Christian Apologists seem to only rarely focus upon world religions. Perhaps that is because many Christian apologists feel uncomfortable interacting with other religions. It is easy to be weighed down by fears that one might say something wrong and be deemed either ignorant or bigoted. It may also be simply that Christian apologists don’t feel they have the expertise do operate in this area. It is my goal in this post to paint in broad strokes and provide areas of development for Christian apologetics and theology regarding world religions. Because I’m painting in broad strokes, I’ll be raising many questions I’ll leave unanswered for now. I’ve included links at the end of the post for those interested in reading more.
A Vision for Christian Apologetics and World Religions
It has been said that evangelicalism needs a theology of religions. What does the existence of other religions mean? Do they have truths? How do we interact with them? These questions must be addressed by Christians who desire to explore the reality of their faith. Christian apologists, in particular, must be learned enough to know what position they take on these issues before they seek to defend their faith.
The study of another religion should not be done superficially. It is a good start to have a general volume on “world religions” and then read each religion’s respective section, but it is not nearly enough for the Christian apologist to do if the apologist desires to interact with believers from these other religions. A study of another religion, particularly for those interested in witnessing to them, must be more in-depth. The holy book(s) of the other religion is(are) necessary reading. But one cannot stop there. Few religions are based upon one book. Christians can readily acknowledge this, having had much thought and belief defined through tradition, apostolic and patristic. Similarly, when a Christian studies another religion, he or she must be willing to delve into the religion, to understand it from an insider’s perspective.
It is not enough for the apologist to read books about other religions, seeking to find fast and easy ways to refute them. Rather, the Christian apologist must engage with believers of other faith, acknowledging shared truths where they exist and seeking to understand the differences. Certainly, apologists must know the areas of weakness in other religions so that they can point these out as they debate and dialog on the religions. What I’m suggesting is that this cannot be the only thing Christians know about other religions. They must not be satisfied merely by knowing a series of arguments against those from other religions. Rather, they must be willing and able to engage with those in other religions.
Thus, this vision for Christian Apologetics to World Religions is a vision not just of debate but of dialog; a vision of give-and-take. The Gospel will not be heard where it is beat into people. It will not be heard where the only avenues for its witness are arguments. Paul wrote,
Although I am a free man and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. (1 Corinthians 9:19)
The attitude of the apologist is a servant’s heart–one that seeks to understand. In understanding, he or she will win many. Thus, when apologists approach another religion, they must understand that religion enough to engage with those who believe it and who live it. The Christian apologist must not deceive, but rather seek to understand. In understanding, Christians will understand more about their own faith, and be better able to spread it to those of other faiths.
There are five major things to keep in mind when doing apologetics regarding world religions:
- Know what the other believes. Never assume you know their faith as much as they do.
- Read their book. Nothing will open up avenues for discussion as much as the knowledge that you have read the books they find holy.
- Know Christianity. If you don’t know what you yourself believe, how are you to share that with others? As you engage with people of other faiths, you must continue to learn about your own faith and its answers to the questions others pose.
- Preach the Gospel. The goal should not only be to rebut the others assertions and beliefs. It should be to guide the other towards Christ crucified and the salvation provided for by God.
- Build a Genuine Relationship. It isn’t enough to simply engage in dialog; one must show they are interested in what the other has to say and what they believe. They must also be more than an occasional debate partner; they must build a relationship and become a friend. I’m not suggesting deception here, the relationship must be genuine. By showing a Christlike life to others, we can show them the intimate joys of Christianity.
Going forward, it is time to turn to a method for Christian Apologists to learn about other religions.
Studying a Religion: A Method of Learning for Christian Apologists
- Read general discussions about the religion. A book on world religions is a good place to start, but be aware that these are, by necessity, generalized.
- Read what other Christians have said about the religion. Neighboring Faiths by Winfried Corduan is a simply phenomenal resource which surveys the world religions from a Christian perspective.
- Read the holy books of the religion with which you are going to interact. If you wish to engage a Muslim, read the Quran. If you want to interact with a Taoist, read the Tao Te Ching. As you read these books, keep in mind that you will find truths in other religions due to God’s natural revelation to all people.
- Seek out believers from the religion, and engage with them in discussion. Ask them what they believe, but don’t allow your questions to be that general. Instead, focus on specifics. For example, “If I were seeking to learn more about your religion and beliefs, how would I go about doing so?”; “What is[are] your favorite passage[s] from your holy book, and why?” Questions like these will show them you’re not seeking to attack but to understand.
- Read web sites dedicated to explaining other religions to those seeking. In this way, you will get a basic introduction to the religion while also viewing it from an insider’s perspective.
- Read other Christians who have engaged these religions in dialog and mission work.
- Consider responses from scholars within the religion to Christians working in that field. Be familiar with arguments for and against the positions you seek to put forward.
- Above all, read God’s word. Only by being familiar with the Bible will one become an effective apologist and missionary. Jesus’ words will draw people from all backgrounds, and the Bible’s richness and truth will gain a hearing from all nations.
