What Evangelicals Can Learn

from Amos Yong’s “The Holy Spirit, the Middle Way, and the Religions”

It is an honor to be invited to comment on Amos Yong’s theological reflections on the religions—reflections that are inseparable from his many years of experience in interfaith Christian-Buddhist dialogue. Not only is Yong one of the most interesting, constructive, and creative contemporary theologians, he is also one of the most prolific. His ever-expanding body of work has provided a wealth of pneumatologically enriched theological reflection on ecclesiology, soteriology, theology of mission, theological hermeneutics, Trinity, gender, theology and disability, theology and science, theology and politics, and so on. Also included in this litany (and most fortunate for readers of this journal) is the central place Yong has given to thinking about other religions. As he tells us, this is not merely the result of intellectual curiosity, but implicit in his journey as an Assemblies of God pastor raised in a Malaysian-Chinese home.

For Pentecostals Only?

Many Evangelicals will recognize elements of Yong’s Pentecostal experiences as similar to their own. Speaking personally, the nondenominational church of my youth also conflated its division between those born once and those born again to include a suspicion of other Christian denominations and communities that did not share this language. And in a fashion similar to their Pentecostal cousins, Evangelicals have also suffered from a poor track record when it comes to interfaith dialogue.

Additionally, Yong’s work to reclaim a more robust pneumatology is not merely a Pentecostal impulse but a move that builds on and adds to the considerable attention the Spirit has received by theologians from across the theological spectrum—Evangelical theologians included. As Alister McGrath gladly reported in 1994, the Holy Spirit was no longer the Cinderella of the theological ball (left at home while the Father and Son enjoy notoriety and attention), rather she was finally a subject worthy of independent observation.1 Given the proximity of our theological traditions and the resurgence in pneumatology among Evangelical theologians, I believe Evangelicals should (re)consider Yong’s important contribution to the discussion.

Learning from Yong

One of the central elements of Yong’s work on interfaith dialogue involves what he calls the “pneumatological turn.” Yong claims that whereas Christological models approach the different religions via universalized categories, a pneumatological grammar emphasizes improvisation and particularity. What exactly does Yong intend in his accent on the “many tongues” of Pentecost? Does his call for a distinctly pneumatological grammar have an exegetical basis? Or is this something only those with a gift of knowledge can know?

In this regard, Evangelicals should revisit the exegetical grounds for Yong’s call for a distinctly pneumatological grammar. Although it is far beyond the scope of this simple response to expound on what has been done in this regard, the following elucidates one important difference between Christological and pneumatological grammars.

The New Testament reminds us that the second person of the Trinity not only takes up a particular humanity (the person of Jesus of Nazareth), but also assumes a corporate humanity (the church which is the body of Christ). Regarding the latter, a predominant New Testament expression states that believers are in Christ. Not accidentally, this phrase “in Christ” echoes the Christological logic of assumption—the many are brought under the one. However, pneumatologically, the direction is reversed: the Spirit is in believers. This speaks to the indwelling of the Spirit in individual believers as well as the distinct distribution of the various gifts of the Spirit—the one works to reinforce the particularity and diversity of the many. This rudimentary distinction illustrates how different Christological and pneumatological grammars suggest different economies. Moreover, as has been noted, recognition of a distinctly pneumatological grammar is not unique to Pentecostal theologies.

For example, in 1964 Dutch Reformed theologian A. A. van Ruler, in his own “pneumatological turn,” called for a careful delineation of the differences between Christological and pneumatological grammars.2 In other words, in calling for a more vibrant appreciation for the unique work of the Spirit, Yong is echoing the sentiments of a large number of theologians in last half-century who have accented the distinguishing work of the Spirit. Given this, Evangelicals have good reason to pay attention to Yong’s desire to
rethink the implications of a pneumatological grammar for interfaith dialogue.

Concomitant with his pneumatological thrust is Yong’s call for a greater circumspection regarding the categories we bring into interfaith dialogue. And as Yong reminds us, we should recognize how traditionally such categories have neglected a pneumatological grammar. To appreciate this, Evangelicals should resist viewing Yong’s “pneumatological turn” as necessitating an abandonment of the Christological category or its various frameworks (e.g., exclusivism/inclusivism/pluralism). As Yong clearly states, his desire is not to discard existing categories and frameworks but to consider the way other theological categories and frameworks can add additional tools to our theological toolbox. More helpful would be for Evangelicals to consider how they might follow Yong’s example. For instance, how might the current call for a “depth view” of the gospel (as about more but not less than proclamation) among Evangelicals open up new frameworks for interfaith dialogue? If the gospel activates words and deeds in its engagement of head, heart, and hand—the entire self—how might such a perspective invite fresh frameworks for interfaith engagement?

Similarly, Evangelicals can learn from the valuable connection Yong makes between interfaith dialogue with global and public theology. Regarding the former, Yong speaks of his interest in Christian- Buddhist dialogue as a correlate to his personal question of identity as an Asian American whose Pentecostal faith has been planted in the soil of a Buddhist and Confucian culture. As Yong asks, “what if Paul had gone East instead?” Interfaith dialogue, as with global theology, inevitably reconsiders the faith’s dependence upon its Western cultural inheritance. Regarding the latter, Yong’s essay reminds us that interfaith dialogue resonates with the task of public theology. After all, both assume Christian theology should account for that which is considered good, beautiful, and true within communities outside the faith. And implicit for both interfaith dialogue and public theology is the assumption that Christian theology has within itself the possibility of being (at least in part) conversant in discourses that are birthed and developed outside the faith. Given these parallels, it is fitting that Yong should engage science and Buddhism in a joint conversation. Both discussions are possible because—as Yong claims—God’s Spirit is already at work in all religions and institutions, including those we might least expect (Ps 139:7).

I conclude these reflections by offering a final thought on what this can do for Evangelicals. In following the Spirit’s work in Eastern cultures and religious traditions, a surprising pattern emerges. While on the one hand such a movement relativizes and challenges Western culture’s implicit superiority, on the other hand, it opens up the possibility to appreciate and critically re-appropriate resources from Christianity’s long history in the West. Yong’s work thereby provides a helpful resource for reawakening Western Evangelicals to the value and limitations of their own culturally embedded Christianity—thus serving to free them up to perceive and learn from the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the world today.