The Holy Spirit, the Middle Way, and the Religions


A Pentecostal Inquiry in a Pluralistic World

This essay reflects autobiographically on the task of doing theology in the pluralistic world. I do so not because I think my engagement with the question is especially deserving of consideration, but because I know it best, having lived it myself. I also believe that the kinds of issues I have navigated as a Pentecostal theologian set in relief some of the major challenges that continue to confront Christian theologians conscious about their vocation in a world of many faiths.

In any case, as it has been going on twenty years now that I have been in ongoing dialogue with Buddhist traditions, the eve of the appearance of two of my books on the topic seems a good time to track the developments and reconsider the issues.1 The five parts of this essay (1) sketch my original formulation of the theological problem, (2) overview the theological framework originally articulated in response, (3) detail its application to engaging with the Christian-Buddhist dialogue, (4) document the critical questions that have since arisen to my proposals, and (5) summarize the basic trajectories of where my work has brought me to today and how this is featured in the shape of the two volumes that are on the horizon. My hope is that these reflections will serve to highlight the major lessons learned and chart fruitful ways forward for Christian theologians conscientious about working in a religiously plural world.

Formulating the Problem (1990–1995)

I grew up as a “pastor’s kid” and “missionary kid” to a Pentecostal preacher in the Assemblies of God denomination.2 Those who know about contemporary Pentecostalism know that it is one of the most vibrant forms of Christian faith today and it is at the vanguard of Christian expansion around the world, especially across the global South. A large part of the reason for Pentecostal success is its intense missionary and evangelistic commitment. At the heart of Pentecostal spirituality is the Lukan thesis regarding the expansive growth of the early church described in the book of Acts and announced at the very beginning: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Socialization into the Pentecostal way of life thus involves immersion into the missionary vocation, as well as the expectation that the Spirit of God will be present to empower Christian witness to the world.3

Pentecostal fervor, as Peter said of God in the context of his encounter with Cornelius, “shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34). All people are, potentially, equal opportunity beneficiaries of the gospel and thus appropriate recipients of the Christian witness. The Spirit empowers Christian witness at every time, in every place, and to every person. Pentecostals therefore divide the world into two groups of persons: those who are born again and those who are not.4 The latter are all viewed as those to whom people filled with the Spirit should carry the gospel. This includes those who are only nominally Christian.

Thus one frequently hears testimonies in Pentecostal churches that begin like this: “I grew up Catholic [or Presbyterian or Lutheran, etc.] but got saved [usually in a Pentecostal church].” In this regard, the nominal Catholic, etc., is not much different from an agnostic, an atheist, a Buddhist, or an adherent or even devotee of any other faith. Moreover, because the Holy Spirit empowers Christian witness, the emphasis is placed almost exclusively on what others have to gain from encountering (Pentecostal) Christians; little consideration is given to whether (Pentecostal) Christians might have anything to learn from listening to others. In fact, time was of the essence: Spirit-empowered believers should waste little of it in meaningless conversation or chitchat. Rather, there ought to be urgency about getting the gospel message out to others since eternity beckons.

It was while attending a Wesleyan Holiness seminary (Western Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon, starting in the spring of 1990) that I first began to question this standard account. I met many non-Pentecostals, those my tradition had indicated could only be nominally Christians, and discovered not only that these members of other churches and even mainline Protestant denominations were genuinely Christian but also that they were people of the Spirit even if they didn’t believe in, embrace, or practice my kind of Pentecostal spirituality. It was also during this time in seminary that I began to consider a vocation as a theologian. In order to prepare for doctoral studies in theology, I enrolled in a second masters program at Portland State University (PSU) in history, with a major emphasis in the history of philosophy.

My studies at PSU included an elective course on metaphysics in which my professor, John Hammond, introduced me to the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.5 Extensive reading in Whiteheadian philosophy that term and subsequently led me to the work of John B. Cobb Jr. at Claremont University and the Center for Process Studies that he cofounded. As a Malaysian-born and American-naturalized person of Chinese descent, I resonated with the research that the Center was facilitating in bringing Christian faith into dialogue with Asian cultural, philosophical, and religious traditions. I had grown up thinking that Christian conversion meant leaving behind one’s cultural trappings—in my case, Chinese cultural realities.6 Yet I could not deny the “Asianness” that forever will be written phenotypically on my face and the color of my skin. Engaging with these ideas nurtured in me the possibility, even the hope, that there was more to my Asianness than simply these biological accidents. Would it be possible for me to be authentically Christian and Asian simultaneously? What would that mean and how would that look?7

In the spring of 1994, I enrolled in the only course I have taken (so far) on Buddhism, an independent study with professor Linda Walton, a historian of East Asia. I read a good deal in the history of Buddhism, especially in China and Japan, while focusing also on the recent history of the Buddhist-Christian encounter. It was during this semester that I realized that my father’s repeated insistence on doing all things in moderation was informed as much by the Buddha’s urging to stay on the “middle way” as it was by the ancient Hebrew proverbs; that his easy-going demeanor could be as much reflective of the Daoist-Buddhist synthesis in the Chinese context as a personality disposition; and that our family structures and relationships remained thoroughly Confucian, even if we did not acknowledge them as such. What did all of this mean for me? What did it mean, if anything, for Christian theology?