This list is, of course, not comprehensive. It merely provides avenues for research.
What to do with the knowledge?
Christians must engage with those of other faiths. Seek out those who are willing to discuss their faith with you. You will find that many interesting discussions will follow and you will learn much about yourself and Christianity in the process. Never stop seeking truth. All truth is from God. If someone from another faith says something which challenges you, seek the answer. There are thousands of years of Christian writing out there just waiting to be tapped. Not only that, but simple searches online will turn up innumerable apologetic resources. Do not let the discussions turn into debates only. Debates are good when there is an audience of people who may be swayed one way or the other, but in individual conversation, your goal should be to spread the Gospel, not to win an argument.
Become a prayer warrior. Do not let a day go by where you do not pray for those with whom you are engaged in discussions about the faith.
Tap your fellow resources. There are many other Christians working in the areas of religions, and they are willing to help. Do not be afraid to ask for it when needed.
The vision for Christian apologetics and world religions I’ve put forth here is admittedly vague, but I hope it will provide a way forward for those interested in dialog with those of other faiths. This vision has followed five primary thoughts: know the other’s faith, read their book, know Christianity, preach the Gospel, and build a genuine relationship. The most important thing to remember is that as a Christian it is your duty to spread the Gospel. Do not let yourself come in its way.
Some argue that there is no real way to tell whether any religions are true. That is not the case. There are some very real ways to determine truth in a religious paradigm. Check out this post: “Can we evaluate worldviews? How to navigate the sea of ideas.”
What about the truth found in other religion? How do we relate that to Christianity? Kenneth Samples is an amazing writer in this area. Check out this post in which he provides a way forward for thinking about other religions from a Biblical perspective: “Thinking Biblically About the World’s Religions.”
I highly recommend Winfried Corduan’s book Neighboring Faiths.
What about some of those unanswered questions–what about the unevangelized? This is matter of considerable debate and there are numerous books on the topic. I would recommend “What About Those Who Have Never Heard?” for an introduction to these views. For those wanting to explore inclusivism further, see No Other Name by John Sanders. Those interested in exclusivism/particularlism, see Is Jesus the Only Savior? by Ronald Nash.
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Interesting post, J.W. I’ve found from experience that the tough part about witnessing to people from other religions is that they have no problem with stating that their belief isn’t based on rational thought. For instance, my wife’s cousin recently became a Mormon. In trying to understand his beliefs and point out some holes in the Mormon belief system, it became clear that he didn’t care about any of that. The overriding point for him was, “I’ve received a testimony that this is true, so in spite of everything you might say I feel it in my heart that it’s true, therefore I believe.”
When it’s not objectively testable like Christianity, it’s hard to get them to buy any sort of rational argument unless they haven’t completely bought into what that religion is telling them. Most religions are not rational religions, but experiential religions almost entirely, and that’s why Christian apologetics (which is based on reason and rationality) has a tough time getting a foot in the door with these other religious groups. I like much of what you’ve written here painting it broadly, but I think the obstacle is much greater than any of us can imagine.
Thanks for your response, Adam! I definitely agree with what you said here–that many other religions simply reject reason/rationality outright. That’s why I tried to focus much of the “vision” upon relationships and seeking to understand. It is extremely hard to interact rationally with someone who denies reason, but you can interact with them relationally.
I think most Christians are scared of learning about other religions because they fear that would lead them away from Christianity. However, if their faith is strong and founded upon reason (the field of apologetics), then nothing will deter them away from Christianity.
I agree. That is certainly part of the reason that some Christians do not pursue reading about other religions. I admit that was part of the reason I avoided it for a while; but upon researching several religions (and getting into some depth with a couple), I have found that there is really nothing to fear. It is, however, of the utmost importance to have that apologetic background and have reasons for what you believe.
Thanks for the comment.
Hello, J.W.! I think one important thing that too often gets overlooked is anthropology. Focus tends to drift toward what religions say about God, the spiritual realm, and various transcendent matters, and not what they say about mankind in the here and now. You can argue endlessly with a Muslim about Trinitarianism to no avail. But ask them to defend the principle-sharia-that there exists some God given system of government and law by which fallen man can create a sinless paradise on this Earth…well, that is a whole different story, and a proposition easily vanquished by any appeal to history and actual human experience. Christianity can never be solidly defended by what it says about God, but can easily be by what it says about human beings. Ask any follower of an Eastern religion whether, if the choice were somehow theirs to make, would they pass over the Christian New Jerusalem-bodily resurrection to eternal life and joy in a healed and deathless world, surrounded by their loved ones, the saints, and angels-or would they instead really prefer the sort of loss of personal identity into cosmic oblivion that their religions offer as ‘salvation’. It’s clear almost no person would ever make the latter choice if they had any say in it, so it is equally clear such a thing cannot be the true answer to the ultimate human longing, nor a reflection of what we were truly created for. Never argue about God; argue about man!
Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.
You’re most welcome J.W!