” exercises, then, can sometimes help us gain a better grasp of our own very personal parenting relationships. And the same holds for religion. It is surely too simplistic to say, “If you know only one religion then you don’t know any.” But it does make sense to say that exposure to other religions can deepen my understanding of my own faith commitment.

Hospitality and the Religious Other

Meaningful exposure to other religious perspectives requires a form of spiritual hospitality. One of the best books on hospitality that I know of was written by Christine Pohl, who chose an apt title for her book on the subject: Making Room. That is just the right image. To show hospitality is to create space for the needs of others. We are being hospitable when we give weary ones a place to sleep, and when we make room at our tables for people to share our food.

As Christine Pohl also points out, though, the word “hospitality” has been robbed of its original core meaning in recent times. We talk much about the “hospitality industry,” referring thereby to “hotels and restaurants which are open to strangers as long as they have money or credit cards.”1 True hospitality goes much deeper than an economic transaction. It is going beyond what is expected of us. True hospitality carries with it an element of vulnerability. When Jesus showed hospitality to people whose lifestyles and ideas he strongly opposed, it got him into trouble with the religious leaders of his own day: “The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?’” (Luke 5:30). To be sure, those religious leaders were guilty of quite a bit of self-righteousness. But we can at least understand something of their concerns. When we show hospitality we are often taking some risks.

In extending hospitality to people, the notion of making room, of creating space, is often quite a literal thing. But it is also helpful to think about the benefits of making room in a metaphorical sense. Here, for example, is a passage from a journal kept by Father Henri Nouwen, where he describes the ways in which his prayer life is a welcoming of thoughts and concerns into his consciousness:

(P)rayer is the only real way to clean my heart and to create new space. I am discovering how important that inner space is. When it is there it seems that I can receive many concerns of others… I can pray for many others and feel a very intimate relationship with them. There even seems to be room for the thousands of suffering people in prisons and in the deserts of North Africa. Sometimes I feel as if my heart expands from my parents traveling in Indonesia to my friends in Los Angeles and from the Chilean prisons to the parishes in Brooklyn. Now I know that it is not I who pray but the Spirit of God who prays in me… He himself prays in me and touches the whole world with his love right here and now. At those moments all questions about “the social relevance of prayer, etc.” seem dull and very unintelligent…2

It is this same kind of consciousness expanding, this metaphorical making room, that I want to apply to interreligious dialogue. This image does capture something of the vulnerability, the risk-taking character of intellectual activity. When we invite “the other” into our mental space, we are never quite sure how the encounter will go. But there are strong Christian reasons for inviting the ideas that come from others-even new and strange others-into our hearts and minds.

God’s Critique

Spiritual hospitality means also welcoming God’s gaze into our inner places. To be sure, “welcoming” may be too positive a term. I know that I don’t exactly welcome God’s gaze into my private places. Sincerely saying the psalmist’s “Search me, O God, and know my heart” (Psalm 139:22) to is no easy thing.

It helps to know that the searching happens whether or not we give God permission. My favorite theologian, the sixteenth-century Protestant reformer John Calvin, makes an important point when he tells us, at the very beginning of his great work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, that “the knowledge of God and [knowledge of ] ourselves” are “joined by so many bonds” that “which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.” This means, Calvin says, that we never truly know ourselves unless we have “first looked upon God’s face.” If we move through our days without contemplating the will of God, he says, we will be “quite content with our own righteousness.” But “once we begin to raise our thoughts to God, and to ponder his nature, and how completely perfect are his righteousness, wisdom, and power,” then what we thought was perfectly acceptable in ourselves “will prove itself the most miserable weakness.”3

That fits the psalmist’s experience in Psalm 139. When he invites God to examine his innermost being, he is not thinking of himself as opening the window to his soul to the divine gaze. He knows that for God that window is always open. His invitation is in fact a submission, an acknowledgement of something that is already a fact. The most important thing in what the psalmist says is his request that God will “lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23). We need to allow the divine gaze to teach us and lead us in new ways.

No spirituality of civility is adequate without self-critique-taking an honest look at our own motives and purposes. And this can only happen when we acknowledge that we desperately need God to reveal to us what is really going on in our inner being. And having begun to be instructed by looking to the will of God, we can also plead to be guided “in the way everlasting.”

Having noted the need for God’s critique and self-critique, how do we proceed in engaging in interreligious dialogue as a form of spiritual hospitality given the polarizing tendencies within Christianity?

Polarized Approaches

We Christians seem to be fond of polarizations. This propensity shows up in discussions about our approach to other religions. Some Christians emphasize evangelizing strategies that are heavily weighted toward explicit convictedness: present the message of the gospel and invite people to become Christians. Other Christians rely heavily on civility: engage in polite dialogue with people from other religious communities in the hope of promoting mutual understanding and cooperation.