At this point early in my theological studies, then, what is important to note is that the interreligious question was but a short step removed from the more specifically ecumenical question. From a practical point of view, growing up Pentecostal did not lend itself to a nuanced perspective of those who were not Pentecostal Christians. Generally speaking, all those outside the Pentecostal fold were defaulted into a “non-born-again” category unless they proved themselves otherwise. In short, nominal Christians needed the gospel witness just as much as did non-Christians and those in other faiths. Hence, what I now consider to be a legitimate intra-Christian or ecumenical issue of how Christians relate to each other across various Christian traditions was, at that time, an issue of proselytism: bearing witness to the gospel in the hopes that others would come into explicit Christian faith. Working in that mode rendered the ecumenical and interreligious challenges noticeably indistinct.

A Pentecostal Theology of Religions (1996–2002)

I began my PhD at Boston University in the fall of 1996, motivated to write a dissertation on a Pentecostal theology of religions. With two master’s degrees in hand, my advisor, Robert Cummings Neville, allowed me to take the minimal number of doctoral seminars and I also wrote research papers in almost each one on some aspect of my topic. This allowed me to complete the dissertation and the program within two and a half years.8 I left Boston with the conviction that responsible theological scholarship had to be adept in engaging at least three publics: that of the church, that of the academy, and that of the world.9 Included in the last was that of contemporary culture, the world of modern science, and the pluralistic voices and perspectives encountered amidst many faiths.

In the years after completing the PhD, I published a number of articles (some of which were papers written originally for my PhD seminars) that were then collected, revised, and expanded in book form.10 If my dissertation was addressed specifically to my Pentecostal colleagues, this collection of essays was addressed to the broader Evangelical academy (I was now teaching at Bethel University in St. Paul, affiliated with the Swedish Pietist denomination the Baptist General Conference, and a member of the evangelical Council of Christian Colleges and Universities). These two books reflected my preliminary efforts to respond to the questions generated in my graduate education and have charted my path in theology of religions over the last decade. The following summarizes their basic thrust and highlights their fundamental methodological features.

The gist of my contribution was to develop what I called a pneumatological approach to theology of religions. Christological categories were too particular in engaging the interreligious dialogue since they either risked imposing Christian perspectives on other faiths (whether in colonial or imperialistic fashion or in the problematic form of Rahner’s “anonymous Christianity” claim) or inhibited interfaith conversation from the get-go (because of the incommensurability between traditions, at least as understood by cultural linguistic theories of religion). A pneumatological approach, on the other hand, appeared to be capable of advancing the discussion in at least three distinct forums: the theological, the Pentecostal, and the religious studies academies.

Theologically, I suggested that within a robustly trinitarian framework, the missions of the Son and the Spirit were related but also distinct (without distinction, trinitarianism would collapse into binitarianism, but without relationship there would be nothing specifically Christian about the Spirit). If this is the case, then we might discern a pneumatological mission “outside” of the church or vis-à-vis the religions that invite other than just christological assessment. Hence there ought to be criteria for discerning the religions that do not turn only on christological parameters. This was proposed as a temporary epistemological and dialogical strategy that allowed engaging the interfaith dialogue, somewhat analogously to going into a movie theater to appreciate the show on its own terms while suspending our personal judgments.11 Many Pentecostals and Evangelicals do actually approach religious others respectfully, as my proposal insisted was important. However, the rationale is more pragmatic and missiological: if we want others to listen to what we have to say, we ought first to listen to what they have to say. I do think such civility is essential, but I wanted more than just evangelistic motivations for such modes of interaction. Further, I wanted to establish my bona fides as a systematic theologian (the notion of a Pentecostal theologian is still an oxymoron in some circles!), not as a missiologist (for which we Pentecostals are well known). Authentic engagement with those in other faiths thus had to be founded, in the end, on theological premises, and such I was hoping to provide.

Yet this fundamental trinitarian argument was also deeply Pentecostal, at least as I understood it. Growing up Pentecostal and thoroughly shaped by it, I felt that there were distinctively Pentecostal insights that could be brought to bear on the discussion. Going back to the Day of Pentecost narrative at the heart of Pentecostal spirituality, I noted that the visitors in Jerusalem from around the Mediterranean were amazed that “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11). This suggested that the many tongues and cultures of the world were potentially conduits of the testimonies to God’s marvelous works. It also suggested that there was a pneumatological arena within which people—of various languages, cultures, and even religious traditions, since the last was separated only arbitrarily from the former—could meet and communicate.

So beyond the basic theological and Pentecostal aspects of my proposal were those related to the discipline of religious studies as that had been evolving in the last decade of the twentieth century. Part of the challenge of teaching religion in the academy had to do with whether outsiders of any tradition could effectively instruct students in that tradition. In the past, when religions were defined primarily by their doctrines, such an intellectual approach may have worked, but if religions involved not just ideas but also practices, among other dimensions,12 then how could those who were not participants truly communicate the heart or essence of religion in a scholarly classroom? One way to mitigate this problem was to invite insiders to give their own accounts and to confirm whether or not they recognized the accounts of outsiders as accurate to their experience.13 I felt that my Pentecostal account provided theological reasons for receiving the “witness” of religious others on their own terms. In other words, I felt I could embrace the basic premise of religious studies scholarship about the importance of heeding the voices and perspectives of people in other faiths because I had explicitly theological reasons for doing so. In addition, coming as a Pentecostal into the religious and theological academy was intimidating since we were known for speaking in tongues—i.e., gibberish—rather than being intellectually coherent or eloquent. Hence, I saw a parallel between the marginalization of my own religious tradition and community and the legacy of colonial marginalization of other faiths from the Christian center. On both counts, the Day of Pentecost narrative appeared to provide narrative redemption.14 If I now expected to be heard as a Pentecostal theologian on our own terms, I should also grant to religious others the same dialogical courtesy of allowing them to be heard on their own terms. The difference, again, was that this was motivated for me now not by political correctness, but theologically.

