The American Society of Missiology is preparing to hold their annual conference at St. Mary's College in Indiana. The focus is interfaith friendships and missions. Leading missiologists, including Frances Adeney, Terry Muck and Amos Yong will be plenary speakers. I developed a slide to help illustrate a neglected challenge to interfaith or multi-faith friendships, that of our emotional disposition that contributes to tribal, us vs. them mindsets.
In a journal article in 1997 Terry Muck defined interreligious dialogue as “an expression of a fundamental emotion or attitude toward people who believe differently on the most important aspects of life.” I find this to be an extremely helpful way to understand the subject, and an underappreciated one as well. Our emotions and attitudes are tremendously important to the way in which we understand and related to those in other religions.
How do Evangelicals feel about those in other religions? Two Pew Research Center Surveys from 2014 and 2017 reveal that Evangelicals rate other religions more coldly, particularly Muslims, in contrast with most other Americans. To understand the reasons why we can reflect on the missional helix developed by missiologist Gailyn Van Rheenen.
In his work on missiology, Van Rheenen identifies theological reflection, cultural analysis, historical perspective, and strategy formation as important and interpenetrating, shaping decision-making and the practice of ministry for the missionary. This understanding has also been adapted and discussed online beyond missions in the context of general ministry in the church. However, an important element is missing: emotional disposition. We tend to think of ourselves as rational and objective creatures, but human cognition seems best understood as a blend of the emotions and the rational, with emotions (and intuitions) leading the way. Van Rheenen's construct emphasizes the rational element, but in my view we need to take the emotions into account as they touch on and influence the rational parts of cognition.
One of the things I appreciated when working on my graduate degree in intercultural studies, is that missiology is interdisciplinary. While emphasizing the significance of culture in communication, it also interacts with disciplines like anthropology and linguistics. Taking our cue from missiology with its appreciation for an interdisciplinary approach, the same can and should be done in multi-faith engagement. Scientific studies in disciplines like social psychology can be brought into conversation with theology to help understand how our emotional dispositions shape Christian views of those in other religions. One of the things we discover in such an interdisciplinary conversation is that purity is a significant and sacred group value for conservative evangelical Christians. Authority is as well. For evangelicals in multi-faith encounters this means purity of doctrine and worldview (with concerns for compromise through syncretism), and denial of the authoritative teachings of the Bible. Given this emphasis, the teachings of other religions are viewed as potential contaminants. This can lead to feelings of anger, fear, and disgust where sacred values violators and potential agents of harm are denounced and kept at a distance.
This emotional disposition then shapes theologies and praxis of multi-faith interactions. As I've discussed previously, this is often a post hoc process of theologizing. Given their psychological and theological concerns, conservatives tend to have negative attitudes toward interfaith, whereas progressives tend toward more positive attitudes, and both emphasize select biblical texts and develop theologies according to their differing emotional dispositions.
Given the deep polarization and tensions in our nation over a variety of differences, including religion, I think we need to develop friendships between people of different religions. However, our efforts at developing multi-faith friendships must account for and strategically work through the emotional and psychological perspectives that influence the ways in which we feel about each other. Tribal, us vs. them differences cannot be breached simply by appeals to the virtues of biblical passages on hospitality (by conservatives) or the virtues of pluralism (for progressives). Something more is needed.
 Terry Muck, “Interreligious Dialogue and Evangelism,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 17 (1997): 139-151.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.
 Ryan S. Ritter and Jesse Lee Preston. “Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47 (2011): 1225-1230; Ryan S. Ritter, Jesse L. Preston, Erika Salomon and Daniel Relihan-Johnson. “Imagine no religion: Heretical disgust, anger and the symbolic purity of mind.” Cognition and Emotion 30.4 (2016): 778-796. Cf. Richard Beck. Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011).