Issue 48, December 2006
A Pentecostal in sheep’s clothing: an unlikely participant
A few years ago when I first began working with the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA) and then later with the Inter-Religious Relations and Dialogue of the World Council of Churches (IRRD-WCC) I found myself in for something of a surprise. In fact, I had more of a shock than a surprise. To a lot of people I (and those I represent) am a big part of the problem behind building tensions among different faiths on several fronts. Unfortunately, not all their fears are altogether unfounded. I am a Pentecostal Christian. Among other things, we are often noted for aggressive evangelism. This is problematic in interreligious relationships. Imagine my emotions as I listened to tirades against Pentecostals by other Christians and by non-Christians alike upset with some aspect or other of Pentecostal behavior. Though I met many friendly, if cautious, folks at interfaith events, some were more suspicious than cautious and more fearful than friendly. Why was I there? What was I up to? Only a few had the audacity to ask outright, but questions often hung heavy in the air even when unspoken. To them I probably appeared to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing (cf. Matt 7:15)—or worse, a Pentecostal in sheep’s clothing. I am grateful now to Current Dialogue for an opportunity to explain where I am really coming from and to explore where I hope we might be headed together through interreligious dialogue.
An unlikely participant
What I am not going to do is deny my identity. I am unapologetically a Pentecostal. Generally speaking, for me this means that my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is uniquely accompanied by an intense life in the Holy Spirit. But impressions that Pentecostalism is a monolithic movement are misguided. In some parts of the world, so much variety exists within the Pentecostal faith that the less kind go so far as to question their very Christianity. The African Indigenous Churches, an exciting integration of African indigenous culture and religion, historic Christianity, and full-fledged Pentecostalism, are an example. Also, popular stereotypes of Pentecostals, though not without occasional foundation in fact, are for the most part often inaccurate. For example, the Society for Pentecostal Studies is an international ecumenical academic institution made up of first rate, Spirit-filled scholars who are a far cry from the infamous bucktoothed tent preachers or backwoods snake handlers. If nothing else, Pentecostalism exhibits incredible variety and versatility.1
Having said that, also saying a Pentecostal is “an unlikely participant” in interreligious engagement is not a farfetched statement. Pentecostals as a rule have tended to be pessimistic regarding other religions, perceiving religious others (including other Christians) more as targets of evangelism than partners in conversation. However, my own experience and research suggest that pessimism toward religious others may be a betrayal of Pentecostalism’s original and authentic identity, theology, and spirituality. In point of fact, key leaders in the early Pentecostal revival were optimistic regarding religious others (including non-Christians), and pursued relations transcending traditional evangelism.2 Assuming too easily that contemporary Pentecostals are entrenched opponents of interreligious engagement would be unwise.
Among other things, my own participation in interreligious dialogue and other cooperative efforts arises from a desire to recover the sense of optimism found in early Pentecostalism. Below I will share more fully on what I expect to gain and give in interreligious encounter. For the moment, I wish to go on record as being supportive of Pentecostalism’s involvement with interfaith encounters as in the best interests of the Pentecostal faith itself, the broader Christian family of faith, and all people of faith everywhere—and even the people of our world who may claim no particular religious faith. One of the most significant, if not the most significant, efforts for justice and peace in our world today begins with religions talking and working together toward those noble ends. The volatile global situation of interreligious tensions suggests no less.
In the interest of honesty and transparency, I must confess that not all or even most Pentecostals necessarily agree with me. In the summer of 2005 I sat in a Pentecostal camp meeting service and heard the keynote evening speaker spray virulent contempt on any ecumenical or interreligious gatherings. He heatedly admonished other Pentecostals to avoid all such events upon pain of inevitable compromise. He was only interrupted by repeated applause. Yet, when I talk privately with clergy and laity, and also those in academia, I am learning to my delight that many do agree that sectarian strife is incompatible with the Spirit of Pentecost. And the number is growing. But the problems are real too.
One problem that makes increasing Pentecostal participation in interreligious dialogue seem unlikely involves evangelism. Specifically, aggressive evangelism is a hot button on both sides. Personally, I am not fond of the term “aggressive” when applied to evangelism; it carries too much of a connotation of coercion. I prefer “energetic” or “enthusiastic” evangelism with their implied nuance modifications. These terms are consistent with primary Pentecostal values. Energy speaks of power and enthusiasm of fullness. These are indeed dear to Pentecostals, based on the movement’s interpretations of pneumatological texts such as Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8, and 2:4. I am not merely discussing semantics. The biblical tradition stresses responsible, responsive Christian evangelism (e.g., 1 Pet 3:15). Pentecostal evangelism should rid itself of any residual elements of aggression in the sense of coercion or manipulation. That is unethical evangelism. Pentecostals should not be asked or expected to surrender their energy and enthusiasm for evangelism. That is appropriate evangelism.