There was one final reason for my pneumatological turn. For too long, I felt, religion had been approached doctrinally predominantly as a set of ideas. Yet I knew as a Pentecostal about matters of the heart, about the importance of spiritual practices, and about the complexities attending to the spiritual dimension of the world that we Pentecostals continuously had to discern.15 Therefore, it seemed to me that the world’s religions were similarly constituted affectively, materially, and spiritually. A pneumatological approach to the religions, it seemed to me, was more primed to engage these aspects of religious life than other methodological options.

A Pentecostal Approach to Buddhist Traditions (2003–2007)

Part of my training at Boston insisted that our speculative theological ideas would travel only as far as there was empirical traction that connected them with the real world. Thus, I knew that I needed to test my pneumatological approach in the actual world of interfaith dialogue and encounter. Because of my interest in Buddhism, I naturally gravitated in that direction. I became involved with the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies that meets annually at the American Academy of Religion and presented papers in that venue, published in and regularly contributed book reviews for its journal (Buddhist-Christian Studies), served as interim coeditor of the journal for one issue (2009), and have chaired its book award committee for the last three years (2009–2012). When I taught world religions and theology of religions at Bethel, I took my students to the Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis and invited the Center’s advanced students to come to my classes to engage my students in conversation. Gradually, over the course of teaching on Buddhism for these few years, a book manuscript emerged wherein I applied to the Christian-Buddhist dialogue the pneumatological categories developed in my dissertation.

My thesis then, and still today, is that the pneumatological symbols of divine presence, divine activity, and divine absence are distinctively but not exclusively Christian, and thus they are both usefully generalizable to the religions and yet also sufficiently vague so as to facilitate viable religious and theological comparisons and contrasts. The challenge here was at least threefold. First, the task of comparative theology needed adequate comparative categories that juxtaposed interreligious realities without collapsing their differences. Second, such comparative categories had to be substantively informed by the home tradition since no one could claim to have an “objective” view from nowhere. Third, such comparative categories also had to enable the registration of what was important in the other tradition, and that from the perspective of those in other traditions.16 Later, when I came to see more clearly the intertwining of beliefs and practices, I also felt that a pneumatological approach to the Christian-Buddhist dialogue enabled consideration of the role of practices that was otherwise often neglected in analyses that focused on religious doctrines.

Of course, my Evangelical and Pentecostal colleagues wanted to know if we could discern the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in Buddhism. That is a valid question to ask as Christians, but answering this question was not a dialogical one that involved Buddhists since the latter were neither theists nor believers in the Holy Spirit. Similarly, Christians wondered: does Buddhism as a religious tradition and with its core texts mediate divine revelation? Well, again, this is a Christian question to which Buddhists would simply demur as being inapplicable to them since there is no theistic framework within which such revelation can be understood or received. Perhaps most important, Christians want to know if Buddhists can be saved as Buddhists. But only a few realize that Buddhists generally do not aspire to attain salvation as Christians see it.17

I was thus unhappy with the established set of Christian responses to Buddhist traditions in particular and to the religions in general. I was an exclusivist in understanding Christ as the only way to salvation, but what if Buddhists were neither asking that question nor providing competing answers to the problem of sin discerned by Christians? I was also a pluralist then in terms of believing that Buddhist traditions (alongside other religious traditions) offered a set of meditative and other related practices designed to achieve distinctive Buddhist (etc.) goals, but I knew it made little sense to say that Buddhists (etc.) were traveling the same soteriological path as Christians. I felt most comfortable as an inclusivist, believing that God could find other means to save even people of other faiths in Christ through the Spirit. But I also felt very uneasy about imposing this overarching understanding as an explanatory framework for other traditions. This reluctance was especially palpable in the presence of my Buddhist friends, primarily because of the legacy of colonialism but also because I knew that people of other faiths had their own overarching paradigms within which I and those in my faith were located, and I did not think it profitable to debate these notions that were adjudicable only eschatologically.

In the fall of 2004 I was invited to serve as the Edward Brueggeman Visiting Chair in Theology and Dialogue at the Jesuit institution Xavier University, in Cincinnati, Ohio. There I had the privilege of teaching a master’s level course on theology and science with Fr. Joseph Bracken.18 While at Xavier, I decided to take one chapter of the book I was then working on, a chapter devoted to thinking about theological anthropology not only in dialogue with Buddhism but also in dialogue with the cognitive sciences,19 and expand that into its own manuscript on the Christianity-Buddhism-science trialogue, which was then read by the seminar of students. What was already a complex conversation now became even more complicated.

On the one hand, introducing science into the discussion was beneficial because Buddhists were increasingly engaging the sciences,20 and it therefore provided a mediating discourse for Buddhist-Christian dialogue just as the discipline of philosophy had served that role for Christian theology for many centuries before. Further, science itself is a fully public enterprise, and theology’s engagement with the public square has increasingly recognized the need to engage in dialogue with modern science. My own commitments to doing public theology (foregrounded through my sojourn through the Boston University program) had already led me to see that, eventually, I needed to think also about theology in conversation with science.21 Most important, I felt that bringing the religion-and-science framework to bear on the Christian-Buddhist dialogue would also allow the broad range of Buddhist perspectives, especially in terms of the various self-understandings of schools in that tradition as a psychology or even a philosophy of mind, to be registered in the conversation.