The defenders of each of these approaches often don’t get along very well. The evangelizers accuse the dialoguers of sacrificing the gospel for religious relativism; they fear that the unique claims of Christianity will be bartered away in interreligious dialogue. The dialoguers respond by accusing the evangelizers of a religious imperialism that runs rough-shod over the genuine insights that can be found in other religious traditions; they want to avoid a dogmatic spirit.

Do these two approaches need to be treated as an either-or choice? Is it possible to see evangelism and dialogue as complementary activities? I’m inclined to look for some way of integrating the two emphases. Why can’t Christians engage in evangelization while at the same time hoping to gain new understanding through dialogue with other religions?

When “evangelism” and “dialogue” become the watchwords of two opposing camps, it leaves some of us very uncomfortable. For example, I find that the dialoguers often explain their approach in ways that leave me no choice but to stay out of their camp. Theologians representing the dialogue cause often do sound relativistic; some of them even insist that interreligious dialogue is an important phase in our “evolution” toward a new “global theology” to which various religions will contribute their particular “hypotheses” about ultimate reality.

I cannot accept a call to interreligious dialogue that rejects Christianity’s claims to uniqueness. And, frankly, I know Jews and Muslims who would also reject that approach. They do not want their claims to theological uniqueness reduced to mere “hypotheses” about spiritual things. There are genuine disagreements between the different religions. In the final analysis, the choice between religious perspectives has to do with mutually exclusive truth-claims about reality and goodness. No amount of dialogue will make these differences go away.

But this does not mean that I’m a consistently comfortable resident of the evangelizing camp. My fellow evangelizers do sometimes (and I stress the sometimes) tend toward dogmatism and imperialism-especially in reaction to the relativistic statements of many dialoguers. But that does not mean they’re right in rejecting dialogue altogether.

I want an evangelizing Christianity that is open to civil dialogue with non-Christians. So I look for ways of transcending these polarized positions. There is much to be gained from holding firmly to Christian truth-claims while genuinely engaging other people in serious discussion.

Transcending the Polarization

I work closely with Jewish organizations on projects having to do with religious liberty and other issues of public concern. A newspaper reporter once asked how I, an evangelical, could have such a close association with Judaism: “Don’t you evangelicals try to evangelize Jews?”

I said that I do believe it’s important to share my faith in Jesus Christ with non-Christians, including Jewish people. But I also think it’s wrong, I told him, to treat Jews as nothing more than evangelistic prospects.

He quoted my comment in his news story, and when it was published, both Jews and Christians asked me to explain these remarks further. Understandably, each group focused on a different aspect of what I had said. I was glad for the chance to elaborate on the subject, since it is an important one.

I believe in evangelism. I want to talk about my faith in Jesus Christ with my Jewish friends, and I support ongoing efforts to communicate the gospel. I would be unfaithful to my evangelical convictions if I ignored the clear biblical call to present the evangel-the good news that Jesus is the heaven-sent Son of God-to all people, including Jewish people.

But I also feel a strong need to listen to Jews. Even if I thought they were unwilling to listen to my views (which has not been my usual experience), I would still find conversation with them worthwhile. Jewish people have much to teach me about Judaism and about their perspectives on the teachings and actions of the Christian community. They are also helpful allies in many aspects of the struggle for public righteousness. And parallel benefits can be gained from promoting better understanding of and cooperation with Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, and other religious communities.

The Value of Complementarity

It is important, I think, to value both evangelism and dialogue without reducing the one to the other. The two activities have a complementary relationship.

Indeed, dialogue can be an important strategy for evangelism-a fact that’s been recognized by evangelicals who call for “relational evangelism.” In many situations, the best way to evangelize people is to establish strong bonding relationships with them: listening to them, identifying with their hopes and fears, gaining their trust. Then, when we do have the chance to talk with them about the gospel, they can accept our words as an expression of love for them. The empathic give-and-take of this approach is essentially dialogic in nature.

That is good and noble. But it’s important that all dialogue with persons of other religious groups not be merely a strategy for evangelism. We mustn’t set these relationships up in such a way that our efforts will be a failure if the relationships don’t develop into evangelistic opportunities.

Francis Schaeffer, a Christian leader who did much to foster the idea of a more intellectually reflective evangelicalism, talked often about the importance of “co-belligerency.” By that he meant that we should find ways of cooperating with people of other faith-perspectives in working for the common good. This would mean, he insisted, we would form ad hoc alliances working with one group on this cause and with another on a different cause. Interreligious understanding is a helpful means to gain the appropriate information and sensitivities to seek out that kind of cooperation.

