by Frans van Liere.
Last Thursday, April 25, Calvin College hosted “Principled Pluralism: Navigating America’s Increasingly Diverse Religious Landscape”, a panel discussion on religious pluralism on college campuses, with Joseph DeMott moderating a discussion among Calvin’s president Michael LeRoy, Calvin Theological Seminary president Jul Medenblik, and Alec Hill, the president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
The panel discussion was sponsored by the Aspen Institute and GVSU’s Kaufman Institute, at the initiative of the latter’s founder Sylvia Kaufman. Sylvia has always been a strong voice for interreligious dialogue in western Michigan, and she is the driving force behind the West Michigan Academic Consortium, a forum for interreligious dialogue that includes Calvin College and several West Michigan institutions of higher learning. Calvin College has now hosted three of the consortium’s annual conferences, featuring Jewish (James Kugel), Christian (Karen King) and Muslim (Omid Safi) speakers. (Omid Safi’s presentation at Calvin College can be viewed here, starting at 9:31.) The next conference in this series will be hosted by Cornerstone University on October 14, 2014.
It may seem ironic to hold a panel on religious diversity on college campuses that features only Christian speakers on a Christian campus. However, as President LeRoy pointed out in the discussion, being in a consciously Christian learning environment does not mean shutting oneself off from religious diversity or even interreligious dialogue; Calvin offers a Christian education that engages the world, not one that separates itself from it. The same is true of Calvin Theological Seminary, and both presidents offered meaningful examples of how Christians today can and should engage in religious dialogue.
My own research into Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle Ages, and my experience teaching a course on the history of the Crusades, have helped me to appreciate interreligious dialogue as an essential part of a liberal arts education. Yet it is a problematic concept for many Christians. It presents a classic trilemma, a logical challenge in which three propositions are available but not all three can be chosen together. It is a bit like juggling three balls with two hands (something, I confess I cannot do). One ball is always in the air while you’re handling the other two. To catch the third ball, you must drop one of the other two. The three balls in this case are: absolute truth; universal validity, and tolerance. In choosing any two of these, you seem to rule out the third one. For instance, you can claim that your religion is absolutely true, and that it is true for all people. But that makes you not particularly tolerant towards other religions: you think they are wrong, and that they should convert. Or you can claim that your religion is absolutely true, and be tolerant of other religions at the same time. But this works best if your own understanding of “truth” is something strictly personal, which should not necessarily be accepted by all. Or you can hold that there should be one universal religion, and at the same time be tolerant towards all other religions; but that usually means you think all religions are somehow true, which logically also means that none of them is entirely true. To offer a stereotype: in this juggling act, you can be either a Jehovah Witness, a Quaker, or a Unitarian-Universalist. (I know these are stereotypes that do not necessarily represent the beliefs of these religious convictions; I only offer them here for the sake of the discussion.)
Here at Calvin, we most often encounter the first stance. Evangelical Christians often think that if one ball must be dropped, it is the ball of tolerance. The principle of tolerance, after all, is an inheritance of the Enlightenment, rather than the Christian tradition. We confess that Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14: 6). And we believe that we should go “to all nations and make them [his] disciples” (Matt. 28: 19). This does make Christianity not particularly tolerant towards other religions. Saying that Christ is “the way and the truth” does not mean that “my religion is just as true as yours,” or that “what’s true for me may not be true for you,” two statements that are often associated with the idea of religious tolerance.
This is why some Christians are suspicious of engaging in interreligious dialogue. They fear either “watering down” one’s own truth statements, or syncretism. Instead of engaging in interreligious dialogue, we should be testifying to the truth of Christ’s Gospel, they say. In the panel discussion, both of these objections to interreligious dialogue were in fact heard. Speaker Alec Hill expressed some skepticism about interreligious church services, and saw them as a form of syncretism, while a member of the audience wondered if it was not “disingenuous” to engage in interreligious dialogue without testifying that Jesus is “the way.”
These fears are understandable, but they should not be barriers to interreligious dialogue. Engaging in interreligious dialogue need not mean giving up one’s own deepest-held religious convictions. Quite the contrary. Most who do take part in sustained discussions with believers from other faiths report being spiritually nourished and enriched through the encounter, and gaining a better appreciation of their own beliefs and traditions.
Syncretism may also be a red herring. Christians sometimes see the specter of syncretism in places where we need not fear it, while we ignore it in places where it is much more prominent and pernicious. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against religious syncretism only once. He said “You cannot serve God and Money” (Matt. 6:24). Here is a form of syncretism we should be much more worried about; yet many Christians are completely blind to it. Sometimes it takes skill to identify the idols of one’s own age. When it comes to religious poverty, we can learn much from other religions, such as Buddhism.
Do we best testify to our beliefs by trying to convert our dialogue partners? We are called to share our faith with others, but there are different ways to do that in different contexts. Engaging in a dialogue in a spirit of humility and charity may be a more effective way of testifying to the love of Christ. I am glad that Calvin and Calvin seminary’s presidents at last Thursday’s panel modeled this kind of Christian witness.
Frans van Liere is Professor of History and director of the Medieval Studies program at Calvin. He teaches world history, medieval history, and history of the book. He grew up in the Netherlands and studied theology and medieval studies at the University of Groningen. His research interests are medieval biblical exegesis, twelfth-century intellectual history, and the late medieval papacy. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI with his wife, two teenage sons, and a cat named Lancelot.