But to be sure, factoring modern science into the Christian-Buddhist dialogue brought forward a completely new set of challenges as well. Now the dialogue had expanded into a trialogue, and the methodological questions that had previously required adjudication across two sets of commitments had to be negotiated triadically. And, of course, one now had to be cognizant of the spectrum from right (more conservative if not fundamentalist) to left (more progressive if not liberal) on three, not just two fronts. So, a range of Christianities now had to contend with a multiplicity of scientific disciplines, not to mention positions within these domains of knowledge, as well as a variety of Buddhist voices, perspectives, and traditions. Yes, I was all for the “many tongues of Pentecost,” but I began to worry that such a cacophony and plurivocity would produce not just bewilderment and perplexity (Acts 2:5, 12) but also sneers that advocates for such a trialogue were “filled with new wine” (Acts 2:13).

All along the way, I had also felt the pressure of thinking theologically in an intercultural, interreligious, and interdisciplinary context. I had set sail as a comparativist, desiring to establish my bona fides as a systematician—so the Christianity-Buddhism-science trialogue made good sense—but had gradually come to see that my work as a Pentecostal theologian could not be divorced from theology of mission.22 It was not just that mission and evangelism was what Pentecostals were known for, but also that I came to recognize how theology of religions could not, and should not desire to, in the long run, be divorced from ecclesiology and missiology (the nature of the church and its mission). Yet in a pluralistic and late modern context, Christian theology could no longer proceed merely kerygmatically, and my work as a comparative theologian, systematician, and even missiologist needed to be carried out with nuance, patience, honesty, and also humility.

Resistance and Critical Questions (2008–2011)

As a Pentecostal theologian, my work has always been situated in some respects within the broader Evangelical tradition in part due to my training at a Wesleyan Holiness seminary and in part due to my having taught, over the last twelve years, in Evangelically affiliated universities (Bethel University was part of the Swedish Pietist Baptist General Conference, and it and Regent University, where I currently teach, have been part of the Evangelical coalition Council for Christian Colleges and Universities). So, while Pentecostal theologians and scholars who have responded in print to my work have been largely encouraging, this does not mean that they agree with the details of my proposals.23 But most have seen the need for Pentecostal theological reflection on such matters and have been able to appreciate that my efforts intend both to be loyal to Pentecostalism, broadly defined, and yet also to critically advance the discussion while engaging wider theological and scholarly concerns. Evangelical theologians who are outside of the Pentecostal tradition, however, have been more critical. Perhaps this is because they lack the Pentecostal horizon from which to resonate with the theological sensibilities animating my work. Or perhaps I have simply failed to be clearer or more convincing to those outside the Pentecostal theological orbit.

What have been the concerns of some Evangelical theologians? Much of the published material has been focused on my pneumatological theology and its relationship to Christology in particular and to trinitarian theology in general. Whereas in my earlier work I had attempted to articulate how the mission of the Spirit was related to but yet also distinct from that of the Son—so that the missions of these “two hands” of the Father, to use St. Irenaeus’s phrase, would not be conflated (required for Trinitarian theology) and so that discernment of the religions could involve both christological and pneumatological criteria (only the latter of which I had specifically developed)—Evangelical worries question whether my proposal severed the two hands of the Father.24 The choice is put this way: either “Christ or the Spirit.”25 So unless the work of the Spirit in the religions was to glorify Christ, the point of a pneumatological theology of religions would be misguided. Building on the latter presupposition especially, the point is most starkly made in the title of an article in Trinity Journal, published by one of a handful of flagship Evangelical seminaries, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School: “The Spirit of Truth as Agent in False Religions? A Critique of Amos Yong’s Pneumatological Theology of Religions with Reference to Current Trends.”26 My suggestions to hold at bay Christological categories momentarily in order to explore how pneumatological perspectives might open up other pathways of dialogue and understanding is being taken as opening up to a naïve acceptance of even false religions. The question mark in the title of the article notwithstanding, the implications are clear: pneumatological approaches to theology of religions—and Yong’s in particular—are imprudent at best and deceptive and dangerous at worst.

There is no space here for any extended apologetic for my project, especially since these criticisms in particular all have come from scholars who appear to have opted to make their case on only a narrow selection of my published work on this topic.27 The rationale for these selective readings is incomprehensible to me especially since I have already provided responses to similar concerns in other work that has been easily available.28 Yet aside from these methodological flaws, I believe a deeper problem remains: that of a classical pneumatological neglect or subordination that is captured nicely in Eugene Rogers’s saying, “there is nothing the Spirit can do, that the Son can’t do better.”29 While I agree that pneumatology should not be severed from Christology, I also assert that the historic subservience of the Spirit should not be perpetuated.

Perhaps, however, the misunderstandings are due to ambiguities for which I need to take responsibility. In the interests of clarifying my stances, let me make the following three affirmations central to the historic Christian tradition. First, I affirm the trinitarian rule of faith regarding the indivisibility of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Indivisibility, however, does not mean identity (since that would collapse trinitarian confession into mere monotheism) and it may be that my persistence in exploring the distinctiveness of the Spirit’s mission has led to the perception that I am introducing a cleavage between the economies of the Son and the Spirit. Second, I affirm as a Christian that salvation is in Christ alone, and that other religions do not save— in fact, do not even aspire to such salvation— understood ultimately as eternal life with God, in Christ, by the Spirit. This does not mean that there are no this-worldly dimensions to God’s salvific work, and it is perhaps my asking about if and how the religious traditions of humankind might be means of grace in this penultimate sense that have led some to misunderstand me as a pluralist who thinks that all religions are equally salvific. Third, I affirm that ultimately for Christians, the work of the Spirit is discerned through that of the incarnational and cruciform work of the Son, and that Christian judgments regarding other faiths always be informed by these commitments. The question is whether or not the lack of explicit christological markers—which is what would be expected in other faiths—means that the Holy Spirit of Jesus is entirely absent even if the fruits of the Spirit are present. 30