The Islamic Challenge

“9/11 changed everything.” That is said so much that to repeat it comes across as a cliché. The problem, though, is that it isn’t true. The horrible events of September 11, 2001, did shock us, and for a while it looked like it might have a permanent effect on the American mood. But we seem to have slipped back as a culture into many of our old attitudes and habits.

What did change permanently as a result of 9/11, though, is our perspective on Islam. Suddenly what had been experienced as a fairly abstract set of issues about religious differences-or when concrete, they were issues for other parts of the world-have become very personal and local for many of us.

In the past-prior to the events of 9/11-I had approached my discussions with Muslim leaders in a fairly relaxed fashion. I even felt a kind of kinship with them. As a Calvinist I have a lofty view of God’s sovereign power, and I could affirm certain theological parallels between my theological understanding of the deity and that of my Muslim counterparts. And as a person who worries much about what is happening in our secularized culture, I have even been able to express some admiration for the ways Muslims in the United States have resisted many of the things in that culture that I also want to resist.

There was always, of course, the all-important question of who Jesus Christ is. But here too I often felt a kinship of sorts. My Muslim friends have always insisted on expressing their great appreciation of Jesus of Nazareth, pointing to the fact that their holy book itself sees him as an exalted witness to the Truth. My typical response to that has been to express appreciation for that positive view of Jesus, but to move on to talk about why I see the atoning work of Christ on the Cross-a teaching that Muslims reject-as the real solution to the deep human problems of sin and guilt.

In all of that, I learned to like the Muslims with whom I was having dialogues. Many of them were warm human beings who were enjoyable conversation partners. And those were the folks who came to my mind very quickly as I watched the planes crashing into New York’s Twin Towers.

Even as I was reeling at what I was seeing on the TV screen in my home, one of our Fuller administrators called to ask me what I wanted him to do or say as a response on the part of our seminary community. One initiative that I set in motion right off was a call to the headquarters of a local Muslim organization to tell them that we were praying for them and were prepared to stand with them in the likely event that there would be a reaction against local Muslims over what was clearly a terrorist attack.

That instinctive response on my part was based on a realization that the 9/11 destruction we were witnessing was an important teaching moment. To be sure, the lessons were much bigger than simply an exercise in interreligious understanding. But there were also significant interreligious issues at stake. Dialogue with Muslims was no longer something we did “below the radar screen.” We now needed to talk openly to our fellow Christians, and other citizens, about our understanding of Islam as a social-political presence in the world at large and in American life in particular.

And we needed to give a show of support for our Muslim friends. What had previously been a conversation that focused on the nature of God and the way to salvation now had to take on a focus on violence, peacemaking and citizenship. And it also meant that many of us in the Christian world had to make the case to our fellow Christians that global Islam is a complex phenomenon, with many different “denominations”-that not all Muslims line up with Osama bin Laden.

Muslim leaders in the United States were criticized by many in the wake of 9/11 for not offering a bold condemnation of the horrible deeds of 9/11. Those of us who stayed in conversation with them understood the caution on their part. While our Muslim friends were deeply distraught by the events of 9/11, they were not sure how best to speak to the issues. What might come across as a formal statement of condemnation to the American public might well be seen as the sort of betrayal that would elicit reprisals against their own people from Muslim extremists. How should the case for Muslim peacemaking be made? How best can the complex views about Islam and societal pluralism be set forth?

I have wished that Muslim leaders in the United States had quickly spoken out with a condemnation of the acts of terrorism. But I also came to understand their sense of caution. They wanted to say something substantive on the subject, but at the same time they were fearful for their own people. They were genuinely worried that speaking out could bring acts of reprisal against innocent Muslims from the advocates of violence in the Islamic community.

What did happen as a result of 9/11 was a new sort of dialogue that focuses on issues of violence and love, peace, and interreligious understanding. The seminary that I lead successfully applied for a major grant from the United States Justice Department to engage in discussions with Muslim leaders, both nationally and internationally. The kind of results that we achieved, along with other dialogues of a similar nature, were highlighted in a very public way by a strong statement issued by 38 Muslim scholars from around the world-in a document addressed, on October 13, 2006, to Christians: “A Common Word Between Us and You.” This statement, which details what the Muslim leaders see as teachings that they share with Christians, has led to continuing conversations. The basic concerns of that lengthy document are captured nicely in these comments:

Whilst Islam and Christianity are obviously different religions-and whilst there is no minimizing some of their formal differences it is clear that the Two Greatest Commandments are an area of common ground and a link between the Qur’an, the Torah and the New Testament.