Along these lines, I found a recent interreligious dialogue both informative and transformative in my approach to evangelism. Located in Lariano, Italy, it was co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) of the Vatican and IRRD-WCC. Intended to occur annually over three years (2006-2008), the first consultation dealt with theologies of conversion in interreligious contexts.3 For five days (May 12-16, 2006) a group of twenty-seven Catholic and Protestant (one Pentecostal) Christians and members of other religions, including Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and an African indigenous religion (Yoruba), presented various views on conversion and listened to each others’ comments and concerns. This initial interfaith phase was preparatory to two subsequent sessions with an intra-faith focus, that is, further discussion among Christians. The eventual intention includes devising a shared “code of conduct” guiding interaction among religions in evangelistic endeavors. Hopefully, enhanced understanding will be attained and social disturbance and physical violence averted as parameters of respect are outlined for an environment of human dignity and religious liberty. All the representatives from every religion are to be commended for cooperative efforts in such a laudable endeavor, as are the Vatican and WCC for their joint sponsorship and leadership initiative, especially the co-chairpersons Fr. Felix Machado and the Rev. Dr. Hans Ucko respectively.
A joint “Report” on the meeting, though not final or conclusive at this point, still made several important contributions to the practice of evangelism that can be profitably appropriated by Pentecostals and others. A few quotes from this important interreligious document prove helpful.
Freedom of religion is a fundamental, inviolable and non-negotiable right of every human being in every country in the world. Freedom of religion connotes the freedom, without any obstruction, to practice one’s own faith, freedom to propagate the teachings of one’s faith to people of one’s own and other faiths, and also the freedom to embrace another faith out of one’s own free choice.
We affirm that while everyone has a right to invite others to an understanding of their faith, it should not be exercised by violating other’s rights and religious sensibilities. At the same time, all should heal themselves from the obsession of converting others.4
The document goes on to warn against denigrating, vilifying or misrepresenting other faiths, using ‘unethical’ means of evangelism, including offering humanitarian aid with “ulterior motives” or taking unfair advantage of “vulnerable sections of society”, and ends with a strong appeal for a “shared code of conduct” regarding conversionary practices among the religions.
As a Pentecostal Christian I share the sentiments represented in these statements. During the dialogue sessions of this particular meeting I was impressed strongly with the need for boundaries or guidelines to ensure ethical evangelistic practices. For example, I was shocked to hear of the shenanigans apparently perpetrated by some Christians under the guise of “aid evangelism” after the tsunami in Asia December 26, 2004. Whenever I have passed on stories of hungry, thirsty children or injured adults being manipulated to accept Christ in exchange for food and water to other Pentecostals, they have had a similar response. The above quotes from the “Report” on the Lariano meeting seem to aim toward a helpful balance of liberty and responsibility in evangelism. Liberty to share our faith is essential for Pentecostals, as for some other Christians and even certain non-Christian faiths. Doubtless Pentecostals will not submit to restrictive measures against freedom in evangelism. Responsibility and accountability in the way we share our faith, however, ought to be assessed as essential as well. The right thing must be done for the right reasons in the right way or it may actually become wrong.
Perhaps unpacking a little Pentecostal theology will be helpful at this point. Pentecostal theologian Steve Land says, “[T]he mission of the church” is “eschatological trinitarian transformation.” For him this means “The church is being transformed by and for God and thus bears witness in what it is and what it does in the kingdom.” Drawing on the Hebrew prophets, he insists “mission is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” Defending the weak and denouncing oppression “is part of the church’s mission to love the neighbor.” Becoming more pointedly missiological, Land adds that “There is no dichotomy between the command to love the neighbor and the Great Commission to disciple the nations.” He admits that “the personal, social, and cosmic implications of Pentecost are only now beginning to be grasped in the movement” itself, but is optimistic about progress.5 For Land, “All authentic Pentecostals are witnesses who can start meaningful ecumenical exchange at the point of that missionary concern.” In fact, important traditional practices of Pentecostal spirituality readily lend themselves to “a truly helpful, revealing and transforming ecumenical encounter.”6
Pentecostal missiological theology at its best exemplifies an approach in which our conduct reflects the character of our holy and loving God. It insists proclamation of the gospel through words and demonstration of its gestalt through deeds are inseparable. Furthermore, evangelism addresses and embraces ecumenism as well. This surrenders none of the evangelistic zeal of the movement but searches for ways to evangelize ethically and interact ecumenically. Ecumenism, ethics, and evangelism are all therefore essentially intertwined. Such an elevated ideology ought to inform Pentecostal practice of evangelism and missions henceforth. Pentecostals simply should never allow their zeal for souls to stifle the Spirit’s leading and pleading for holiness, peace and righteousness. Significantly, ecumenically and ethically sensitive evangelism enhances our witness to the world of the truth and power of the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ in our lives.