So hopefully with the preceding having cleared the air, I return to the question that I have been asking: what difference does the Holy Spirit make, if any, for Christian theology of religions? While Roman Catholic theologian Gavin D’Costa shares many of the concerns of the Evangelical theologians identified in the preceding, he also understands that this question deserves to be asked.31 Yet unlike Evangelicals, for whom the inner-trinitarian issues loom so large that not only is there no room for a pneumatological theology of religions but there is also not much of a constructive response possible for theology of religions period, D’Costa seeks to acknowledge the inner-trinitarian relations between Son and Spirit but yet also recognize the relative distinctiveness of the Spirit’s mission. Such a more robustly formulated pneumatology, and hence Trinitarian theology, has implications for understanding the religions within the Christian frame of reference. For instance, pneumatological categories such as inspiration and prophecy can be helpfully applied to the Christian dialogue with the world religious traditions, consistent with and building upon recent developments even in the magisterial tradition of Roman Catholic theology,32 D’Costa argues (especially with reference to Islamic and Hindu traditions). In the end, a high pneumatology and a high Christology not only complement one another, but the former also results in a richer appreciation for divine presence and activity in a religiously pluralistic world. This means that the church can learn from other faiths even as the church proclaims the richness of the message regarding the person and work of Christ. The Spirit who leads into all truth is capable of illuminating even Christians through the encounter with other faiths precisely because from our historically finite vantage point, there will always be new situations through which the Spirit will teach the church what has in previous times and places not been required. In the end, then, the “Spirit is far from subordinate, but is actively leading the Church into the fullness of the mystery of Christ, in proportion to its critical attentiveness to the Spirit in the world religions.”33

The difference between D’Costa’s criticisms and those of some Evangelicals is the difference between realizing the promise of a pneumatologically generative and fully trinitarian theology on the one hand and returning to a subordinationist pneumatology and its concomitant theological binitarianism on the other. I am just as concerned as others about preserving the interconnections between pneumatology and Christology. Yet I value D’Costa’s critical perspective precisely because he, while insisting that christological commitment sought not to be put on hold, still proceeds to do the hard work of pneumatology in general and pneumatological theology of religions in particular, resulting in more helpful ways to understand and engage the religions theologically than before. That is precisely one of the essential tasks of contemporary Christian theology in a pluralistic world. If some people think that a pneumatological approach is more unhelpful than helpful in this regard, then develop other more constructive proposals. Gavin D’Costa’s fidelity to the Great Tradition, to orthodox Christianity, and to a robust trinitarian (i.e., both christological and pneumatological) approach to theology of religions means that he has been a beneficial interlocutor on this issue.

So where does this leave us at this juncture? My response is still that we are very early in our thinking pneumatologically about theology and about theology of religions and theology of interfaith dialogue/encounter in general, not to mention about theology of Buddhism and theology of Christian-Buddhist dialogue and encounter in particular. I am grateful to my Evangelical critics for keeping before us essential aspects of the biblical and theological traditions. But at the same time, I think that pneumatology provides grounds for important elements of the theological task in a pluralistic world, three of which are the comparative, the contextual-missional, and the constructive-apologetic. In these concluding pages, I briefly reflect on these interrelated moments of doing Christian theology in a world of many faiths.

The Spirit, the Middle Way, and the Religions: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead

The first and most important theological task in our global context today, in my estimation, is comparative theology.34 Adequate comparisons involve, as I have indicated above, allowing those in all faiths to highlight their own perspectives, identify what is important, and explain why that is so. The pneumatological approach I have proffered invites and even requires the many tongues of humanity to be heard. With regard to my current work on Christian-Buddhist dialogue, for instance, I have not only sought to undertake the conversation in an interdisciplinary framework but also in a modality that highlights the varieties of Christian and Buddhist traditions, and how these might meet, listen to, and engage with the other.35 Pneumatology invites, even requires, the important work of listening so that we do not bear false witness about our neighbors (because we presume things about them rather than know them) or to our neighbors (because we have not taken the time to hear them out before preaching to them). And if we take the particularities of the many human tongues and languages seriously, then we might want to spend some time learning in depth those tongues and languages—not just biblical (Hebrew, Greek, etc.) or Western academic (German, French, etc.) ones. How might a pneumatological and trinitarian theology in dialogue with Buddhism in particular and other Asian traditions in general look, feel, and sound if conducted in the languages of the Eastern hemisphere? There is a great deal of work that needs to be done across disciplines, traditions, and cultures going forward.

Only an adequate comparative theology provides a solid springboard for the other two moments of the global theological task. Both the contextual-missional and the constructive-apologetic tasks are centered on Jesus Christ as the norm of Christian faith—because pneumatology also always brings christological commitments as the Spirit of God is also the Spirit of Christ, the way, the truth, and the life—albeit centripetally and centrifugally so. The former moves dialectically in effect from Pentecost to the incarnation and back: the Spirit not only points to Christ but also invites faith in Christ. Christian theology is in that sense also missiological, although always contextually focused and engaged with local histories and realities. Thus, interreligious dialogue inevitably returns to, even as it has never really departed from, evangelical proclamation. Effective witness is always based on dialogue, and authentic dialogue is always at the heart of Christian mission.

