In previous posts I've said that evangelicals need to focus on right emotions (orthopathy) in relation to those in other religions. My reading, reflection, and incorporation of ideas from social psychology and neuroscience have been connected to this. In this post I'll share why I think this is so important for evangelicals.
Take a moment and look at the image above. It's based upon street preachers who go to various events like Temple Square in Salt Lake City in connection with Mormonism's semi-annual General Conference, or the Arab Festival in Dearborn, Michigan where thousands of Muslims gather. The preachers are there for evangelism, but what they say and do as they engage others, based upon the emotions they feel about adherents of other religions, sends a message very different than what they mean to convey. Instead, like the illustration, I think Mormons, Muslims and others hear, "I'm a Christian who hates you." But it may not just be the street preachers who send this message.
In a poll from July 16, 2014, the Pew Research Center looked at "How Americans Feel About Religious Groups." The survey asked people to rate various groups on a "feeling thermometer" with 0 being the coldest and most negative and 100 the warmest and most positive. The range of 0 to 33 was categorized as "most negative." The poll revealed that evangelicals felt warmly about Jews, but gave average ratings of 39 to Buddhists, 38 to Hindus, and 30 to Muslims. In other words, evangelicals don't feel good about the people in other religions.
Studies like these present us with two emotional impediments: those that keep others from hearing us, and those that keep us from hearing others.
If we're honest with ourselves we must come to grips with this, and recognize that for many evangelicals fear, anger, and suspicion drive our perspective on multifaith engagement. This is a vitally important but often neglected topic. We tend to focus on developing a good theology of the religions (orthodoxy), and also work to identify the best practices for engagement (orthopraxy). At the same time we largely fail to consider the significance of our emotions. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy are important, but unless we grapple with our emotions in multifaith contexts we will continue to view those in other religions negatively, have a skewed understanding of what they're about, and pursue encounters that are needlessly combative.
What can be done to change things among evangelicals? Two items are very important as I see it.
The first is to help evangelicals see the biblical text in new ways. Bob Robinson, author of Jesus and the Religions, acknowledges that we must go beyond the biblical text to see the importance of the affective dimension, but given that evangelicals are "people of the book," the biblical text is an important starting place. Robinson suggests we must look at Jesus in the gospels and the emotions behind his healing encounters. With fresh appreciation for Jesus' example,Christians can then practice the imitation of Christ in his emotional reaction to others, and thereby become more Christlike in our emotional embrace (rather than repulsion) of others.
The second thing we can do is to deepen our emotional lives in relation to others. This can happen as we develop relationships with those in other religions traditions, thereby humanizing religious traditions we find frightening and distasteful. We can also shape our emotional perspective of others by studying how the emotions are formed and impact our thought life and practices. Readings in areas like social psychology and neuroscience can thus become useful perspectives that help deepen and broaden both our emotional lives, as well as our theology and praxis toward others.
I hope you find my ongoing thoughts on these things in my own life and ministry helpful in application to your own as you relate to a multifaith world.