FOCUS ON ISSUES Dialogue with evangelicals is `last frontier’ of interfaith work

PASADENA, Calif., Feb. 10 (JTA) — When one religion claims to possess the only path to God, is pluralism possible? Is there room for dialogue between religions when one is working to convert the other? Jews and evangelical Christians danced at the edges of those questions at a recent historic gathering at Fuller Theological Seminary here. Convened jointly by Fuller — the largest and most influential evangelical seminary in the country — and the American Jewish Committee, the conference was held on the campus of the school, which is tucked among this city’s stately homes and gladed streets. The seminar was officially devoted to the theme, “Religious Convictions in the Public Arena: How People of Faith Can Be Citizens of a Pluralistic Republic.” It examined the differing views of the two communities in arenas like church-state separation and social justice work. But percolating just under the surface for Jews here were concerns about the recent focus of evangelicals on targeting Jews for conversion. Fuller itself offers degrees in Judaic Studies and Jewish Evangelism and trains missionaries sent by Jews for Jesus and other church groups. For their part, participating Christians were grappling with the appropriateness of sharing a platform with Jews, whose rejection of Jesus flies in the face of their whole belief system. Some on the faculty had unsuccessfully pushed for the inclusion of “messianic” Jews on the program, and many of the Fuller students who attended were born Jews who now believe in Jesus. Rabbi A. James Rudin, the Jewish convener of the meeting and director of interreligious affairs for the AJCommittee, said the presence of Jews for Jesus made it “risky” for the Jewish community to participate. But he also said it was necessary if there is any hope of convincing evangelicals to end their support of what he considers deceptive missionary activity. “It’s good strategy to approach the toughest challenges first,” he said, adding, “What Fuller does, other evangelicals will do, too.” Rudin believes that Jews should be concerned about the relationship with evangelical Christians because “the evangelical community is the fastest growing Christian group in the U.S.” and “an enormous factor in the political life of America.” He described the relationship as “the last frontier” of interreligious work.
Evangelical Christians are theological conservatives who interpret the Bible literally. Mainline Protestants, including Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians, tend to be more liberal theologically and politically. Rudin issued a challenge at the conference for both evangelicals and Jews to develop a “theology of pluralism,” meaning the acceptance of a multiplicity of religious approaches to God. While his call was not addressed directly by the evangelical Christian leaders present, Rudin said afterward that he sensed “an opening” that he hopes to widen with time. The relationship with evangelical Christians, one of the country’s largest religious groups, is regarded by many Jews as a double-edged sword. Evangelical Christians are among Israel’s strongest non-Jewish supporters. They are frequent and committed visitors to the Jewish state. In 1995, as many evangelical Christians as Jews from the United States traveled to Israel. But the domestic political agenda of the evangelical community has, in recent years, been dominated by the religious right. The policy goals of organizations like the Christian Coalition, which include prayer in the public schools, are viewed by most Jews as threatening. The evangelical community, however, is not homogenous. Fuller president Richard Mouw, an avowed moderate, in his opening remarks at the conference distanced himself from “the religious right,” condemning some evangelicals’ “theocratic takeover mentality” in the political arena. Common to evangelical Christians is what they see as a “special love” for Jews. They see themselves as a branch grafted onto the tree of Judaism originally planted by God. Many also view themselves as part of a Jewish continuum, and the fulfillment of the messianic promises made by God in the Jewish Bible. Ultimately, Jews and evangelical Christians make contradictory and mutually exclusive claims on the role of religion and the path to God’s grace, a breach that some believe no amount of dialogue can bridge. “There can’t be serious discussion about the differences because there are irreconcilable differences,” said Mark Powers, national director of Jews for Judaism, an anti-missionary organization based in Baltimore. “As we’re going to hell” in their view, “what is there to talk about?” said Powers, who did not participate at the Fuller gathering. Indeed, the theologies remain far apart. While Judaism does not require gentiles to convert in order to earn God’s grace, evangelical Christians believe that there is no connection to God without working through Jesus. That view contrasts with the Roman Catholic Church, which has embraced a dual-covenant theology, which says that God’s commitment to the Jewish people predates Jesus and circumvents the need for them to believe in him to be blessed by God. The work of “messianic” Jews, who clothe Christian theology in Jewish culture to make it more comfortable for Jews to believe in Jesus, is funded almost entirely by evangelicals. Long-simmering tensions boiled over last June when the country’s largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, decided to focus its missionary activity on converting Jews. For the moment, at least, it looks as though the tenor of the relationship has changed. Mouw was under pressure from conservative elements at Fuller not to lend the Jewish community credibility by meeting with it as an equal partner. “There are understandable fears among some in the Fuller community that our attempt to cooperate with Jews on issues of public morality will be used to compromise our position on evangelism,” he said in an interview. At the same time, he empathized with the sense of vulnerability Jews often feel when confronted by evangelical Christians bent on convincing them to believe in Jesus. “It’s one thing to say we need to bear witness and another to talk about targeting Jews in insensitive ways,” Mouw said in an interview. Christians have to learn to work among Jews with greater sensitivity, he said. At the same time, he affirmed his belief in messianic Judaism. “I in no way meant to back off of our evangelical mandate,” he said. But, he added, “I’d like to create an atmosphere in which evangelism and dialogue are not incompatible.”

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