Dialogical mission or missionary dialogue, however, occurs not just on the cognitive or verbal plane, but also includes the heart and the hands. Christian witness is thus not just spoken but also felt and performed. There are compassionate affections that are manifest in works of mercy even as there are affective passions that motivate works of justice. These suggest the interpersonal and socio-political economic- structural dimensions of missional engagement.36 Further, these are some of the many ways that pneumatology (the winds of the divine) also informs Christology (the Word of God) and vice versa. The Christian encounter with Buddhism thus cannot remain on the linguistic, verbal, or propositional plane, especially since, for some Buddhist traditions, all words are like rafts that are to be discarded once we reach the yonder shores (or, like fingers pointing to the moon that are no longer necessary once we catch a glimpse of the latter). Yet the compassion of the bodhisattvas invites revisitation of the compassion of Christ, empowered as that also was by the Holy Spirit. In these cases, the truths of the Christian faith are no longer merely asserted in the presence of Buddhists, but ought to be embodied, felt, and even performed. The Logos who is said to be in the beginning now becomes the Dao, or the Way of the Spirit-empowered Christ. This does not mean that the role of words ought to be minimized. It does mean that declaration of the gospel of Christ is undermined when it is un-embodied or non-dialogical. It also means that in some cases and with regard to some issues, Christians bear most adequate witness to the gospel when they collaborate with Buddhists to make a difference in a fallen and hurting world. There are some missional tasks related to the common good that demand mutual engagement involving all people of faith in order for change to be effected. Who knows if such shared enterprise will also open up even further opportunities to bear witness to the gospel at an interpersonal level.

If the contextual-missional moment of the global theological task involves the intertwining of the Pentecostal and incarnational missions of the Father, then the constructive-apologetic moment spans the entire eschatological horizon of the Christ event. Thus the Christ is not only the historical divine representative empowered by the Spirit to inaugurate the restoration of Israel and the reign of God, but he is also the one raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit, ascended into heaven, and coming to receive and rule over the kingdoms of this world.37 Thus the Spirit who has been poured out on all flesh in the last days (Acts 2:17) opens up an eschatological horizon that heralds the coming Christ, who we now see through a glass dimly (1 Cor 13:12) but then we shall fully know (1 John 3:2). This constructive-apologetic moment for Christian theology therefore involves taking into account the eschatological redemption of the many tongues of the many nations, tribes, peoples, and languages (Rev 7:9; cf. Rev 21:24–26). So even if Christians believe, in the end, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11), they will do so in their own way and bear witness to the Son whose full glory is yet to be unveiled.

My claim is that the eschatological horizon invites the task of a constructive-apologetic theology that does not just repeat previous formulations but is open to realizing a deeper, fuller significance of the identity of the Son in light of the testimony of those in other faiths.38 Such a constructive-apologetic undertaking involves a reconsideration of the Christian theological vision as a whole so that it is capable of accounting for whatever else is also good, true, and beautiful found in other faiths. In a global context, this involves but also goes beyond the comparative task. If Christian theology has developed by and large in conversation with Western traditions so far, we now cannot avoid asking the question: what if Paul had gone East instead?39 The answer, of course, is that we would be in dialogue not only with the legacies of Plato and Aristotle but also of the Buddha, Confucius, and Laozi, and this invites us to consider the interreligious conversation as a springboard for mutual transformation. We cannot interact with others in a pluralistic world with any degree of authenticity without also being vulnerable to being touched by others. The resulting provisionality of our theological work is not therefore merely epistemologically derivative but pneumatologically grounded in a fundamental sense.40 If the Spirit does lead into all truth, why should we be surprised if some of this is mediated through people of other faiths? As a systematic theologian, then, I listen to Buddhist voices and perspectives in order to discern if I can hear, see, or be transformed by the truth, and in order that I can reconsider how to think about Christian faith in light of Buddhist accounts.41 Similarly, I engage with the theology and science dialogue also in order to be so informed and transformed. Doing theology in a pluralistic and late-modern global context invites discerning Christian engagement that is interreligious in scope, intercultural in character, and interdisciplinary in approach, as challenging and demanding as any of this is. The Christian-Buddhist dialogue thus must be interdisciplinarily attentive, while the Christianity-science dialogue also ought to be interreligiously informed. Christian theology is most effective apologetically in our religiously pluralistic world when its truths are articulated in ways that also account for the truths pointed to in other faiths.

The Christian theological task in the contemporary world includes these comparative, contextual-missional, and constructive apologetic dimensions as interrelated moments of inquiry. One may focus on one of these trajectories more than the others, but effective theological reflection will both implicitly involve all three simultaneously and at moments intentionally engage each task. In some respects, my two books on Buddhism are more constructive-apologetic in orientation,42 although discerning readers will be able to recognize the other two moments present in these undertakings. Through encounter along the “middle way” of Buddhist traditions, I am suggesting that Christians might find themselves transformed into a deeper commitment to Christ. I believe it is also possible that Christian willingness to sojourn along the path of the Buddha will in turn manifest the presence and activity of the Spirit in this between space.43 This is not wishful thinking, but what we would expect of the Spirit of God in Christ that “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8).44

End Notes

1 Amos Yong, Pneumatology and the Christian-Buddhist Dialogue: Does the Spirit Blow through the Middle Way? Studies in Systematic Theology 11 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012), and The Cosmic Breath: Spirit and Nature in the Christianity-Buddhism-Science Trialogue, Philosophical Studies in Science & Religion 4 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012).

2 Other autobiographical details are in my articles, “Between the Local and the Global: Autobiographical Reflections on the Emergence of the Global Theological Mind,” in Shaping a Global Theological Mind, ed. Darren C. Marks (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008), 187–94; and “The Spirit, Vocation, and the Life of the Mind: A Pentecostal Testimony,” in The Stories of Pentecostal Scholars, ed. Steven M. Fettke and Robby C. Waddell (Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2012), forthcoming.