What I am attempting to help my non-Pentecostal Christian and non-Christian peers at the dialogue table see is that robust-but-not rude Pentecostal evangelism is not inimical to sincere Pentecostal participation in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Perhaps I am not such “an unlikely participant” in dialogue after all?
A hopeful partner
The Lariano dialogue was profoundly affecting and moving for me. I found it unique for several reasons. For one thing, the retreat environment as we were generously hosted by our Roman Catholic friends at the Villa Mater Dei made the week more than anything a spiritual interfaith pilgrimage. What happened between meetings was at least as important as what happened during them. I was truly amazed at the level of personal and spiritual engagement we experienced together. For another thing, the actual discussions were characterized by intense, straightforward engagement in a cordial, respectful atmosphere. We avoided no hard questions, but we did avoid all overt hostility. Also, the entire group in all its variety of faiths was completely united on commitment to one conviction: the importance of the process of interreligious dialogue. (Some admitted that this had not been a beginning assumption upon arrival.) The “Report” stated it thus:
We affirm our commitment to the process of inter-religious dialogue. Its necessity and usefulness have increased exponentially in our times for promoting peace, harmony and conflict-transformation – within and among nations in our speedily globalizing world --, especially since religion has often been used, rather misused, to shed blood, spread bigotry and defend divisive and discriminatory socio-political practices.
We hold that inter-religious dialogue, to be meaningful, should not exclude any topic, however controversial or sensitive, if that topic is a matter of concern for humankind as a whole or for any section/s thereof. It is our conviction that honest and candid dialogue can enlighten and deepen our understanding even on the most contentious of issues. The clarification and, hopefully, resultant reduction in the areas of disagreement and ignorance can help communities to expand the possibilities for reconciliation and living together in peace, love and amity, according to our respective religious precepts.7
For my part, the Lariano dialogue certainly spurred hope regarding the potentialities of interreligious dialogue partnerships including Pentecostals. In spite of initial hesitations on the part of some to which I alluded above, I was welcomed graciously and taken seriously. As the week progressed, I felt bonds of trust begin to be formed that may be building blocks for future Pentecostal involvement in interfaith dialogue. I myself began to think that “If I am part of the problem, then I want to be part of the solution too.” Accordingly, I wish to respectfully offer a few suggestions about what I think Pentecostals may reasonably expect to gain or give in the process of interreligious dialogue. First, I will survey a few significant approaches to Pentecostal theology of religions and interreligious dialogue. Then, I will suggest salient applications for hopeful Pentecostal participation at the ecumenical and interreligious levels.
Amos Yong is a pioneer in Pentecostal theology of religions. He champions a pneumatological approach accenting the universality of the Holy Spirit among all peoples while affirming orthodoxy on Christology and soteriology.8 Yong suggests a Pentecostal-Charismatic theology of religions should “free human beings for participation in the interreligious dialogue.” The goal of dialogue is not to establish agreement or ignore differences, but rather to serve the righteousness, peace, and truth characteristic of the Kingdom of God. Dialogue can provide “the kind of self-criticism that leads to the mutual and, ultimately, eschatological transformation of religious traditions, including the Christian faith.”9 Yong argues that even our own Christian theology of religions cannot be adequately developed in isolation from religious others but requires conversation between us.10 To critics of interreligious dialogue he replies that not all are called to formal interreligious dialogue, though all are called as witnesses; that bearing witness can take the form of dialogical relationship; and, that Christianity is “impoverished and debilitated” if it avoids directly asking the questions interreligious dialogue requires.11 Yong’s work reflects a sophisticated theology of openness to interaction with religious others that labors to be loyal to its own inner Pentecostal ethos.
Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen is another Pentecostal author who addresses theology of religions, though mainly from an ecumenical angle.12 For Kärkkäinen all knowledge of God has “universal intention and is to be shared by all”. In Christian dialogue with other religions the central tenets of the Christian faith are to be presented to religious others “in the spirit of a confident, yet humble witness”, that is, without arrogance with humility and respect. Nonetheless, dialogical purpose is not only information but persuasion—though always—and this is especially significant—“in ways that honor the Other and give him or her the right to make up his or her own mind.” Interreligious dialogue is not a neutral experience or process. The followers of all faiths have convictions about ultimate questions that should be shared. A reciprocal shaping should also be expected, unless true dialogue degenerates into only “two or more monologues.” Interreligious dialogue, Christian missions, and cooperative social concerns are not incompatible.13 Kärkkäinen staunchly suggests an acknowledgement and critical assessment of the Spirit’s presence in other religions “ties the church to dialogue with the Other” because wherever God’s presence is found “it bears some relation to the church.” Thus discovery and discernment through dialogue of the Spirit’s gifts in the religions are demanded.14 Kärkkäinen’s work reflects a more subtly Pentecostal approach to interreligious engagement than that of Yong, but is nonetheless sustained by the same commitment to major guiding principles of the movement’s belief and practice.
Honestly, I think Pentecostals have much to gain from interreligious dialogue and partnership, and humbly, I also think we have much to give through interreligious dialogue. As for what I expect we can gain, first, Pentecostals can increase our effectiveness through cooperative social efforts. We can do much more together than separately. Pentecostals are beginning to apply our individual spiritual experience to social issues. Much needs to be done in worthy causes of compassion and peace. It cannot be done alone. Second, Pentecostals will be challenged to stretch ourselves, to deepen and develop spiritually and theologically, through engagement with those who confront us with competing or even contradictory worldviews. Engagement with like-minded persons or groups is often encouraging but at times encounter with those unlike-minded is more instructive. Maturation of the Pentecostal movement is seriously stymied through alienation and isolation. Third, frankly interfaith fields are fertile ground for sowing seeds of witness regarding our Christian faith. If only by getting to know each other personally, we are given an opportunity to “let our light shine.” Fourthly, our exposure to devout, well trained representatives of other faiths enables us to understand what religions other than our own offer their adherents. Only blatant bigotry would deny that faiths enduring for millennia must have something that touches spiritual and moral chords in the hearts of masses of people. Some mutual transformation may be in order.
As for what I expect we can give, first, all that we expect to receive we expect to reciprocate. Religious others will conceivably gain from partnering with us in cooperative social efforts, will be stretched and challenged by engagement with us, will share their beliefs and practices with us, and will perhaps begin to perceive why so many people around the world choose to be Pentecostal Christians. Second, our unique pneumatological approach to the Christian faith and life has much to offer. A robust pneumatology recognizing the Spirit’s universal presence and influence and Christ’s unique significance is the best possible explanation for non-Christian religious reality and Christian identity from a Christian perspective. Third, the sheer size of our movement, if I may be forgiven for noting that Pentecostalism may be the fastest growing religious movement on the face of the earth today, suggests it taps into an enormous religious energy field that seems to be transforming today’s religious world. The global appeal of Pentecostalism offers a religious world drowning in secular anomy a decidedly new lease on life.15
I have high hopes, therefore, that a dialogue partnership between Pentecostals, other Christians, and non-Christians can be a valuable factor in furthering the cause of religious faith in our world today. For that reason I am willing to work with those willing to work with me to accomplish that end.
Recently in the primary publishing organ of my own classical Pentecostal denomination, the Church of God (Cleveland, TN USA), I shared five significant values that can help guide Pentecostal interaction with religious others: charity (love), hospitality, availability, certainty, and humility. Here I wish to suggest that from a Pentecostal perspective these are representative of the kind of attitudes that can enable and encourage interreligious engagement between Pentecostals and religious others.
Charity witnesses to religious others by letting the light of Christ’s love shine through our words and deeds, not just generally but specifically toward those of other faiths (Lu 10:25-37).
Hospitality in personal or social interaction treats them as our neighbors-in-need rather than as religious rivals or eternal enemies, becoming a multifaceted means of God’s grace (1 Pet 4:9-10).
Availability indicates that without pressuring or pushing we place ourselves at their disposal when they eventually inquire about our belief (1 Pet 3:15). Often religious others are put off by either timidity or dishonesty.
Certainty stands strong for our faith convictions, being upfront about what we really believe (1 Co 14:8).
Humility works hard at not coming across arrogantly as if we feel we have the final word on all divine truth; we can confess we only “know in part” (1 Co 13:9). Practicing these five values can witness to the truth and power of faith in Jesus Christ to those of other faiths.16
And when reciprocated, they can open up a whole new way of relating to religious others all around the dialogue table.