acloud passed over the delicate features of the Chinese woman listening intently to what I was saying. She was a student at Wuhan University, a university almost the size of the University of Toronto, and she had been
attending my lectures this past summer on Christian ethics.
She enjoyed the lectures, she said, but was confused by
one crucial point. What I described as the basic truths of
the Christian message were not lining up with the writings
of the Christian theologian to whom she was devoting her
doctoral dissertation. She had been attracted to this theologian because of his interest in Buddhism, and was looking
to him for guidance on how to connect Chinese Buddhism
with (Western) Christianity.
The theologian was John Cobb – well known in academic circles as a “process” theologian who, in his commendable concern to make rational sense of the Christian
religion, has ended up discarding belief in the deity of
Christ, His atoning death and resurrection, and a number
of other elements of what most Christians would regard
as the heart of the gospel.
I referred her to standard theological textbooks that
would provide a doctrinal “baseline” by which she could
see how far Cobb had strayed. That seemed to help her
recover her bearings, at least a little. But it left me thinking
about how things are back here in North America.
For at least a century now, we Evangelicals have de-
voted a lot of intellectual resources to analyzing alternative
viewpoints and warning each other of their deficiencies.
True to our Protestant heritage we produced our lists of
what was wrong with Roman Catholicism. We noted the
many problems with liberal Christianity. We were vigilant
against what sociologists call “New Religious Movements”
and what most of us called “cults.”
We learned what “secular humanism” was and are
learning now about the (not so) New Atheism. We have
cautioned each other about the perils of postmodernism,
even if many of our watchmen clearly haven’t understood
it very well. And especially since 9/11 we have been edu-
cating each other about Islam and, to a much lower degree,
other religions cropping up increasingly in our cities.
We need to do this kind of work to protect ourselves
and our children, and assist our neighbours as they con-
are We connecting?
or Just correcting?
Can we devote more resources to build-
ing bridges rather than barricades?
sider spiritual options.
What we have not done well yet, however, is what missionaries have done since the time of the Apostle Paul
– namely, look for commonalities with other outlooks to
build bridges for mutual education.
We generally have not approached these alternatives
with anything like sympathetic understanding, let alone
genuine willingness to learn something from them, in our
eagerness to tell them what we think is true.
So which kind of Christian theology do thoughtful Buddhists and Muslims respectfully study? The kind that has
been open to studying their traditions respectfully – liberal
Whom do feminists read? Again, they read mostly liberal Christians, since many Evangelicals can’t even pronounce the word “feminist” without wincing or sneering,
and way too much evangelical theological energy is still being devoted to the decades-old debate on whether women
can even preach or pastor.
Some Mormon scholars do read some Evangelicals,
but that’s because of a few extraordinary individuals on
both sides of a small Mormon-evangelical conversation
that always stands in peril of official disavowal by the
How about homosexuals? As we Evangelicals feel embattled by a culture that seems to press us more and more
on a variety of related issues, how hard are we listening
for authentic concerns that deserve our respect and even
support? What bridge builders do we have to offer them?
Don’t get me wrong. Evangelical theology ought to remain staunchly orthodox. I have no sympathy for evangelical theologians who allow the great truths of the gospel
to be nibbled away by intellectual compromise or eroded
by confused sentimentality.
What I want to be is truly evangelical, and a “gospel person” should be someone who emulates the great missionaries of the church. Those people studied their neighbours’
ideas so thoroughly that they knew where to build bridges
as well as barricades. We’ve been doing rather too well at
the latter task for a century. Can we devote more resources,
without fear but with humility and caution, to the former?
Can we have something positive to offer the next friend-
ly Buddhist – or Muslim or feminist or homosexual – who
wants to explore a respectful form of Christianity? Or is
all we have to say simply this: “Aha! I know about you.
You’re wrong. Now listen to me…”? FT
JohN STacKhouSE holds the Sangwoo Youtong Chee
Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Van-
couver. He is author of Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the