3 See also further discussion of the historic emphases on Pentecostal power in chapter 3 of my Spirit of Love: A Trinitarian Theology of Grace (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012).

4 Note thus the title of the book on Brazilian Pentecostalism by R. Andrew Chesnut, Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997).

5 I wrote an essay for professor Hammond that term, and later presented it at a major philosophy conference during my doctoral studies: “Personal Selfhood(?) and Human Experience in Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism,” Paideia Project: Proceedings of the 20th World Congress of Philosophy (1998), electronically published and available at

6 This is part of the standard expectation regarding Evangelical and Pentecostal conversion; see, e.g., Kirk Dombrowski, Against Culture: Development, Politics, and Religion in Indian Alaska (Lincoln, NE, and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), on how Pentecostal conversion signifies breaking with native American culture, and Birgit Meyer, “‘Make a Complete Break with the Past’: Memory and Post-Colonial Modernity in Ghanaian Pentecostalist Discourse,” Journal of Religion on Africa 28, no. 3 (1998): 316–49, for the same in the West African context.

7 I am working on a book tentatively titled Evangelical Theology in the 21st Century: Soundings from the Asian American Diaspora (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, forthcoming), which will engage with some of these questions.

8 Defended in December 1998 and published shortly thereafter as Discerning the Spirit(s): A Pentecostal-Charismatic Contribution to Christian Theology of Religions, Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement Series 20 (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).

9 My second book was on theological method, clarifying these matters: Spirit-Word-Community: Theological Hermeneutics in Trinitarian Perspective, New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies Series (Burlington, VT, and Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2002; repr. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006).

10 See my Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003).

11 As suggested by Frank D. Macchia in Yong, Macchia, Ralph Del Colle, and Dale T. Irvin, “Christ and Spirit: Dogma, Discernment and Dialogical Theology in a Religiously Plural World,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 12, no. 1 (2003): 15–83, at 21. I am developing this Macchian insight with the help of anthropologist André Droogers in a lecture, “Observation, Participation, Explanation: Methodological Options in the Study of Religion.” Religious Studies and Theology (under review).

12 Ninian Smart identifies seven religious dimensions: the doctrinal, the mythological, the ethical, the ritual, the experiential, the institutional, and the material; see his Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

13 This latter methodological rule has been recognized as essential for the teaching and study of religion since Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s groundbreaking The Meaning and End of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1962).

14 For overviews of the arguments for this claim, see my articles, “ ‘As the Spirit Gives Utterance . . .’: Pentecost, Intra-Christian Ecumenism, and the Wider Oekumene,” International Review of Mission 92, no. 366 (July 2003): 299–314, and “The Spirit Bears Witness: Pneumatology, Truth, and the Religions,” Scottish Journal of Theology 57, no. 1 (2004): 14–38. The former was the first article I published in a missiology journal, a point of significance to which I will return momentarily.

15 These elements of the Pentecostal worldview have been nicely summarized in James K. A. Smith, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy, Pentecostal Manifestos 1 (Grand Rapids and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2011), ch. 2.

16 The task of developing adequate comparative categories is what I consider the most important contribution of my book Beyond the Impasse (see esp. the final chapter, 7), a point that few of my critics recognize—on which more in the next section.

17 I wrestled with these issues initially in my article, “The Holy Spirit and the World Religions: On the Christian Discernment of Spirit(s) ‘after’ Buddhism,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 24 (2004): 191–207.

18 Fr. Bracken is a prolific Catholic theologian who has long been engaged in the task of doing theology in dialogue with Asian traditions and with modern science; see my review essay, “A Catholic Commitment to Process Cosmology: An Appreciation of Joseph Bracken’s Latest Works,” in The Global Spiral: A Publication of the Metanexus Institute (Fall 2010),

19 Initially published in “Christian and Buddhist Perspectives on Neuropsychology and the Human Person: Pneuma and Pratityasamutpada,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 40, no. 1 (2005): 143–65.

20 As I document in my articles, “Mind and Life, Religion and Science: The Dalai Lama and the Buddhist-Christian-Science Trilogue,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 28 (2008): 43–63; and “Tibetan Buddhism Going Global? A Case Study of a Contemporary Buddhist Encounter with Science,” Journal of Global Buddhism 9 (2008),

21 Originally sketched in “Academic Glossolalia? Pentecostal Scholarship, Multi-disciplinarity, and the Science-Religion Conversation,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 14, no. 1 (2005): 61–80; and “Discerning the Spirit(s) in the Natural World: Toward a Typology of ‘Spirit’ in the Theology and Science Conversation,” Theology & Science 3, no. 3 (2005): 315–29; and now developed and expanded as The Spirit of Creation: Modern Science and Divine Action in the Pentecostal-Charismatic Imagination, Pentecostal Manifestos 4 (Grand Rapids and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2011).

22 My book, Hospitality and the Other: Pentecost, Christian Practices, and the Neighbor, Faith Meets Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008), took up the missiological question in full force.

23 One of the more cautious has been Simon Chan, “Encountering the Triune God: Spirituality since the Azusa Street Revival,” in The Azusa Street Revival and Its Legacy, ed. Harold D. Hunter and Cecil M. Robeck Jr. (Cleveland, TN: Pathway Press, 2006), 215–26, esp. 215–21, whose main criticism is what he thinks is a failure of discerning the difference between the Spirit of creation and the Spirit of Pentecost, in particular the role of the church in God’s salvation historical scheme of things (a concern that I also am attentive to, so I am more than happy to allow his critical point to stand as a reminder about the importance of this matter). See also his book Pentecostal Ecclesiology: An Essay on the Development of Doctrine, Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement Series 38 (Blandford Forum, UK: Deo Publishing, 2011), which argues against what he calls “creation-centered pneumatologies” (ch. 1). As a side note: Chan’s approach to my work has been informed by a more Barthian perspective, which I then think is offset by the fact that one of the foremost Pentecostal Barthians, Frank D. Macchia, has been nothing but encouraging of the articulation of a pneumatological theology. Time will tell whether the latter will make a positive contribution over the long haul.

