It’s been a long time since I last tried to blog my way, chapter by chapter, through a book. But a recent collaboration between two of my Bethel University colleagues fully deserves that level of attention. Certainly for Christians who — like Marion Larson, Sara Shady, and myself — work in higher education, but also for churches more generally, From Bubble to Bridge: Educating Christians for a Multifaith World is the “must-read” I predicted it would be.
(I’d be especially thrilled if the book finds an audience among our fellow evangelicals, the only religious group in America to believe that Christians are more likely than Muslims to experience discrimination in this country.)
You might want to start by watching this recording of Sara and Marion’s recent presentation in the Bethel library, after which I’ll share a few thoughts on their introduction, “Out of the Bubble”:
Now, “bubble spaces” like Bethel and similar Christian learning communities have important roles to play: they “provide a relatively safe space for us to be ourselves, they help affirm and solidify our identities among others with similar beliefs, and they provide respite from the challenges of the world around us” (3-4). But we can’t live there exclusively:
Life inside a bubble often fails to help us see the world from other perspectives, because it doesn’t provide enough opportunity for building meaningful and constructive relationships with people who believe differently—the kind of relationships we’ll need if we hope to face myriad global challenges.
Hence the need to “leave our bubbles and build bridges of cooperation and collaboration that connect people of different faiths.”
Bridge-building is a metaphor I’ve previously suggested for Christian colleges and universities, but such “cooperation and collaboration” is frightening to many in Sara and Marion’s audience, especially evangelicals who wonder if evangelism can coexist with interfaith engagement. So I’m glad that they start the book with the story of taking their students to a local mosque for an interfaith dialogue about conversion:
The Christian representative on the panel advocated a contextual view of missions that acknowledged God’s many means of self-revelation—including in religions other than Christianity. This speaker said a person could come to be a faithful Christ-follower without leaving behind all she had known and valued in her home culture and ever her home religion. This position alone challenged many of our students, who worried that the speaker was compromising too much of the gospel in his efforts to respect other cultures and religions. But then the representatives of other faith traditions began to express in strong terms that they were deeply offended by this Christian panelist because he made it clear that, ultimately, Christ is the way and the truth. Several of our students were shocked and confused. They weren’t sure whether to feel angry and defensive or guilty and ashamed. (1-2)
I hope that Marion and Sara come back to this episode and develop their argument that the “interfaith engagement that we prescribe… isn’t about fostering theological relativism.” But for now, I want mostly to underscore that they see multiple benefits in such “radically stretching” encounters with religious difference:
The premise of this book is that Christians who seek to live and serve graciously in a religiously diverse world must also deliberately and thoughtfully engage with our religious neighbors. We firmly believe that not only is such engagement in line with God’s command that we love all of our neighbors, including those who believe differently; it also helps us to develop a mature, committed faith that’s at the same time humble and open to learning from others. (3)
So while I understand the concerns of fellow evangelicals, I actually think that interfaith engagement goes hand in hand with conversion, at least as I discussed it last month in a lecture at North Park University on Pietism and evangelicalism. “If we are to be conversionist,” I argued, “let it be because we are ourselves being converted as much because we are converting others.” Too often we evangelicals think of conversion as something that we bring to others; too rarely do we recognize our own continuing need “to develop a mature, committed faith” — a process of formation that may actually be deepened by interfaith dialogue and service. (I’m sure we’ll come back to that theme as this series continues, but you’ll also find it in the chapter Sara and Marion contributed to our book on Pietism and higher education.)
Moreover, the nature of conversion, by turning us towards Christ, is to turn us towards others. Let me quote for the second time this week from a former dean of North Park Seminary. “To be converted to Christ is always in a sense to be converted (turned) to the world,” wrote Don Frisk in his book about The New Life in Christ. “It is to see the world through the eyes of Christ, to share his compassion, to perceive his will for the world, and to strive to follow it.”
So while there are no doubt tensions to navigate here, I don’t know how we can see a religiously plural society through Christ’s eyes and meaningfully “share his compassion” for our neighbors if we don’t heed what Marion and Sara have to say. “We simply can’t constructively engage and serve the world beyond the campus,” they conclude — and beyond the church, I might add, “if we don’t learn how to navigate religious diversity constructively, balancing religious commitment with hospitality and openness toward others” (8).
Check back next week as I dive into chapter 1, on interfaith engagement as “a civic imperative.”