…So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works. Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.4

Not a bad basis for interreligious dialogue and cooperation in general!

Talking About Religion Proper

Now we should consider some important questions. Except for evangelistic purposes, is it really worth our while to attempt dialogue about God and human nature and salvation? How can a true Christian have genuine “dialogue” with a Muslim on spiritual topics? Doesn’t a commitment to dialogue mean that I’m willing to follow the conversation wherever it leads, even if it means changing my basic convictions? How could I ever agree to that kind of process?

These are not cranky questions. They express important concerns. I have to admit it: if entering into dialogue with Muslims means that I must be willing to set aside my belief in the uniquely redemptive work of Christ, then I cannot do it. For me that is one of several nonnegotiable convictions.

What, then, can dialogue teach us about spiritual matters? “All truth is God’s truth” is a venerable affirmation of the Christian tradition. And the mainstream of that tradition has never meant by this that spiritual truth is limited to what is explicitly taught in the Bible. As God’s Word, the Bible is a direct source of truth. But it also helps us test claims to truth that come to us from other sources. Consider how the French mystic Simone Weil described the Christian’s search for truth: “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”5

I find this comment intriguing. I also have to admit that Weil’s way of putting the point makes me a little nervous. I balk at her suggestion that Christ wants us to value truth more than we value him. But I also know that Simone Weil never meant to suggest that we should not be totally committed to Christ. Her writings are rich expressions of deep devotion to her Lord.

What Weil is pointing to, I think, is the need to have such a total trust in Christ that we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it leads us. He is “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (Jn 1:9). Jesus is the Truth. We do not have to be afraid, then, to enter into dialogue with people from other religious traditions. If we find truth in what they say, we must step out in faith to reach for it-Jesus’s arms will be there to catch us!

Interreligious dialogue, then, can be an activity that we Christians undertake in Christ. The apostle Paul proclaims an important truth when he tells the Colossians that in Christ “all things hold together” (Col 1:17). The Son of God also holds the “all things” of other religions together. His Spirit is everywhere at work. No religious conversation can address matters that take place outside of his sovereign rule.

I cannot put my faith in Christ as Savior on the negotiating table in my discussions with other religionists. But I can come to the conversation with a genuine openness to learning new things about the scope of Christ’s “hidden” authority and power. And these lessons can in turn reveal to us new things about others and about ourselves. Mark Heim makes this point well:

[T]he better we know [other] faiths from the inside, the better we will sense where in a deep sense we can affirm them and where in our dialogue we must speak critically, as we are willing to listen. We must be very sensitive to their understandings of us, for they will teach us where we, within the supposed security of the way and truth and life, are in fact moving away from the very God we confess and proclaim.6

Asking Questions

I once heard an African Christian leader tell what it had been like for him to turn away from animistic religion to embrace Christ. “There were many things in my tribe’s religious stories that prepared me for the gospel. When I first heard the story of Jesus, it did not strike me as a completely new and strange thing. What I said to myself was, ‘Aha! So that is the answer!’

This man first experienced Christ as the answer to questions that he had long been asking from within the framework of another religion. This should not surprise us. St. Augustine’s oft-quoted prayer expresses a profound fact about the human condition: our hearts are restless until they rest in God. The spiritual restlessness that characterizes the human quest can find fulfillment only in Christ. Interreligious dialogue can be an important way for us to understand better the ways in which our human restlessness is expressed in different religious settings.

Bishop Stephen Neill was a great missionary-theologian who spent many decades in India. He passionately pursued interreligious dialogue, but always out of a deep conviction that Jesus is the only true Savior of humankind. His comments about Hindu-Christian relationships highlight the importance of interreligious conversations in which we probe together the questions, and the answers, that shape our lives:

[T]he Christian task is to live out the life of Jesus Christ before the eyes of [others]. They cannot see him. They will not see him, unless they can see him in the lives of his followers. If Christians are as different from others as they ought to be, questions may arise in the minds of those who watch them. This may give the Christian the opportunity to sharpen up these questions in the enquiring mind, to suggest that perhaps the answers to such questions as are given in the Hindu system are not entirely satisfactory, and lovingly point those who are willing to listen to the one in whom all human questions can receive their all-sufficient answer, the Lord Jesus Christ.7

This essay is taken from Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World by Richard J. Mouw. Copyright(c) 2010. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515,


1Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 4.

2Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Genesee Diary (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), 74-75.

3John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. John Allen, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, n.d.), bk. I, ch. i, secs. 1-2.


5Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1973), 69.

6S. Mark Heim, Is Christ the Only Way? Christian Faith in a Pluralistic World (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1985), 150.

7Stephen Neill, Christian Faith and Other Faiths (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 124.