24 Keith E. Johnson Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 121–26.

25 The subtitle to ch. 7 of Todd L. Miles, A God of Many Understandings? The
Gospel and Theology of Religions
(Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010).

26 R. A. James Merrick, “The Spirit of Truth as Agent in False Religions? A Critique of Amos Yong’s Pneumatological Theology of Religions with Reference to Current Trends,” Trinity Journal 29, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 107–25.

27 In particular, the most rhetorically inflammable criticism, the last mentioned journal article, has already been responded to, by Tony Richie, “The Spirit of Truth as Guide into All Truth: A Response to R. A. James Merrick, ‘The Spirit of Truth as Agent in False Religions? A Critique of Amos Yong’s Pneumatological Theology of Religions with Reference to Current Trends,’” Cyberjournal for Pentecostal-Charismatic Research 19 (2010),

28 E.g., Amos Yong, “A P(new)matological Paradigm for Christian Mission in a Religiously Plural World,” Missiology: An International Review 33, no. 2 (2005): 175–91; and “The Spirit, Christian Practices, and the Religions: Theology of Religions in Pentecostal and Pneumatological Perspective,” Asbury Journal 62, no. 2 (2007): 5–31.

29 See Eugene F. Rogers Jr., After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources Outside the Modern West (Grand Rapids and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2005), 19.

30 Much of the substance of this paragraph derives from prods received from critical questions posed to my work by my good friend and colleague Gerald R. McDermott, who is working with others on a book on trinitarian theology of religions.

31 Gavin D’Costa, “The Holy Spirit and the World Religions,” Louvain Studies 34 (2010): 279–311.

32 In particular, pronouncements from the Second Vatican Council and pontificate of John Paul II; see Jacques Dupuis, SJ, Christianity and the Religions: From Confrontation to Dialogue, trans. Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), 68–73.

33 D’Costa, “The Holy Spirit and the World Religions,” 310.

34 I have learned about both the virtues and the hard work involved in comparative theology from my doktorvater, Robert Cummings Neville; see the three volumes that he edited on The Comparative Religious Ideas Project (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000).

35 See my review essay, “On Doing Theology and Buddhology: A Spectrum of Christian Proposals,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 31 (2011): 103–18.

36 I develop this line of missional thinking in my essay, “The Buddhist-Christian Encounter in the USA: Reflections on Christian Practices,” in Border Crossings: Explorations of an Interdisciplinary Historian—Festschrift for Irving Hexham, ed. Ulrich van der Heyden and Andreas Feldtkeller (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2008), 457–72.

37 Here I have learned a great deal from my colleague Frank D. Macchia, especially his most recent and profound book, Justified in the Spirit: Creation, Redemption, and the Triune God (Grand Rapids and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2010).

38 By “apologetic,” then, I am not referring to the classical answers or responses of Christians to the challenges of other religions; this is itself an important part of Christian witness (1 Pet 3:15), although I would say this kind of traditional apologetics is part and parcel of contextual-missional engagement. See also Paul J. Griffiths, An Apology for Apologetics: A Study in the Logic of Interreligious Dialogue (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991).

39 This is a paraphrase of the question in the title of an important essay posed by Gerald R. McDermott, “What If Paul Had Been from China? Reflections on the Possibility of Revelation in Non-Christian Religions,” in No Other Gods before Me? Evangelicals and the Challenge of World Religions, ed. John G. Stackhouse Jr. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 17–36. McDermott himself has pressed this conversation in his Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions? Jesus, Revelation and Religious Traditions (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

40 Intra-Christian disputes that challenge prior and even conciliar formulations include the emergence of Oneness Pentecostalism, for instance. The verdict here is not closed, but my point is that the Oneness case shows that new christological formulations can emerge that shift our Christian self-understanding. So, as Jesus himself warned: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). My claim is that this not only connects doctrinal and theological confession with praxis, but it also suggests the twofold surprise on the eschatological horizon: those we thought would be “in” are absent, while those we thought would be “out” are present!

41 Explicated in further detail in my “From Azusa Street to the Bo Tree and Back: Strange Babblings and Interreligious Interpretations in the Pentecostal Encounter with Buddhism,” in The Spirit in the World: Emerging Pentecostal Theologies in Global Contexts, ed. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 203–26.

42 In part because I think my Evangelical and Pentecostal colleagues do a good job on the contextual-missional front; I hope that they see my work as complementary to theirs, which is precisely what is intended.

43 See Yong, “A Heart Strangely Warmed on the Middle Way? The Wesleyan Witness in a Pluralistic World,” Wesleyan Theological Journal (forthcoming).

44 Thanks to Stephen Bevans for the invitation to give this Annual Missions Lecture on 5 March 2012 at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and for his encouragement to use it as an occasion to reflect on my work as a theologian in dialogue with Buddhist traditions. I also appreciate the feedback on an earlier version of this lecture by my graduate assistant Vincent Le, and my friends and colleagues Tony Richie and Christopher Stephenson. Last but not least, Prof. J. Abraham Vélez de Cea of Eastern Kentucky University also sent some very helpful comments. Needless to say, the thoughts expressed here remain my own responsibility.